Flying with Dogs: 26 Things to Know Before Taking Your Pup on a Plane
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Everything you need to know about flying with a dog, from where pups sit to the overall cost
Travel is already hectic enough in a post-pandemic world where coronavirus revenge travel is contributing to flight cancellations left and right. And then there’s the baseline anxiety you may already feel while boarding a plane. Adding a dog—however faithful a travel companion he or she may be—to the mix can make things that much more complicated. Still, many a pet owner is flying with a dog. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that as many as 2 million pets board commercial flights in the United States every year.
“You may choose to travel with your furry best friend for many different reasons. It’s fun making new memories together. And it can also give you comfort knowing your pet is happy by your side,” says Zac Pilossoph, DVM, a consulting veterinarian at Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. “Plus, so many hotels, airlines, restaurants and resorts are pet-friendly.”
While these are all valid reasons to bring your pooch as your plus-one, there is a lot to consider when flying with dogs: What are the most dog-friendly airlines? Which are the best dog carriers? Are there dog-related TSA carry-on rules? And even if you have Global Entry or TSA Precheck, how the heck do you get through the airport security check while holding a puppy? Navigating the airport—especially with a dog by your side—can be tricky, so be sure to read up on our top tips.
Can a dog fly on a plane?
Different airlines have different policies when it comes to flying with a dog, and in the wake of COVID-19, these rules are ever-changing. Before boarding a flight, it’s crucial that you call or get in touch with your airline to explain that you’ll be traveling with a dog. Ringing up the airline will also let you ask specific questions about its pet policy and help you understand what to expect from the experience.
The big caveat here is that most airlines have a limit on how many pets they will allow on each flight, so it really is a first-come, first-serve kind of thing. Especially now, in the wake of COVID-19, airlines are becoming stricter in their requirements for how to fly with a dog.
When flying with a dog, the main factor is the size of your pet. Typically, small dogs (under 20 pounds) can fit in a carrier underneath the seat in front of you, which means they get to fly in the main cabin. If your pup is on the smaller side, you can think of it as your carry-on item.
While some travelers choose to buy their pet the seat next to them on a flight (more on this later), it’s usually standard airline policy that any dog heavier than what can fit in a carry-on (usually those above 20 pounds) rides either as excess luggage in the cargo hold or as cargo in the hold below. But be sure to confirm with the airline—as of this writing, neither Delta nor American Airlines is allowing dogs to ride in the cargo hold because of concerns related to COVID-19.
When gauging where in an airplane your pup might fly, consider your destination. Even small dogs that usually fly as carry-ons in the main cabin may be required to stay in the cargo hold for international flights. Delta Air Lines, for instance, restricts dogs in the cabin on flights to countries including Australia, Barbados, Dubai, Hong Kong, Jamaica, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates.
The dog’s breed is also a consideration for some airlines, so it’s important that you do your research regarding your preferred airline and the breeds it restricts. Some airlines even have policies barring snub-nosed breeds—like pugs and Frenchies—from flying. (The small snouts on these short-nosed dogs make them more susceptible to injuries.)
In general, the following breeds may fare better on a train or on a road trip with their best human friend:
- Brussels griffon
- English toy spaniel
- French bulldog
- Japanese Chin
- Lhasa apso
- Neapolitan mastiff
- Shih tzu
Airlines may also restrict certain dogs entirely. That’s especially true for bully breeds such as pit bulls.
According to professional pet-shipping company Pet Air Carrier, Alaskan Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines and United Airlines are among the carriers that have banned pit bulls. These same airlines also don’t allow snub-nosed breeds, Staffordshire bull terriers or American bullies.
Check with your airline for more information about which breeds can and can’t fly.
A pass for service dogs
Of course, there is a completely different set of rules when flying with emotional support or service animals. While guidelines differ from one airline to the next, all generally allow fully trained service dogs to fly in the main cabin at no extra charge.
Both service animals and emotional support animals may require proof of their training and certification—you’ll have to fill out the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Service Animal Air Transportation Form at least 48 hours before your flight—as well as proof of vaccinations. In the case of emotional support animals, you may also need a letter written by a medical professional.
