Travel by Air

Air travel for pets is a risky and complicated affair, and it should not be undertaken lightly. Yes, smaller is better, but only the smallest dogs are allowed in the cabin with their owner. Most dog owners ship their dogs by air only if they have no other alternative. Before you do, weigh the pros and cons, and understand what air travel will mean for your little dog.

Rules and Regulations

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates air transportation of dogs and requires that they be at least eight weeks old and weaned at least five days prior to flying. Compassion and common sense dictate that it's wiser to wait until a puppy is twelve weeks of age before taking it on a plane. In addition, if your small dog is ill, highly stressed, pregnant, or very old, it's inadvisable to transport it by air.

Before you purchase your tickets, you need to check with your airlines for any restrictions that may apply to your dog. Not every airline can or will accommodate travel for dogs. It is necessary to find out which airlines will and the policies they have in place before your travel plans are finalized.

At the time of this writing, a new airline specifically for traveling pets and their owners was slated to begin operation soon. You can check out their Web site at for current information.

Most airlines will only allow one dog per person. If you have two dogs small enough to travel in the cabin with you, you'll need to purchase a seat ticket for the second pet. (On an airplane, no one rides free except airline personnel.)

Airlines have strict rules concerning how many dogs can travel on any given flight. When booking your reservation, be sure to ask the whether any other animals will be boarding as well. This will alert the reservation person and keep you and your dog from getting bumped off your flight.

When it comes to dogs, airlines have three options for travel: cabin, checked baggage, or cargo. While size and weight restrictions vary among airlines, if your dog weighs more than fifteen pounds, the latter two options are generally the only ones available, and they are not really advisable unless you have no other option. In checked baggage, you would be on the same flight as your dog. The combined total of its weight and that of its crate must not exceed a hundred pounds. In the cabin, your dog will be with you and must fit entirely under the seat in front of you, with the carrier size stipulated by each airline.

Pet Carriers

Airlines adhere to strict codes concerning the size and type of pet carrier they allow. For dogs less than fifteen pounds — the usual cutoff weight for traveling in the cabin with you — major airlines require the following:

  • Your carrier may be a hard plastic, metal, or soft-sided.

  • It must have adequate ventilation on three sides.

  • It must be leakproof.

  • You must be able to fit it under the airline seat, and it must be no larger than seventeen inches in length, sixteen inches in width, and ten and a half inches high. For small jets or prop planes, size restrictions may call for an even smaller carrier.

  • Your dog's crate must both meet the airline's standards and be large enough for the dog to lie down comfortably, turn around, and stand freely. It must be labeled “Live Animal — This Side Up,” and include your name, address, and telephone number in case the dog gets lost in transit. Another label should bear your dog's name, breed, destination, and flight number. You might even personalize it: “Hi! My name is Angus. I am a Scottish terrier going to Los Angeles on American Airlines Flight 222. Thank you for taking good care of me.” Include the name, address, and telephone number of your planned destination, a contact name and number, as well as any special instructions for baggage handlers. Your best bet is to get it used to this travel crate ahead of time, both at home and in the car.

    Certain small breeds such as the Boston terrier, Lhasa apso, Pekinese, pug, and shih tzu are at risk when transported by air because these short-muzzled breeds are more susceptible to breathing difficulties caused by the thin air at high altitudes.

    Before You Fly

    Inquire about other cargo on the flight to make sure that there are no substances that would be dangerous to your dog, and insure your dog for at least $10,000. The cost will be minimal, and it may mean greater attention will be given to your dog.

    All major airlines require a certificate from a veterinarian stating the dog is healthy, suitable for flying, free of parasites, and current on vaccinations. If you are traveling overseas, you must check the destination country's health certificate and quarantine requirements. Your airline will assist you with this information. Make sure you have copies of your dog's health and rabies certificates before you leave for the airport. Bring a leash or harness with you, as most airports require that the dog be removed from its carrier at the security checkpoint so that the carrier may be put through the X-ray machine. Confirm the check-in and arrival locations for shipping the dog; they may differ from passenger departures. Also inquire about cutoff times for acceptance of your dog on the flight. USDA regulations provide that your dog may be tendered no more than four hours before flight time unless you have made special arrangements. Once aboard, don't be afraid to inquire whether your dog has also been loaded.

    During the Flight

    Your dog will not be allowed out of its carrier, so make sure it has a chance to relieve itself before you board the plane. You should also ensure that your dog is wearing a collar with ID tags in case it escapes. Never muzzle your dog, as its ability to breathe and regulate its temperature by panting would be severely compromised.

    Secure a leash to the outside of the crate, and have two empty food and water dishes inside. The USDA requires that you have fed and watered your dog within the last four hours, and the airline will require you to sign a certification to this effect. Do not feed it a full meal at that time, however, as a full belly might make your dog uncomfortable during the flight.

    If the flight will be a long one, attach extra food, water, and any required medication to the outside of the crate along with any special instructions and a twenty-four-hour history of feeding, watering, and medication.

    Obviously, a nonstop flight would be best. If your flight is not a nonstop, check on your dog during the layover. If the layover is long or the temperature a factor, confirm that the dog has been unloaded for the layover and is not allowed to remain in the cargo hold or out in the sunlight on the tarmac. If the layover is long enough, you may claim your dog, take it for a walk, and give it some water before reboarding.

    The USDA prohibits the shipment of animals where temperatures at either the origin or destination of the flight are below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees. Many airlines are even more stringent, not allowing dogs to travel as either checked baggage or as cargo during the hottest summer months. The concern is that if the airplane has to sit on the runway for an extended period, the cargo compartment may overheat. Even though the embargo exists most airlines will accommodate animals on flights that leave after 9:00 P.M. and before 6:00 A.M.

    When traveling by air, the use of sedatives or tranquilizers is not advisable since their effects on animals at high altitudes are unpredictable. Never give a pet a sedative unless advised to do so by your vet.

    When it comes to air travel for your dog, the bottom line is this: Being shipped with checked baggage in the cargo bay is risky and it's not fun for your dog. If you are relocating, you may have no choice. But if you are taking a long vacation, you'll have to decide whether the pleasure of having your dog with you once you get to your destination outweighs the stress factors associated with this mode of travel.

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