The Seasonal Dilemma Most Pet Owners Face Every Year

dog traveling on airplane

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many pet parents will include their canine companions in their summer vacation plans this year
  • It’s important to remember that your dog’s experience of traveling away from home, especially by air, will be very different from yours, and more stressful
  • If you’ll be flying with your dog, make sure he’s physically fit for air travel, and bring him into the cabin with you if possible
  • If your dog must fly in the cargo compartment, take every precaution to insure he will be as safe and comfortable as possible before, during and after the flight

By Dr. Becker

With the official start of summer just a few days away, many of you are making vacation travel plans. And if you're a dog parent, you're very likely facing the dilemma of whether to include your pet on your trip, or leave him behind. Not that long ago no one even considered traveling with a dog, but these days it's quite commonplace.

However, here's something to keep in mind as you make your travel plans: As bonded as you are to your furry companion, and vice versa, most humans are much better able to handle disruptions in routine than pets are. Your dog thrives in a familiar setting with a structured daily routine.

Taking your dog away from home and his daily schedule for several days or weeks can generate a level of anxiety even your constant presence won't overcome. Now, that's not to say you absolutely shouldn't bring him along or that he won't have a good time, but you do need to be aware that your dog's travel experience is bound to be very different from your own.

Dogs and Air Travel

If your vacation plans involve air travel, unfortunately, the level of difficulty in bringing your dog along rises dramatically. Even under ideal circumstances, flying is very stressful for dogs. Airports and airplanes are strange and often frightening places full of unfamiliar humans, sights, sounds and smells.

Air travel makes most humans at least a little anxious, so it's easy to imagine how much more taxing it can be for a dog with no choice in the matter and no idea what to expect. For example, human passengers can anticipate pressure changes and the sensation of not having their feet on the ground.

Your dog can't, and so the experience is emotionally and physiologically stressful, and needless to say, the stress increases exponentially for dogs that fly as "cargo" in the belly of the plane.

K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, makes the point that an airplane's cargo hold is not "a passenger cabin one level down."1 Temperatures vary widely depending on the time of year, where the plane is flying to and from and any stops in between.

A 2008 study by the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science showed that cargo hold temperatures shift by 50 degrees or more during most flights. On half the flights studied, the cargo area reached 85 degrees, which is quite a bit warmer than the temperature in the passenger cabin. And 15 percent of the time, the cargo hold dropped to a chilly 45 degrees.2

7 Tips for Safe Air Travel With Your Dog

Flying with a dog carries inherent risks and stressors, so I recommend leaving your canine companion safely at home with a trusted caretaker if possible. Unless she's a seasoned air traveler (which is unlikely), in my opinion putting your dog on a plane, especially in the cargo hold, should be an option of last resort. With that said, if you do decide to bring your pet on a flight, here are some tips to help keep her safe and relatively comfortable:

1. Make sure your dog is fit to fly. Very young animals, elderly pets, ill pets, pets with a chronic health condition, pregnant animals and brachycephalic breeds are among the types of pets for whom air travel is in my opinion an unacceptable risk.

Many commercial airlines have actually banned flat-faced pets from their planes due to the significant health risks involved. Talk with your integrative veterinarian about whether your dog is a good candidate for air travel. You'll also want to get any required health certifications, for example, pets traveling to a different state by air must have a current rabies vaccination and a certification of veterinary inspection within 10 days prior to travel.

2. Bring your dog in the main passenger cabin with you if possible. Whether or not your pet can fly in the passenger cabin will depend on his size and the airline you use. Most if not all airlines only allow dogs in passenger cabins that can fit in a carrier small enough to slide under the seat.

Having your dog right there with you, in a climate-controlled cabin, has obvious benefits and is by far the best way to travel by plane with a pet. Book your flights as early as possible since airlines only allow a certain number of pets to travel in the passenger cabin.

You won't be able to remove your dog from the carrier during the flight, so make sure he isn't traveling on a full stomach and has an opportunity to relieve himself shortly before you board the aircraft.

3. Avoid flying in very hot or cold weather and book non-stop flights whenever possible. In warmer months, book morning or evening flights so you're traveling during the coolest part of the day. In cold weather, try to fly during the warmest part of the day.

Non-stop flights are highly preferable to connections, especially if your dog is flying in the baggage compartment or cargo hold. Keep in mind that direct flights are neither non-stop nor connecting. On a direct flight you, your luggage and your pet remain onboard when the plane lands at one or more airports en route to your final destination. A direct flight is not as good as a non-stop flight, but preferable to a connecting flight.

Confirm your flight 24 hours before departure to insure there hasn't been a time change or some other alteration to the itinerary. Get to the airport early on flight day so you'll have plenty of time to exercise your pet if necessary before boarding. If your pet will be traveling in the baggage or cargo area, retrieve her as quickly as possible when you land at your destination.

4. Make sure your dog is wearing a secure collar and a current ID tag. Also keep a photo of your pet on your person to help with identification in case he is lost.

5. Make sure your dog is very comfortable in her carrier before heading to the airport. Long before your scheduled flight, your dog should view her carrier as a safe place. Purchase it well ahead of time and get her used to hanging out in it at home.

6. If your pet will be traveling in the baggage compartment or cargo hold, invest in a good-quality carrier. Defective or inappropriate carriers are behind most of the problems with escaped or injured pets during air travel. A suitable carrier will be TSA-approved, have secure construction (for example, locking bolts), metal doors (not plastic), metal rods that fasten the door to the container, a strong and effective lock mechanism and no wheels.

7. Reduce your pet's anxiety with natural remedies. I'm not a fan of sedating pets for travel except in the most extreme circumstances, and only in consultation with a veterinarian. If your dog is so anxious she needs to be tranquilized to fly, she really shouldn't be put through the experience if it can be avoided.

If your dog must be sedated for travel (usually due to hyperactivity) she must be in the cabin with you so you can monitor her throughout the flight. Never, under any circumstances, should you sedate a pet that cannot be supervised. Natural calming agents that may be beneficial include ashwagandha, holy basil and rhodiola.

To help reduce your dog's anxiety during a trip, consider giving flower essences such as Jackson Galaxy Solutions orally before, during and after travel, and mist her carrier with specially blended pet-friendly essential oils such as those from the Earth Heart line. I also recommend homeopathic aconitum for extreme fear, if warranted.

If your dog has never flown before, you can gauge her potential response to air travel by how well she travels by other means. If she relaxes comfortably in her crate during car rides, chances are she'll handle air travel reasonably well.

Most if not all the major air carriers have information about traveling with pets on their websites. If you're thinking about flying with your dog, I recommend you contact the individual carrier as a first step. Find out what pet restrictions apply, approved carrier/kennel dimensions and other critical information you'll need for planning purposes.

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