At some airlines—like American Airlines, for example—only service animals qualify for free in-cabin travel. The AA website states, “Please note, service animals in training, emotional support animals and comfort animals may travel as pets, not as service animals. All requirements and applicable fees will apply.”
Are there any health risks for dogs when flying?
No form of transportation is entirely risk-free, as anyone who’s experienced in-flight ear aches knows all too well. There are health risks involved for both humans and dogs; the difference is that your four-legged friend can’t tell you he’s not interested in flying the friendly skies. That’s why it’s important for pet owners to weigh the pros and cons before booking a ticket.
So is it cruel to take a dog on a plane? That depends on your pup. Just like humans, some pets are good travelers and others, well, they’d prefer to stay at home. If your dog shows signs of anxiety (such as excessive panting) or irrational fear the minute you board the plane, you may not want to put it through a flight ever again.
“When it comes to planning an airplane trip with your pet, there are lots of considerations,” Dr. Pilossoph explains. “It’s important to remember that not all dogs are suited for airline travel and the stresses that come with it—especially if they have to ride in cargo. Overseas trips and long flights with multiple layovers can be anxiety-inducing for both you and your pet. And unfortunately, there have been a few incidents of pets dying during flights, so it’s crucial that you’re prepared.”
Planes can be traumatizing for dogs because they are full of loud noises, changes in air pressure and temperature, tons of people (and smells!) they’re not used to and general discomfort. Throw in the fact that your dog now has limited opportunities to relieve itself and, well, flying with a dog is not exactly a walk in the park.
Injuries and other issues
More and more airlines are adopting policies that prevent pets from flying in cargo areas. While COVID-19 plays a big role in this change, it’s not the only reason. Any medicated dog on a plane needs constant supervision, and that’s not possible if it’s stuck in the cargo hold. On top of that, cargo holds can potentially lead to more doggy injuries.
Alternatively, if you fly with your dog in the main cabin of the plane, you can guarantee the supervision of your pet at all times. There is also less chance of an injury there.
The main health concern for flying with a dog has to do with temperature regulation. While some cargo holds are pressurized and climate controlled, they can still weather extreme temperature ranges. Animals flying in cargo may experience extremely hot or extremely cold temps, which can cause them to overheat or come down with hypothermia.
There’s a reason so many travelers tuck a pack of gum in their carry-on luggage: Chewing it on the plane helps prevent (and rectify) ear discomfort and muffled hearing. Just like with humans, dogs’ ears are affected by high altitudes.
But while your pet may experience mild discomfort and pain in its ears during a flight, it doesn’t get the luxury of chewing gum. That said, you don’t need to worry too much—this pain should only last a few minutes, as dogs have the amazing ability to equalize the pressure in their own ears, thanks to the unique design of their outer ear canal.
Special health considerations
It’s worth noting that pregnant dogs and senior dogs are more at risk when flying. If you have an older dog, consider asking your veterinarian to do a geriatric blood panel before the flight to make sure there are no underlying complications.
How do you prepare your dog for a flight?
The best thing to do before flying with a dog is to properly prepare yourself (and your pet) for travel. This will help manage your expectations and ensure that you’re ready for any hiccups.
That said, it’s always a good idea to reach out to your airline directly. Verify you have done all the necessary steps and filled out all the necessary paperwork (and in the correct time frames). You don’t want to show up to the airport on the day of your flight and realize you forgot something.
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Talk to your vet
It’s always a good idea to consult your veterinarian before taking your dog on a flight. The doctor will be able to assess your dog’s health, speak to any required forms or paperwork and go over your pet’s vaccinations.
Make sure you have enough time to get any necessary vaccines administered by scheduling an initial vet appointment for six to eight weeks before your departure. You may have to return to the office to have the vet fill out the appropriate paperwork, but you want to make sure you give yourself enough time.
If you have a particularly anxious dog, the veterinarian may prescribe a sleeping or anti-anxiety pill, such as trazodone. “If you believe that your pet has not or will not respond to over-the-counter nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals or other measures to mitigate situational anxiety, then a vet will sometimes consider prescribing a short course of an anti-anxiety medication,” Dr. Pilossoph explains. “Trazodone or gabapentin are the most common, but others have been used.”
