Dog Air Travel: Paperwork, Preparation and Minimizing Delays
If you are like us, the term all-inclusive family vacation really means paw inclusive family vacation where Fido gets to enjoy the trip, even if dog air travel is involved. While airlines have become much more accommodating for people traveling with their pets, there is still a lot that goes into making sure your dog is safe when flying on an airplane.
Whether dogs are put on flights as emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, or just catching a lift to play fetch on a white sandy beach with his fur-mom, plan the trip well in advance to make sure all pets, either dogs or cats, are able to make the flight and will be accommodated by the airline.
Airline Pet Policies
Before you start your adventure with your furry friend, you need to understand the airlines animal transport policies. Many airline pet policies forbid dogs over a certain weight limit to travel in the cabin during the flight. The cut-off is often around 20 to 22 pounds unless the furry friend is a guide dog, therapy dog, or emotional support animal. You can imagine that 22 pounds will eliminate most dog breeds from being allowed in the cabin.
Size and Weight Limits
Traveling with a dog usually means you aren’t shopping for airfare strictly based on price. Most airlines have a weight limit of 20 pounds though some carriers such as Southwest don’t state a weight limit as long as the dog is able to be stowed in his crate at your feet under the seat in front of you. Most airlines will accept dogs up to 100 pounds secured in a crate in the cargo hold.
Dog’s Health Exam
All dogs traveling on an airline need to be cleared by their veterinarian within 14 days of travel. Puppies and kittens under 16 weeks of age may not be eligible for flight per some airline restrictions. All vaccinations must be documented with the dates of vaccine administration and expiration before flying. The veterinarian’s paperwork must also include the name of the dog’s owner, identifying information about the dog such as breed, sex, age, color, and markings.
When importing dogs and cats from rabies-free countries such as Australia and Germany, rabies certificates are required. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) doesn’t require cats to have a rabies vaccination certificate yet some states do. Check with the state rules at your landing destination to confirm what is required to avoid delays. Vaccinations must be completed at least 30 days prior to travel in most cases.
To alleviate the anxiety many dogs and cats feel when traveling by air, many veterinarians recommend sedating the dogs. Some airlines such as United Airlines has a policy stating that dogs cannot be sedated while flying. There are two sides to this; the veterinarian wants to help your dog relax and not chew through is crate and eat the landing gear of the plane. The airline is concerned about a medicated dog that may be unresponsive creating problems in transit.
Understand your dog and his normal levels of anxiety. Talk to your vet about the right dosage and determine if the airlines will allow a medicated dog. If the airlines forbid sedation, consider another airline or a holistic approach perhaps with CBD oil treats to help relax them.
Food and Water for Trip
Your dog will need enough food and water to last the flight and any time on the ground. Airlines will require food to be labeled in a bag that is attached to the top of the dog crate. Make sure to affix a water bowl or water bottle so your dog has ample water. Many pet owners will set up two, one with fresh water and one with ice to melt as your dog needs it on the trip.
When you fly with a dog you hope for no delays but should plan for them. Pack food for him as if there will be many extra hours in travel time. Delays can leave dogs for hours in the crate, sometimes on the tarmac. If dogs have food attached to their crate, airline crews will feed them. But, they won’t feed them anything you didn’t provide for obvious liability reasons. Once your pet is checked-in to cargo, you won’t be able to get to him until you reach your destination so plan accordingly for his comfort and safety.
Maximum Number of Pets Per Flight
Live animal limits are another reason to plan your trip early when traveling with pets. Most airlines will limit the number of dogs and cats they have. Some carriers will even limit the number of crate sizes they allow on any particular flight to ensure the pets are not being neglected. If you are taking dogs into the cabin, you may be limited to two dogs and their respective carry on crates in the passenger cabin.
Types of Pet Travel
Traveling with pets is achieved in one of two ways: either the dog is with you in the cabin and considered part of your carry-on luggage, or he is stowed in a dog crate under the cabin with the luggage. Some dogs and cats take to air travel well and end up becoming frequent flyers in their own right. Other develop anxiety from even short travel days. The chance of dogs and cats becoming stressed increases when traveling by air in the cargo or luggage area.
Crate Under Aircraft Cabin
If sending a dog in the cargo hold, find out where you will need to check them in. It is possible that check-in happens with your luggage but there may be instances where you have to deliver them to the cargo department. For example, United Airlines cargo area is not even on the main airport property at Los Angeles International Airport. Plan extra time accordingly to make sure everyone makes the flight.
Being in the cargo hold is often very distressing for dogs. Some dogs become wrought with anxiety during the trip, scratch at their kennel until they bleed, or even break out of it. The cargo hold is loud and unfamiliar with unregulated temperature conditions. This can leave dogs and cats overheating or freezing depending on the outside conditions.
