How to Travel with your Cat or Dog by Air

by Bruce W. Little, DVM


Approaching my 50th anniversary of graduation from veterinary college, I thought I had seen and experienced almost everything there is to observe regarding veterinary medicine and the pets we live with as family members. However, during the recent holidays my wife and I traveled throughout the Midwest and Western United States by air, and I was amazed at the number of pets (dogs and cats) traveling with their owners in airplane cabins. I was fully aware and have signed health certificates for many pets, who were traveling as cargo or as checked baggage while departing and arriving at the same airports as their owners. However, I was totally unprepared for the dozens of pets in carriers that were designed as backpacks, carriers on rollers, pouches to carry on the arm or plain duffle-bag pet carriers that we saw on our trip. It was a welcome sight, as I am a firm believer that all family members should be allowed to be a part of the annual trip to Grandma’s house for Christmas, but I simply was not aware of the numbers.

The Airport
So, I decided to do the research about air travel that includes the family pet. There is much to consider and many differences in what one can do amongst the airlines, both domestic and international. There are basically three ways for pets to travel by air. They can travel in the passenger cabin with an adult traveling partner only if they fit into an airline approved pet carrier that will fit under the seat in front of you. In searching airline web sites, the charges for taking an acceptable sized and temperamental pet with you in the passenger cabin will cost between $95 and $125 per one way ticket in addition to the ticket for the adult flier. Checking a pet just the same as any other checked luggage that contains personal belongings is a possibility and can take advantage of the fact that the pet will travel from the departure airport and arrive at the destination airport on the same airplane on which you fly. That makes it very convenient for dropping off and claiming your pet when you arrive at your destination. Finally, pets can travel as cargo with or without a traveling partner. These pets travel as any other cargo, but they are regulated by the USDA Animal Welfare Act and Regulations, which prohibits airlines from accepting dogs and cats for shipment if the airline cannot prevent exposure of the animal to temperatures less than 45 degrees °F or more than 85 degrees °F for more than 45 minutes when the animal is transferred between the terminal and the plane, or for more than 4 hours when the animal is in a holding facility. If temperatures are high, and it is hot outside at your origin or destination then plan to fly early in the morning or late in the evening. If it is cold outside, schedule your flights during the middle of the day. Also, try not to schedule flights over holidays or long weekends.

Plan Ahead
Planning and preparation are very important when traveling with pets by air. There are dogs and cats that cannot withstand the rigors of air travel due to their personality, temperament, condition of health or physical characteristics. For instance certain brachycephalic or short nosed breeds may have difficulty in breathing at the altitudes that commercial airliners travel today. For this reason, some airlines will prohibit air travel by certain breeds of dogs and cats. Likewise, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), it is not a good idea to give dogs tranquillizers prior to air travel as it may cause breathing issues at high altitudes. Most airlines will require that the pet be vaccinated for rabies and other required vaccinations and have a current certificate of health issued by a USDA-approved veterinarian. Pets should wear a name tag bearing the owner’s complete contact information. However, the AVMA recommends the name of the pet should not be listed on the carrier or identification tag, because it might make it easier for a dog kidnapper to befriend the dog and take it in as his own if the pet is lost in transit. It is best to have an imbedded microchip inserted for a permanent identification that brings more lost dogs and cats home than any other identification process. The microchip and registration on one of the national dog identification registries readily settles disputes over who rightfully owns the animal. See your veterinarian about placing a microchip under the skin of your pet.

Carriers
Defective carriers or kennels are the most common cause of escaped or injured animals during air travel. Airline approved carriers that are available from most domestic airlines or pet shops should be large enough to allow the animal to stand, turn around and lie down in a natural position. They must have a handle that is strong and a door that latches securely. All crates must have a leak-proof bottom that is covered with plenty of absorbent material. It may not be wise to place blankets or other personal clothing items in the carrier as I have seen where both dogs and cats have chewed and swallowed knitted sweaters and soft chew toys requiring surgical removal. Carriers must be well ventilated so that airflow is not impeded. One should always place a label on the crate that includes your name, home address, and telephone number and destination contact information. Place a “Live Animals” designation on the label with arrows indicating the crate’s upright position. You should also carry your pet’s photo and health certificate with you for easy identification in the event the cage label gets lost.

Prepare Your Pet
Take time to accustom your pet to the carrier or crate in which it will be traveling. Place a leash and collar on your pet, so the chances for escape are lessened in the event that airline attendants need to remove the pet from the carrier. It is usually best for dogs to travel by air with an almost empty stomach. Cats should not be fed at all the day of travel. Federal regulations require that pets be at least 8 weeks old and weaned at least 5 days before airline travel. There was an incident just recently where a traveler in Nebraska attempted to board a commercial airplane with underage puppies. Don’t get caught in the position of going to the airport with underage puppies or kittens and having to make last minute corrections to safely transport these animals. The airlines must comply with federal regulations. Before traveling anywhere by air, especially internationally, you should visit your veterinarian to make sure all vaccinations are up-to-date and receive a health certificate usually within ten days of travel. Many people will shop at pet stores to purchase a calming flower essence such as Easy Traveler, Rescue Remedy or Feliway and spritz it into the carrier or crate before traveling. These products may have a calming effect on your pet.

Good News & Important Resources
In the final analysis, it has become much easier to travel with your pets today. Take them along for the holidays and family vacations and enjoy all the value they bring to the family. Sources of valuable information and travel resources can be found at:
American Veterinary Medical Association
Pet Travel
USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
USDA Veterinary Services Area Offices Locator (For International Travel)

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