But a veterinarian-approved sleeping pill isn’t always necessary, and it’s not for everyone. Plenty of pet owners avoid medicating their pets entirely. If you’d like a different option, your vet may be able to provide insight into alternatives.
“Benadryl and melatonin are over-the-counter pharmaceutical remedies,” Dr. Pilossoph says. “Benadryl will sometimes cause drowsiness but is not considered an anti-anxiety option. Melatonin can be relatively safe to use situationally as an anti-anxiety option but will not likely be effective for pets that have moderate to severe anxiety conditions.”
Some vets may also suggest non-medicinal alternatives, like a ThunderShirt, chewing toy or familiar-smelling blanket, to relax your traveling pup.
Familiarize your dog with its carrier
This tip is crucial and, frankly, often overlooked. Dogs are creatures of habit, and most of them won’t blindly trust you after being shoved into a carrier out of the blue. It’s better to familiarize your dog with the carrier by taking baby steps, following a process similar to the one you’d use when crate training a dog.
“Crate training is important if you want to fly with your dog. In fact, most airlines require them to be crated unless your pet is a service animal,” Dr. Pilossoph says. “Remember that it can take months for your pup to be comfortable with being left in their crate. You can help by making the space feel relaxing and safe with your dog’s favorite toys and blankets.”
As early as four months before your flight, start by leaving the carrier out so your dog has access to it. Your pet will likely be curious and give it a sniff or two. No need to rush into familiarizing right away. Just let your dog know the carrier is there.
The next step is coaxing your dog into the carrier. Work on it a few minutes per day with training treats. Reward your dog each time he or she positively engages with the carrier by going in voluntarily.
“Use treats to encourage your pet to go inside their crate; never force them,” Dr. Pilossoph advises. “You can also include pheromone and/or aromatherapy as ways to make the carrier a comfortable environment.”
Once you’ve established that the carrier is a positive thing, try taking your pup for a short trip in it, such as a brief drive around the block. Doing each step little by little will help effectively acclimate your dog instead of throwing it into a stressful situation seemingly out of nowhere.
Fill out pet travel paperwork and certificates
You’ve learned that airlines require special forms for service dogs, but what about pups who don’t have a job? If you’re traveling domestically, an airline may ask you to fill out and submit a health certificate prior to boarding. But policies differ by air carrier and by the pet’s location on the plane. Alaska Airlines, for instance, requires a health certificate for all dogs flying in the cargo compartment but not for those traveling in the cabin.
As for international travel, count on needing a health certificate for your dog.
“For international travel, there are certain mandatory elements required prior to departure,” Dr. Pilossoph says. “A veterinarian must complete an international travel exam and sign an international health certificate within 10 days of travel for cats and dogs in most situations.”
One thing to keep in mind: These health certificates expire after 30 days, so plan your appointment accordingly.
Get appropriate vaccinations
Depending on where you are traveling (and especially if you are traveling outside the United States), your dog may need certain vaccinations. For most flights, including international ones, they require the following:
- Rabies vaccine and signed rabies certificate
- Canine distemper virus vaccination
- Canine parvovirus vaccination
- Infections canine hepatitis vaccination
- Leptospirosis vaccination
Your veterinarian can help you navigate these requirements, but it’s smart to do some research of your own to see what you need for your specific airline and destination. For example, “the animal must be considered up to date on its rabies vaccination based on the destination country’s definition of ‘up to date,'” Dr. Pilossoph says.
What airlines let your dog fly with you?
Airlines are increasingly allowing dogs to travel with their owners in the cabin. While each airline has its own policies, all the airlines below typically allow dogs in the cabin:
- Aegean Airlines
- Air Canada
- Air Europa
- Air France
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- French Bee
- TAP Air Portugal
- Turkish Airlines
- United Airlines
There are a lot of pros and cons when it comes to deciding best flights for you and your dog. If you have a larger dog, consider flying an airline (such as Delta or Alaska Airlines) that doesn’t explicitly state a weight or size requirement. (Your dog will still need to fit in a carrier underneath the seat in front of you, though.)
