Traveling by Air with Pets

According to the U. S. Department of Transportation, over 2 million pets and animals are transported by air each year in the United States. There are federal and airline policies on how the animal must be transported.

Here are top tips from government agencies, airline representatives and pet owners on how to prepare your pet for air travel:

NOTE: Most of these tips pertain to dogs. Many vets we spoke with stressed that cats tend to be homebodies and prefer to stay at home. Instead, arrange for a pet sitter or a friend to come and keep an eye on your cat. If you do choose to take your cat on trips, it’s best to keep your cats in a crate for the duration of the trip.

WHN TIP – Know Before You Book: Certain airlines do not allow pets at all. Call the airlines to check out the policies BEFORE you book.

Keep in mind that short-nosed (brachycephalic ) breeds of dogs don’t handle air travel well. Read American Veterinary Medical Association’s Air Travel and Short-Nosed Dogs FAQs for more details and consult your vet for more information.

Before You Start

WHN TIP – Worth the Weight: Know how much your pet weighs. This will determine whether your pet flies as a carry-on item (usually less than 15 lbs. with the kennel) or as checked baggage (15-100 lbs. with the kennel). Contact the airlines you’re considering to learn their policies.

Three pet traveling options:

  • Carry-on: Usually only small dogs, cats and birds are allowed to travel as carry-on items. You will still need a carrier for your pet to travel in and the carrier must fit underneath an average airline seat (17″ L x 12.5″ W x 8″ H). Your pet and kennel must weigh less than 15 lbs., depending on the airline and their policies.
  • Checked baggage: This classification is for larger animals and the animals must travel in crates that meet the airline’s requirements. The size/weight limit for both your pet and its kennel is usually 15 to 100 lbs. (varies depending on the airline).
  • Cargo: If the pet is flying unaccompanied, it will be shipped as cargo, meaning it will be shipped in the same area as mail, baggage and other items. These compartments are pressurized and maintain a temperature range from 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. The size/weight limit for both your pet and its kennel is usually 15 to 100 lbs. (varies depending on the airline). Many airline cargo departments employ specialists in the movement of animals, according to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

WHN TIP – Health Certificate: For most flights, a health certificate that has been issued within ten days prior to the flight will be required. Pets also must be at least eight weeks old in order to travel by air.

Call your accommodation and find out if your pet is welcome where you may be staying. Read Finding Pet-Friendly Hotels for tips.

Booking Your Flight

Try to schedule a non-stop flight to your destination and avoid peak travel times such as the weekends and holidays.

If you must book a flight with connection, try to book flights on the same airline. Otherwise, your pet will need to be inspected before each flight and meet the requirements of each airline. If this is the case, check with each airline for each leg of your trip before booking your flights.

Choose flights that depart early morning or late evening so the temperature is cooler (summer) or warmer (winter) for the pet, depending on the season.

WHN TIP – Temp Rules: Many airlines have temperature restrictions on flights with pets (i.e. if it’s below 20 degrees or above 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside, they won’t take the pet as cargo). Check with your carrier ahead of time.

Call the airline(s) directly to make arrangements for your pet. Policies, laws and regulations will vary from airline to airline, state to state, and country to country. Top questions to ask:

  • What are the fees for traveling with a pet? (usually $100-300, depending on the airline).
  • What is the time and location for the pet drop-off and pick-up for my flights?
  • What will I need to have with me when checking my pet in for the flight?
  • What is the security procedure that will have to be done for pets that are boarding with me? Will they need to be removed from their carrier?
  • What happens to my pet in cargo hold if the flight is delayed before I’ve boarded? Can I claim it to take it for a walk or give it water? If the layover is longer than expected or the connecting flight delayed, will I be able to claim my pet to walk it and give it water?

WHN TIP – Delay: Stuck on the plane and the flight is delayed? Notify the flight attendant or pilot and ask to have your pet unloaded during the delay or layover. If the delay is long enough, ask to claim your pet, take it for a walk, and offer it water before you re-board.

