More than two-thirds of pet owners will travel with their pets this year, according to the American Animal Hospital Association Pet Owner Survey, and a large number of them will take those pets on planes. By taking a few precautions and consulting with your veterinarian beforehand, you can help make flying a safe and healthy experience for your pets.
Traditionally, pets have often been checked as baggage, flying in the baggage hold with passenger luggage. However, baggage holds may not always be adequately shielded against the extremes of heat and cold that can occur during flights. They can become particularly hazardous if animals are exposed to extreme temperatures for extended periods because they miss connecting flights or have to wait out delays. There is no way to monitor or assist pets that become uncomfortable or ill during the flight. In fact, due to concern for the health of pets that fly as checked baggage, the US government recently enacted regulations requiring better training in pet handling for airline employees and requiring airlines to notify the Department of Transportation of any adverse incidents involving animals. Also, many airlines now refuse to ship pets as checked baggage during the hottest months of the year.
For smaller animals, flying as carry-on baggage is a good solution. Most airlines allow passengers to bring a small dog, cat or other pet into the passenger cabin as long as it is quiet, odorless and safely restrained in a pet carrier throughout the flight. This is a good alternative to checking pets as baggage, because temperature and air pressure remain at a safe level inside the cabin, and pet owners can monitor animals at all times for signs of distress. Generally airlines limit the weight of carry-on pets to about 40 pounds, including the weight of the carrier, and carriers must be small enough to fit under the passenger’s seat. Most airlines require advance notification of the animal carry-on and limit the total number of pets that may be in the cabin at one time. Pet owners should notify airlines of their intention to bring a pet as early as possible to ensure that space is available. Depending on the airline, there may be a fee for using the carry-on option.
Every airline establishes its own set of policies regarding shipping pets, whether as checked baggage or carry-on luggage. Owners should discuss these policies with their airline before they book a flight. Airline personnel can also help owners choose a flight that will be most comfortable for their pet. Early morning or late evening flights are coolest in the summer, for example, and flights with a minimum number of stops are the safest for animals. Less crowded flights available during off-peak hours can protect pets from the stress of large crowds and a great deal of cargo. Airline personnel can also ensure that pets do not share cargo space with materials that could be toxic to their health, such as toxic chemicals or shipments packed in dry ice.
Regardless of how pets fly, there are precautions owners need to take to be sure traveling is safe and healthy. AAHA suggests, and major airlines require, that traveling pets be examined by a veterinarian no more than ten days prior to the date of travel. Current health and rabies vaccination certificates from the veterinarian will be required at the time of departure. A veterinarian can also provide the owner with specific feeding instructions. The age and size of the pet, time and distance of the flight and regular dietary routine must be considered. Regulations state that dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and weaned at least five days before flying. Pets should also be exercised and picked up promptly upon arrival.
A sturdy pet carrier, available from most airlines or pet shops, is another important precaution. The carrier should have hard sides—with the exception of carry-on pets, which may ride in a soft-sided carrier designed specifically for that purpose. The carrier should be ventilated on at least two opposite sides, with exterior rims or knobs to prevent blocked airflow, and it must be large enough for the pet to stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably. It needs to be free of interior protrusions and have handles or grips. It needs to have a leak proof bottom covered with plenty of comfortable, absorbent material. It should also be marked with a large, highly visible label reading "Live Animal," at least one inch tall, including arrows indicating the carrier’s upright position. Finally, both the pet and the carrier should be well marked with the owner’s name, address, and phone number, and the pet’s updated health certificate and the feeding plan from the veterinarian should be posted on the carrier.
Finally, owners should consider whether the pet is comfortable with traveling. Pets are just like people who sometimes become anxious when they don’t travel frequently. This leads some owners and veterinarians to question whether administering sedatives or tranquilizers to dogs or cats prior to flight is a good idea. According to national and international air transportation organizations, as well as the American Humane Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association, in most cases the answer is "no"! "An animal’s natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium is altered under sedation," says Dr. Patricia Olson, DVM, PhD, former director of veterinary affairs and studies for the American Humane Association. "When the kennel is moved, a sedated animal may not be able to brace and prevent injury."
Whether flying in the cabin or as checked baggage, animals are exposed to increased altitude pressure of approximately 8,000 feet. Increased altitude, according to Dr. Olson, can create respiratory and cardiovascular problems for dogs and cats who are sedated or tranquilized. "Brachycephalic dogs and cats [those with short, wide heads] are especially affected," says Dr. Olson. "Although thousands of pets are transported uneventfully by air, airline officials believe that when deaths occur they often result from the use of sedation."
Sometimes the best decision is not to fly with pets. Some animals do not function well in unfamiliar surroundings, and an unhappy pet can make a trip miserable for everyone. To help ensure a safe and pleasant trip for you and your pet, make sure to consult your veterinarian beforehand.