Most airlines require that dogs be placed in a pet carrier and stowed underneath the seat in front of you. So if you’d rather buy a seat for your dog, look to JetBlue and United, which allow this practice. Just don’t expect your pup to be sitting upright beside you. Airlines ask that pets remain in their carriers for the duration of the flight, even if the carrier is on a purchased seat.
How much does it cost to fly with a dog?
While each airline differs in terms of the cost of flying with a dog, the industry standard is a $125 fee. Here’s what it costs to bring a dog aboard select airlines, including a few budget airlines:
|Hawaiian Airlines||Several pricing tiers based on whether you’re traveling interisland, by cargo, etc.|
Unfortunately, that’s just the start of the fees. If your pet is riding via cargo, the airline may also charge based on the weight of your dog and its crate. Your airline should have an online calculator that gives you a near-accurate estimate of this added cost.
Then there are health-care-related charges. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, health certificates for traveling pets start at $38. If you are traveling internationally, your pet may also need certain blood tests to gain entry to the country. This additional fee starts at $121.
Vet visits and vaccinations will cost you too. “In total, the average cost for the exam, certificate and rabies vaccine averages between $400 and $500—not including airline fees,” Dr. Pilossoph says.
Steffanie van Twuijver, a former vet tech turned pet influencer and blogger at Dingo Ate My Ticket, has traveled with her pet to more than 20 different countries and understands the steep cost of flying with a dog.
“For flights with my dog, I have paid as little as $60 [and] up to about $250 for a single flight. However, if you fly your pet via cargo, this can go up to about $1,500,” she says, rattling off other costs she incurs while toting her pet on a plane: $2 to $50 for import and export licenses, $600 for a blood test and additional quarantine fees. “It was around $2,000 to get my dog to Iceland, for example. Overall, usually my costs of getting Olive to the new country are below $150, with the occasional expensive destination.”
What’s the best way to take a dog through the airport?
No one wants to make any of the most common airplane travel mistakes, especially when traveling with a four-legged friend. Before you can even begin to worry about the plane ride, you may be stressing about getting through the airport with your dog.
First and foremost, make sure you have the right equipment—a quality pet carrier, an on-the-go water bowl and a few other items that will keep your traveling pup as comfortable and entertained as possible.
Walk your dog before leaving for the airport
Seriously. You would not believe how many pet owners forget this step because they’re so busy packing or running around before the flight. Take your dog on a nice, long walk. Not only will this ensure your pooch relieves itself before a flight, but it also helps tire the animal out. The more exhausted a pup is, the quieter (and calmer) they usually are.
Arrive four hours early
Most airlines request that passengers arrive at the airport at least two hours before takeoff. When you bring a pet into the mix, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so tack on another two hours. After all, when traveling with a pet, you usually don’t have the luxury of curbside or self-service check-in, so it’s best to account for long lines and more time spent going through security.
Flying internationally? Arrive five hours early.
Flying as cargo? Hand over your dog
If your dog will be traveling as cargo, prepare to part with it when you check your luggage. “[The desk agent] will check your dog’s paperwork and check the size and weight of your pet and crate,” says van Twuijver, whose dog’s Instagram account has more than 30,000 followers interested in her puppy travels. “They will sometimes check the inside of the crate as well to make sure you are not smuggling anything with you. From there, most of the time, you leave your dog at oversized luggage, where your dog will be picked up when the time has come to board the plane. Some airports might have specific areas they store the pets beforehand, but most airports that I have come across have not.”
If you are traveling internationally, you will then proceed through customs without your pet.
Attach a recent photo of your pup to the carrier. This helps ensure there are absolutely no mix-ups while you’re separated from your pet. While you’re at it, attach a bag of food to the carrier. That way, personnel will be able to feed your dog in the event of a flight delay.
Flying as a carry-on? Keep your pup in its carrier
Dogs must stay in their carriers pretty much the entire time you’re navigating the airport. (If you’re waiting a long time in the terminal, keeping them leashed while out of their carrier is probably fine, provided you follow good airplane etiquette and keep them calm and controlled.) The only other time a dog can come out of its carrier is when going through security.