Dogs taken into the cabin are considered carry-on baggage subject to a special fee. Some airline carriers charge a fee as part of the pet policies of the flight. These fees can be as much as $125 per pet limited to two carry-on pets per person. The flight attendant confirms that the pet fits in a carrier comfortably with enough space to move freely and that the carrier fits under the seat in front of you.
This size restriction limits in-flight pets to small dogs and cats. Your pet must be in their crates during taking off, landing, and during the flight. Pet owners are responsible for their dogs for the entire flight.
Types of Flights
There is a big difference between a short hop from two adjoining states that may only take a few hours from check-in to landing compared to an international flight across an ocean. The better you prepare yourself and your dog for extended travel, the easier it will be for everyone.
When possible, direct flights are usually the fastest way to get you and your dog from point A to point B with the fewest potential travel problems. The last thing you want is you to make a connecting flight while your dog missed it or got redirected to the wrong location. Sometimes paying just a little more for a direct flight helps alleviate a whole host of potential problems and anxiety for you and your pet.
Connection Flights with Dogs
Remember that connecting flights require your dog to be transferred from planes. This is added time on the tarmac that you can’t control. You can’t go down and let him out to do his business and you can’t control how long he might be exposed to extreme weather, loud noises or lack of food and water. While airport personnel keeps dogs and cats in covered areas on the tarmac, they are still outside where the planes are moving about. It’s a prime area for dog anxiety.
International flights require extra preparation. Not only is the entire process longer, but there is the issue of customs requirements and screening when arriving. Make sure you have a good understanding of your requirements to enter a new country as a person and any special requirements your dog or cat will have. Bringing pets in from other countries to the United States will require rabies certificates depending on the state laws, but going to another country may have a whole list of required declarations to meet customs standards.
Find out ahead of time what the exact process will be to reclaim your pet. Map out the airport and determine where your customs holding areas are and how to get to the pet holding areas. If you will need to shuttle there, find out where the shuttles are and how often they come. Many travel apps on phones have airport assistance making it easier for pet owners to get to their pets sooner.
Follow all rules once you have your pet in your possession. Remember, as badly as you’ll want to let him out to go to the bathroom or hug him, make sure it is in designated areas.
Preparation for the Trip
Preparing for your dog for air travel involves all the required veterinarian visits, documents, and travel accommodations. While there are a lot of logistics involved with safe and enjoyable pet travel, don’t forget the emotional preparation for your dog. The better you can train him for the event with similar circumstances, the less stress he will experience during the actual trip because everything will seem more familiar.
If your dog isn’t already crate trained, you’ll want to start immediately. Older dogs may need to be reacclimated to creates getting used to being in the kennel again. Start with short durations of time in the crate followed by a ton of positive reinforcement. Don’t let him think he is in trouble. This isn’t a timeout for being in trouble or time away from you in isolation.
When starting crate training for flights, getting your dog into the crate is the first goal and let him become comfortable in it. Dogs already crate trained will quickly adapt, knowing that the crate is their safe zone. Let your dog spend time in the crate with chew toys and bones and as well as sleeping in it. Even if your dog normally sleeps with you or in another spot of the house, learning to relax and sleep in the crate develops a great habit for him to trigger nap time in the crate.
Start to include mealtime in the crate and install the travel water spickets so he becomes accustomed to drinking from them. While he may not eat on the plane, you want to make sure your dog knows how to access water that isn’t in a bowl if necessary. Crate water bottles are the best option for dog air travel to prevent spilling and losing water but if your dog isn’t sure how to use it, it’s useless.
Loud Noise Tolerance
The other major area of training that will help your dog relax on the airplane is getting used to loud noise. Some dogs are more skittish than others by nature but this doesn’t mean your only solutions to help them travel safely is medication. Airports and airplanes are not just noisy, there are wrought with loud, scary engines, fans, and other machines that are likely to give even the calmest of dogs some anxiety.
Some vets will tell you that for every flight you put your dog in a cargo hold, you are taking time off their life because of the long-term effects of stressful flights. The more acclimated to loud sounds your dog gets, the less stress he will experience.
Start with a good old ruckus at home with crazy noises and chaos to help train your dog to deal with loud noises. Start with banging pots and pans around the house helps your dog become accustomed to sharp, loud sounds. Expand to noisemakers and air horns outside to create a variety of sounds that might be alarming. Not only will loud noise acclimation training help with air travel, but it will also keep your dog calm during thunderstorms and neighborhood work going on.
While it might not be practical to take your dog to an airport ahead of time to get used to the sounds, if you do have access to a municipal airport this is a great idea. You don’t need to be on the airport grounds to give your dog the ability to watch and hear the planes as they take-off and land. Start with him in the car with the windows up to muddle the intensity and slowly provide more exposure.
