If you’re thinking about bringing your pup (or falcon!) onboard an upcoming flight, you’ll want to stay up to date on airlines’ evolving policies for animal companions, and plan carefully to ensure a smooth trip for you and your pet.
1. Schedule a preflight vet visit. Before you book a ticket, take your animal to the vet for a checkup and to see if he’s a good flight candidate. Some pets struggle with travel because of illness, injury, age or temperament, notes the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Your pet will also likely need a health certification from your vet. Airlines usually require it within 10 days of traveling, along with rabies and vaccination certificates.
2. Review airlines’ pet policies. Policies can vary considerably, whether they're about weight restrictions, fees or acceptable carrier sizes. Most airlines require pet carriers to fit under the seat in front of you — that’s a pretty small space. The carrier will be counted as your one carry-on item. On Qatar Airways, you can’t bring a cat or dog onboard, but you can bring a falcon. Sites such as BringFido.com and PetFriendlyTravel.com have compiled the major airlines’ pet policies.
3. Think twice before claiming that your dog (or snake) is an emotional support animal. For years, many passengers said their pets were emotional support animals to avoid paying pet fees on their dogs and cats or to bring unusual animals — pigs, peacocks, squirrels, snakes — into the cabin during flights. That ended in December 2020, when the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that only trained dogs that “perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” could be classified as service animals. After that ruling, multiple airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier and Southwest, announced they would no longer allow emotional support animals on board. To fly with a service animal, fill out this DOT form.
4. Leave a big dog at home. You want to avoid putting your animal in the cargo hold. Among other issues, the strange environment can be stressful, your pet is separated from you (which adds to the stress) and rushed baggage handlers aren’t always gentle when moving the carrier. Only three major airlines — Alaska, American and Hawaiian — are still willing to take pets in the cargo hold, and they don’t do it on every flight. “It’s hard to have dedicated staff just for animals, and there are liability issues,” explains Erin Ballinger, destinations editor with BringFido.com. If your dog is in the cargo hold, aim for direct flights at a time of day with the most comfortable temperatures (such as early morning or evening flights in summer). Federal regulations prohibit airlines from exposing animals to temperatures below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four hours during departure or arrival, or while making connections.
5. Check airlines’ safety records, particularly if you are considering putting your pet in cargo. Between 2015 and 2020, Alaska Airlines had the lowest pet incident rates — including deaths, injuries and loss — of any airline, despite transporting far more animals than its competitors. The overall numbers are still relatively small. Of the approximately 2.7 million pets that flew on U.S. airlines during that time period, there were 112 animal deaths reported to the Department of Transportation (airlines are required to report animal-companion incidents that occur in the cargo hold to the DOT). Find out which airlines have the best safety records in this report by Veterinarians.org.
6. Watch for age and breed restrictions. Most airlines refuse to take certain types of dogs onboard, from pit bulls to short-nosed breeds such as bulldogs and pugs, which are more prone to respiratory issues. Certain cat breeds may also be restricted. United won’t take Burmese, exotic shorthair, Himalayan or Persian cats, for instance, so check policies carefully. Federal regulations require pets to be at least eight weeks old in order to fly, but airlines may have their own rules. United, for example, requires puppies and kittens to be at least four months old; Delta requires them to be at least 10 weeks old.
7. Expect high cabin fees. Bringing your pet in the cabin will cost you from $95 on Southwest to $125 on American, Delta and Jet Blue for domestic flights (Hawaiian Airlines charges $35 on inter-island flights, $175 for all other flights). Those fees are one way; you’ll pay the same amount on the return flight. Fees for international airlines and flights may be higher.
8. Understand rabies rules for dogs. If you’re reentering the United States from a high-risk country for rabies transmission, make sure your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate is current. Airport personnel won’t accept expired certificates, and you’ll have to apply for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dog Import Permit. Dogs vaccinated in the United States by a licensed veterinarian can reenter the country from high-risk locations if they meet these CDC rules: They have a microchip and a valid U.S.-issued rabies vaccination certificate, they’re at least six months old, they’re healthy upon arrival and they arrive at one of 18 approved airports. Before traveling abroad, check with the country’s consulate or embassy about pet regulations. Bringing a pet to Hawaii? Your dog or cat will spend time in quarantine, since Hawaii is a rabies-free state.
9. Book your tickets early. Once you know you’re traveling with a pet, make a reservation as soon as possible. Airlines typically limit the number of pet carriers in the cabin (the carrier must fit below the seat in front of you). Spirit, for example, allows a maximum of four carriers per flight, while Southwest permits six, so make sure there’s room for your pet before you buy your ticket. (And during the pandemic, it's wise to buy a refundable ticket in case you need to change or cancel your flight.)
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After you book your flight
1. Buy the right pet carrier. The American Kennel Club recommends these features: The carrier should be big enough for the animal to stand, turn and lie down; there should be ventilation on opposing sides; and it should have a water bottle and a leakproof bottom covered with absorbent material. Affix a “Live Animal” label with arrows pointing to the upright position and include your name, address and phone numbers. Some carriers have wheels to help you roll them through the airport.
2. Make the carrier comfy. Busy airports, pressurized cabins, strange noises — flying can be stressful for your pet. To help him relax, place some favorite items in the carrier, Ballinger suggests, such as a blanket, a beloved toy, a tiny bed or pillow, and a shirt with your scent on it. And before you travel, take steps to make the carrier seem as pleasant as possible. “A lot of pets run and hide if they see their carrier come out,” she says. “You want them to be comfortable and to think of it as a little vacation spot where they can go chill out and relax.” To create positive reinforcement, Ballinger recommends putting your pet in the carrier for trips to fun places such as the dog park.
On the day of your flight
1. Be conscious of time. To further reduce anxiety, arrive at the airport early, so you’re not rushed. “Dogs feed off of your energy, so if you’re stressed about running late, that’ll affect your pet as well,” Ballinger says. Also, stick with direct flights, the nonprofit Center for Pet Safety recommends. Connecting flights mean longer travel times and — if your dogs is staying in the cargo hold — more potentially stressful encounters in baggage handling as he’s moved to another plane.
2. Feed your pet about four hours before the trip. “A full stomach can be uncomfortable for a dog during travel,” Ballinger says, though “you can and should continue to give them water right up until the time of travel.” Let your pet do his business before the flight in an airport relief area (federal regulations require airports with more than 10,000 passengers to have a pet relief area in each terminal). Denver International Airport tops the American Kennel Club’s list of the nation’s most pet-friendly airports for its numerous animal bathrooms.
3. Provide preflight exercise. If a dog is tired, he’s more likely to sleep during the flight. Start burning energy the day before. “If you have a doggy daycare you like or a favorite park, just wear them out,” says Ballinger. Before the flight, play a game of fetch or take a long walk. Most veterinarians oppose tranquilizing pets, and some airlines require a signed statement confirming that your animal has not been sedated, the AVMA reports. “Sedatives and tranquilizers can create respiratory and cardiovascular problems at increased altitudes,” Ballinger adds.
4. Pack a pet bag. In addition to medications, treats, food and water, be sure to pack copies of your pet’s vaccination records, medical history and your vet’s contact information. Make sure pets are wearing ID tags and consider implanting your pet with a microchip. The AVMA also recommends taking a color photo of your animal, just in case he or she gets lost.
Ken Budd has written for National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine and many more. He is the author of the memoir The Voluntourist.