  • What is your list of requirements, restrictions and vaccinations for each flight?
  • Will my pet be able to board the flight with me as a carry-on? As checked baggage? (If not traveling with your pet, ask about shipping your pet as cargo.)
  • What are your carrier/crate size, weight and other requirements?
  • Will you provide a cage or crate for my pet if it will be checked?
  • For overseas travel: Will there be any special health requirements such as quarantine?

WHN Expert TIP – Buddy System: “Ask if there’s another animal on the flight. It’s good to have another dog [or cat] with them to lessen their anxieties.” – Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler

WHN TIP – Traveling or Moving Abroad: You may need a specific international certificate or pet passport for traveling abroad. Some countries require that the certificate is USDA-certified. To learn more, contact the Veterinary Services (VS) Endorsement Office in your state.

Before You Go

Make an appointment to meet with your vet within ten days before your flight. Why? If traveling by air and depending on your final destination, you may need a health certificate or other certificates issued by a licensed vet. Ask your current vet or contact the Veterinary Services (VS) Endorsement Office.

WHN TIP – Valid Certificate: Make sure the certificate is valid both for the flight to your destination and for your flight home. Most certificates are only valid for up to 30 days. You may need to obtain another certificate before heading home. Ask your vet for a referral to vets in your destination, just in case.

WHN TIP – Don’t Have a Vet Yet? Read Choosing a Vet for top tips from veterinarians and pet owners on how to find and select the best vet for you and your pet.

Tell your vet about where you are headed to and for how long. Also mention if you’ll be traveling by air and/or car, train, bus, etc.

Make sure your pet’s vaccinations are up to date.

Ask about current medical conditions and if they could pose a problem while traveling.

Ask about feeding instructions and other things you can do to prepare your pet.

Also, be sure to ask your vet about possible diseases that might be prevalent at your vacation destination.

WHN Expert TIP – Dangers Ahead: “Anticipate dangers you may encounter along the way. Each area of the country has endemic diseases, plants and animals that might affect your pet. In Arizona, owners should look out for scorpions and rattlesnakes. The Pacific Northwest has salmon poisoning: this infectious disease can kill dogs without aggressive treatment. Animals traveling to the East Coast should be vaccinated against Lyme disease. The fleas are ferocious in Florida. Prevention is a must so ask your vet about these diseases and travel concerns.” Dr. Kristen L. Nelson of Veterinary Creative in Scottsdale, AZ

Make sure your pet’s ID tags are up to date with your current contact details and vaccination information, if necessary.

WHN Expert TIP – Make a Cell Phone Tag: “Have a little tag made that has your cell phone number on it (many pet stores have machines that do this). Attach it to your dog’s collar when you’re traveling. If your dog gets away from you while you’re traveling, they’ll call you at home but you won’t be there!” Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish

Does your pet need tranquilizers to travel? Dr. Susan Nelson, assistant professor of clinical studies at Kansas State University, recommends not waiting until the last minute to get them in case you can’t get in to see the vet. If your pet has never used them before, try them out a few weeks ahead of time, just in case of a reaction: either over-sedation or over-stimulation.

WHN Expert TIP – Sedatives and Tranquilizers: Most veterinarians advise against sedating your pet since the effects of tranquilizers on animals at higher altitudes are unpredictable. If you believe that some form of sedation might be helpful, be sure to obtain and follow a veterinarian’s advice. USDA

Purchase and Prepare the Crate

You will need a pet carrier or crate for your pet. The requirements, size and weight restrictions will vary depending on the airline and other government regulations. Follow the airline’s instructions before purchasing a carrier or crate. Read Choosing and Preparing a Pet Crate for tips on how to select and prepare the best crate for your trip.

Get It Groomed

Have your pet groomed before the flight so it will be clean and healthy. Then do a final brush and nail trim before the flight. (Need a pet groomer? Read Choosing a Pet Groomer for tips.)

What to Pack

Read Create a Pet Travel Kit for a complete checklist of items you might wish to bring on your trip.