The carrier itself must go through the TSA’s X-ray machine. If your dog’s leash and/or collar contain metal, the TSA agent may ask you to remove them and put them through the X-ray machine too.
As you go through the metal detector, you will have to carry your dog. If everything is good to go afterward, return your dog to its carrier and head toward your gate.
Give your dog food and water
It is important that your dog has access to both food and water before, during and immediately after a flight. Try a pop-up water bowl to ensure your pup stays hydrated, and make sure to attach pet food to your dog’s kennel—just in case.
Here’s what Dr. Pilossoph recommends: “Feed your dog a small meal at least four hours before your flight, so they have plenty of time to digest their food before boarding the airplane. You’ll also want to give yourself enough time to take your dog to the airport’s pet area to relieve themselves before you board. Water in small volumes can be offered at any point, up until the flight, and should not be withheld if your pet is thirsty.”
Visit the doggy bathroom
Most airports are equipped with a pet relief area. Just follow the signs! These areas usually feature a small, faux-grass patch (so animals can relieve themselves), a hose for washing it off, poop bags and access to drinkable water.
It’s best to visit the doggy bathroom before a flight as well as immediately after. If you plan on flying frequently with your dog, getting into this before-the-flight and after-the-flight routine will help teach the dog when it can go.
Keep your pup calm
Going through the airport (and getting on a plane) can be an anxious, even frightening experience for dogs. As the owner, it’s your job to keep your dog as calm as possible. You might give your dog a vet-approved sedative, place it in an anxiety-calming ThunderShirt, comfort it with a familiar toy or anxiety-calming product, or entertain it with a chew toy or walk around the airport (always on a leash, of course). In the airplane cabin, you might give it treats or pet it through the carrier.
Of course, calming a pet is easier said than done, and nothing beats proper preparation, says Dr. Pilossoph.
“Make sure your pet is fully accustomed to and happy being in the crate,” van Twuijver says. “Make sure they are okay with loud noises, busy areas, loads of people and closed-off spaces. There is only so much you can do, but properly crate-training your pet really is the single most important thing to traveling with your pet.”
How do you collect your dog when you arrive?
Disembarking from a flight in which your dog traveled in the cabin with you is pretty straightforward. Simply gather your dog’s carrier and wait to exit the plane.
If your dog flew in the cargo hold, you may be wondering how to collect your dog when the plane gets to the gate. Follow the expert tips below.
Head to the designated pet pickup location
With most airlines, dogs are available for pickup two hours after the flight’s arrival. You’ll have to pick up your pup within four hours of your arrival time.
To pick up your dog after a flight, follow the signs to the airline’s domestic cargo location. At some airports, pet pickup may be adjacent to or even in the same area as baggage claim.
Bring your ID and waybill
Once you’ve reached the pet pickup area, present a photo ID and the air waybill, a printed or electronic tracking document that the check-in agent handed to you when you dropped off your dog. You’ll need both of these items for domestic and international flights. The difference? After collecting your dog from an international flight, you’ll have to clear him or her through customs.
Walk your dog
With the baggage claim and customs clearing out of the way, walk your dog! Remember, most airports have pet relief areas. While that’s a helpful option for some, other dogs are notoriously picky about where they pee and poop. If that sounds like your pet, get outside and go for a walk as soon as possible.
Feed and water your dog
No matter how long the flight, your dog has just gone an unprecedented amount of time without drinking. Once you get situated, make sure your dog has access to water.
You may want to wait to feed your dog until you get to your destination, but if it was a particularly long flight or if you know you’re behind on your dog’s feeding schedule, be sure to feed it before leaving the airport and heading to one of the best pet-friendly hotels.
- Zac Pilossoph, DVM, consulting veterinarian at Healthy Paws Pet Insurance
- Steffanie van Twuijver, former vet tech turned pet influencer and blogger at Dingo Ate My Ticket
- USDA: “Care and Handling of Pets During Air Travel”
- Pet Air Carrier: “Pet Shipping Restrictions”
- Delta Air Lines: “International & Connection Pet Travel”
- USDA: “Cost to Endorse Your Pet’s Health Certificate”