Making the Trip Easy on Your Pet
Your dog may love to get in the car and go places, but he might be very concerned when he suddenly is surrounded by other barking dogs in crates, the loud noises of an airport and the overall anxiety of the situation. Aside from medication, take the time to make the flight as comfortable as possible for him.
Favorite Blanket or T-Shirt from Mom or Dad
Your dog will be more comfortable if he has a favorite blanket with him. Getting an old t-shirt that has your smell on it may also provide your dog with comfort. If your dog is anxious that you aren’t nearby, these comforts from home may be enough to soothe him. However, realize that depending on how long the flight is these items may be soiled when you pick your dog up at the airport.
Favorite Toys and Chews
While you may want to load your dog up with things to keep him busy and alleviate stress while on the trip, many airlines don’t allow it. Check with the airline to see what is allowed when traveling in the cargo hold. Try to refrain from toys and chews that your dog will break and potentially choke on. Remember that no one is watching pets for the duration of the flight in the cargo area so you need to make it as safe as possible.
A dog or cat traveling in the passenger cabin will be able to have a toy as long as it isn’t disrupting other passengers in the cabin.
Start Early with Pet Air Travel
Whenever possible take the time to plan air travel with pets well in advance. This not only helps you find great rates on air and hotels but also helps to prevent being bumped from the ideal flights you want to be on because others already have booked pets and the flight is at capacity for dogs and cats.
When you get to your destination, you must have a pet-friendly hotel. While service dogs have to be allowed to aid their owners, not every hotel allows dogs and cats as normal pet guests. Some may allow it but have limitations to the rooms they allow pet guests to stay in to prevent accidentally triggering animal allergies in other guests.
When you make the reservation, confirm that the hotel allows pets and what the exact pet policy is. Confirm any extra costs, locations for walking, and playing. You will likely need to adhere to strict noise policies to keep all guests happy. This means if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety while left alone in the room and barking excessively, you may be asked to leave. Once again, good training ahead of time is the best way to prevent excess anxiety.
Airports are extremely strict about where dogs can be outside of a crate. Follow the rules for the safety of other travelers and for your dog. While your dog may always be wagging his tail and friendly in most instances, anxiety from the situation can be disastrous. In 2017, a Hawaii family let their dog out in an area of Honolulu International Airport where the dog broke free from a tether and was shot and killed by airport security.
Follow all the rules set forth by the airport regarding where dogs are allowed out of the crate and where they can relieve themselves.
Dogs in Pet Crate
Crates must meet all airline guidelines and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules. For dogs traveling in the passenger cabin, rules are less strict. If your dog is going in the airline cargo hold he needs an FAA approved dog crate. His health certificate will be affixed to the crate along with his food. Keep a copy of all documents with you to make sure nothing gets lost or missed.
Designated Potty Areas
When traveling in airports with dogs, know where the designated dog potty areas are. Major airports may have places for people traveling with in-cabin pets within the checked-in areas that dogs can walk and relieve themselves. Check to see if you need special access for these areas. Just as important is knowing where you can take your dog once you reclaim him at your destination. You might not be able to let him out of the kennel right away. Hawaii has some clear rules about keeping dogs in crates after collecting them at the quarantine station until you are off the airport property.
By knowing the rules and what you are allowed to do, you can comply with local laws and plan to get your dog to a safe, designated location where he can get out of the kennel quickly and receive some much-needed love and cuddles from you – along with a desperately needed tinkle and maybe a bath.
Arriving at an airport like Honolulu International Airport usually means your dog will be put into quarantine. If you haven’t met all the rabies certification standards, your dog could be quarantined for up to 120 days. Get your paperwork together, the required blood titer tests through your veterinarian, and call the Department of Agriculture in Hawaii before you arrive to make sure all rules are followed.
Dog Air Travel Best Practices
The best practices for dog air travel all revolved around early planning, researching the location, and preparing your dog physically and mentally for the trip. Most dogs, even highly anxious ones, get through their airplane trip and return to their normal fun-loving selves quickly. Take the time to work on crate and noise training to prepare your dog for common flight scenarios. If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to call a professional training in to help prepare your dog so he can enjoy the family vacation with everyone else.
What about you and your dog? Do you have any travel hacks that you want to share? Drop us a comment!
Kimberlee Leonard is a certified pet first aid and CPR instructor. Her company, Safer Family Pets helps families prepared for worst-case scenarios including evacuations during natural disasters. She enjoys time with her beagle mix, Arky who enjoys “sit-walks” where he sits more than walks, enjoying the fresh mountain air.