Traveling by Air with your Pets

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Traveling by Air with your Pets

Some time ago, I wrote an article in this space about air travel with your pets and in the past two and one-half years since that article was written, I have acknowledged in my travels at least a three-fold increase in those who choose to take their pets with them on family vacations, trips for medical purposes, and even business trips. The airlines have become more accepting of this pet travel, at a cost of course, and made it more comfortable for those who choose to take their pets with them rather than leave them with a boarding facility or in-home pet care service. It is a common event now to see a wide variety of pets at airport gates waiting along with throngs of people to board their flight to arrive at a destination for whatever purpose. In most major airports today, there is even a reserved area for dogs to get some exercise and attend to their bathroom needs without leaving the secured areas of the airport. Although I have not visited one of these pet toilets, I am sure there are litter boxes for the cats as well. If not, they will surely come soon. It is a welcome sight as many pets have become a part of the family and deserve to travel at the same speed and comfort level as their masters. Planning and preparation are very important when traveling with pets by air. This includes the time one must arrive at the gate prior to departure, the size and shape of the pet carrier that you plan to use, the vaccination requirements that the airlines require, the vaccination requirements that any country or state requires before entry and internal and external parasite control as shown on a veterinarian issued pet health certificate.

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 commercial airliners travel today. It has been estimated that an airplane flying at 35,000 feet is equivalent in available oxygen to breath as being 8,000 feet high on a mountain. 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 in the rarified air. 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. It is best to have an imbedded microchip inserted for a permanent identification that brings more lost or strayed dogs and cat’s 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.

There are significant differences in airline policies, 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 travel partner if they fit into an airline approved pet carrier that will fit under the seat in front of you. There are pet carriers or crates as they are sometimes called that are designed as backpacks, carriers on rollers, pouches to carry on the arm or duffle-bag pet carriers that are available at most pet stores and from the airlines themselves. Defective carriers are the most common cause of escaped or injured animals during air travel. Approved carriers 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 pet carriers 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 it is common for both dogs and cats to chew and swallow 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. It is best not to place your dog’s name on the carrier, as those who would kidnap your pet may have an easier time in catching them if they know the pet’s name. You should carry your pet’s photo and health certificate with you for easy identification in the event the cage label gets lost. Take time to accustom your pet to the carrier or crate in which it will be traveling. Place a leash and collar or harness on your pet so in case you or airline attendants need to remove the pet from the carrier, the chances for escape are lessened. It is usually best for dogs to travel by air with an almost empty stomach. Cats should not be fed on the day of travel. Federal regulations require that pets be at least 8 weeks old and weaned at least 5 days before airline travel. 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. If you are traveling anywhere by air, 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 before traveling. These products may have a calming effect on your pet.

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; however, they are regulated by U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Welfare Act regulations that prohibits airlines from accepting dogs and cats for shipment if the airline cannot prevent exposure of the animal to temperatures less than 45° F. or more than 85°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. So, if it is hot outside or to where you are traveling, 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. Try not to schedule flights over holidays or long weekends.

If you choose to take your pet along on an airplane flight, be sure to have a travel plan in place weeks prior to your travel. It is very important because, after checking with several airlines, each has strict rules that must be followed and these rules may vary from airline to airline. If you are going outside the 48 contiguous United States, you may need special permission from the authorities in that governmental location to enter that state or country with your pet. The best advice is to go to the web site of all airlines on which you expect to travel, and seek out the rules and regulations they have in place. If traveling outside the continental United States, you should either check with the governmental authorities in that location or with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Finally, 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: www.avma.org

Pet Travel: www.pettravel.com

USDA Animal Plant & Inspection Service/Animal Welfare: www.aphis.usda.gov/animalwelfare/pet travel/

USDA Veterinary Services Area Offices Locator: www.aphis.usda.gov/animalhealth/areaoffices/
(When planning for international travel)

Bruce W. Little, DVM

Caption under picture: I photographed this beautiful family of five while traveling together through the St. Louis, Missouri Lambert International Airport this month.