As the no-fly list grows, I don’t recommend flying Fido

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

air travel with dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many air carriers are implementing significant restrictions on the types and sizes of dogs they allow on flights
  • These restrictions are in response to a recent rash of disturbing pet-related travel incidents, and are probably long overdue
  • Due to both the physical risks and emotional stress involved, I don’t recommend flying dogs unless there’s no other option
  • If you must fly your pet, make sure he’s in good health, is very comfortable in his carrier and is properly ID’d
  • If possible, bring your pet in the passenger cabin with you; also avoid flying during very warm or cold weather, and try to fly nonstop

In March 2018, United Airlines placed restrictions on the types of pets it would transport as "air cargo." The company announced that 21 dog breeds and four cat breeds would no longer be allowed on its planes. United officials implemented the directive for its PetSafe program after a single week during which several terrible pet-related incidents took place.

As the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, "the airline loaded three dogs onto the wrong planes and a fourth died in an overhead bin."1 The 10-month-old French bulldog died after a flight attendant insisted the puppy's owner place the dog in the overhead bin for a nearly 3.5-hour flight. This, after the family complied with all the airline rules regarding pet travel, including the use of a TSA-approved pet carrier. According to NPR:

"The dog had been traveling with a woman who also had her young baby and her older daughter on the flight with her … The airline has agreed that the situation never should have unfolded the way it did. And while passengers said they had heard barking during the trip, the dog's owners realized the dog had died after retrieving the travel carrier from the bin."2

Among the dogs United banned are several snub-nosed (brachycephalic) and "strong-jawed" breeds, including mixed breeds. Some cat breeds, such as Himalayan and Persian, are also on the no-fly list. For both dogs and cats with short noses, breathing difficulties can be exacerbated by high altitudes.

According to The New York Times, United added another restriction — it no longer accepts dogs that require crates taller than 30 inches. Delta Air Lines also recently stopped accepting dogs who require crates taller than 24 inches, and while American Airlines still ships large dogs, many of their planes can't actually handle the larger crates.3

Dogs and planes

Traveling with dogs is commonplace these days, but the fact is, as bonded as we are to our furry companions, we're much better equipped to handle disruptions in routine than animals are. As much as our dogs love to be with us, they thrive in a familiar setting with a structured daily routine.

If you're thinking of bringing your dog along on vacation this year, recognize that taking her away from home and her daily schedule for several days or weeks can generate a level of anxiety even your constant presence can't overcome. Now, that's not to say you absolutely shouldn't bring her along or that she won't have fun, but you should be aware that her travel experience will be very different from yours. That's why it's important to plan ahead and keep her safety top-of-mind.

If your vacation plans involve air travel, unfortunately, the level of difficulty in bringing your dog along rises dramatically. That's why I'm not opposed to airlines setting stricter guidelines for pets on planes. 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 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, so the experience is emotionally and physiologically stressful, and needless to say, the stress increases exponentially for dogs that fly as "air cargo" in the belly of the plane.

Since flying with a dog carries inherent risks and stressors, I recommend leaving your canine companion safely at home with a trusted caretaker if possible. Unless she's a seasoned air traveler, in my opinion putting your dog on a plane, especially in the cargo hold, should be an option of last resort.

7 tips for safe air travel with your dog

If you do decide to bring your pet on a flight, here are some tips to help keep her safe and relatively comfortable:

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. Talk with your 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.

Make sure she's 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.

Make sure she's 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.

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.

Avoid flying in very hot or cold weather and book nonstop 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.

Nonstop 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 nonstop nor connecting but are preferable to a connecting flight. If your pet will be traveling in the baggage or cargo area, retrieve her as quickly as possible when you land at your destination.

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.

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, 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. CBD oil and ashwagandha can also be very effective at reducing stress. Try out the protocol prior to travel to make sure you're happy with the results.

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.