  • In your carry-on bag pack:
  • Your pet’s food and treats
  • Your pet’s medications and emergency items
  • Leash or cat harness
  • Toys for your pet (these can’t go in the crate or carrier)
  • Your pet’s health certificate and medical records
  • Your tickets and IDs

WHN TIP – No H2O: Remember no bottled water is allowed in your carry-on until you pass through the TSA security checkpoint. Instead pack an empty water bottle to fill up after going through security.

Before Leaving Home

  • Reconfirm with the airline 24-48 hours before departure since there is a limited number of pets allowed on each airplane.
  • Check the temperatures in your current area and those in your connection and destination sites in case the pet travel arrangements need to be changed.
  • According to PetTravel.com, temperature restrictions ensure that animals are not exposed to extreme heat or cold in the animal holding areas, terminal facilities, when moving them between terminal and aircraft or on an aircraft awaiting departure. If the ground temperature is below 45°F at any location on the itinerary, pets will not be accepted unless they have a veterinarian’s statement of low-temperature acclimation.
  • For more information about this and other pet travel rules, visit the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association website and read Trips with Pets’ Too Hot to Fly: Summer Airline Pet Embargoes.

At the Airport

WHN Expert TIP – Security Blanket: “Cover the kennels with a blanket. The less dogs [and cats] see, they’ll be more calm.” Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler

  • Walk your pet outside the airport so it can relieve itself before being checked in. Your airport may have a “relief areas” to ensure your pet is comfortable during travel.
  • If your pet is traveling as a carry-on item or as checked luggage, the check-in counter will usually be at the passenger terminal.
  • If your pet is traveling as cargo, the check-in area may be in a different location such as the air freight terminal.
  • Check in with the airline before the cutoff time for your flight.
  • When checking in, ask about the claim process when you reach your destination and at what location you can pick up your pet.
  • Connecting? Ask if you’ll need to claim and re-check your pet or if your pet is booked all the way through to your destination.
  • Keep in mind that even if you’ve followed all the necessary requirements, airlines still reserve the right to refuse to transport a pet for reasons such as illness or extreme temperatures at origin, transfer or destination airports.

Security Procedures

If your pet is traveling with you in the passenger cabin or as checked baggage, TSA will likely require your pet to accompany you through the passenger screening equipment at the security checkpoint.

You will be told whether you need to remove your pet from its kennel and what screening procedure will be taken for your pet and its carrier.

WHN Expert TIP – Airline Security Pet Exam – Tips for Dog Owners: “TSA may tell you that the dog needs to be examined. The exam will be very similar to petting the dog from head to toe. I would highly suggest that the parents go in front of the dog and hold the dog’s head and let the dog’s muzzle rest in your palm so that the dog feels secure or so if the dog decides to snap you can control it. We get anxious when we fly, just imagine how the dog feels!” Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler

On The Plane

WHN Expert TIP – When Boarding: When boarding the plane, notify the flight attendant that you have a pet in the cargo hold. The airlines have a system for providing such notification, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it yourself. Aviation Consumer Protection Division

  • Have a carry-on pet? The animal must remain in its carrier while in the airport and throughout the entire flight.
  • Is your flight delayed and your pet is in cargo? Ask if you can claim your pet to walk it and provide it with water.
  • Making a connecting flight: You may need to claim your pet and re-check your pet when making connections.
  • Using a pet transport service? Read Pet-Express Transport Service’s Commonly Asked Questions to learn more.

Arriving/Claim Process

If your pet didn’t travel with you in the cabin, ask the gate agent for directions to the area where you will claim it. Be prompt when picking up your pet, and have your airline documents and your health certificates ready when you head to claim your pet. Depending on the airport and airline, your pet will be near the baggage claim.

WHN Expert TIP – Bags First: “Understand that you may get your baggage before you get your animal. This is because the bags need to be brought off quickly so that the next flight can take off on time. Your pet may be brought to a special holding area first before it’s brought to you.” Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler

Have the leash in your carry-on and ready to use when you reach your destination and know where the closest pet relief area is. (Not sure? Ask the gate agent when you deplane). Your pet will thank you for it!