How to make plane trips easier on pets, and owners too

Mitch Stacy / AP, File

Gabby Slome rarely vacations without her dog Pancho in tow. He is a full-fledged family member. And just as “you wouldn’t leave your child at home,” Slome says, she doesn’t leave Pancho either — even if that means an airplane flight or two.

Traveling with pets has become easier thanks to pet-friendly hotels. But air travel is a bigger challenge than a road trip, and many owners worry about risks to the pets’ health and life.

Air travel is usually quite safe for dogs and cats, says veterinarian Julia Langfitt, who has treated pets in the U.S. and Asia, and is now based in the U.K.


“Pets kind of live in the moment,” she says. “Once they’re on the plane, they just kind of settle down and accept what’s happening.”

Owners, on the other hand, are often “very, very worried about how the animal’s going to feel and how stressed the animal is going to be in the carrier.”

As the summer travel season begins, how can owners make flying safer for their pets and less stressful for themselves?


Cargo versus cabin

Pets who fly as checked baggage are expected to be kept in a safely pressurized and temperature-controlled cargo hold. But summer heat can pose risks. So choose flight times that won’t have your plane waiting on the tarmac during the hottest part of the day. Many airlines won’t transport pets as cargo if the temperature is expected to be 85 degrees Fahrenheit or above.

Therapy animals can ride in the cabin with their owners, and some airlines allow other small pets in the cabin. But there are fees and restrictions on the size, weight and type of pet, as well as the type of carrier. Contact the airline directly when planning a trip, and confirm by phone the arrangements and cost to have your pet travel with you.


If your pet will ride with you, leave extra time to pass through security and avoid crowds at the gate.

And if the pet isn’t comfortable with strangers, arrive early, request priority boarding and keep children from reaching into the carrier.


Visit your vet

Most airlines request proof of a pet’s good health and recent vaccinations, so learn the rules for your airline and schedule a visit to a vet. Discuss any concerns about your pet’s age, health and breed.

The Humane Society advises owners of short-nosed or “brachycephalic” pets, such as pugs and bulldogs, to consider the risk of respiratory problems due to heat or limited oxygen.

Also discuss hydration: Langfitt says to hydrate pets well before a trip, and be sure they have access to clean water while flying. One solution: Teach your cat or dog to use a “sipper bottle” like hamsters and rabbits use. Attach one to the inside of the carrier door several weeks before flying. Place a bit of appealing food on the end of the water spout, and the pet will quickly learn how to get water from the bottle.

Upon arrival, especially after long flights or multiple plane changes, Langfitt suggests having a vet check the pet for dehydration and perhaps give fluids intravenously.



Container concerns

Make sure the pet’s carrier is approved by your airline. For pets traveling in the cabin with you, a soft-sided carrier may be approved, but as cargo they must be in a hard-sided crate.

Slome and Langfitt both recommend introducing pets to their carrier as early as possible. Slome kept some of Pancho’s toys in his carrier, and kept it open as a place to nap and play. She even fed him meals there to make it more familiar.

Dogs who are not crate-trained may have a harder time during a flight, Langfitt says. But she doesn’t advise loading up the carrier with toys or blankets. “Less is more,” she says. “Just bring the pee pad.”

It’s also important to clearly label the pet’s carrier with your name, the pet’s name and your contact information, especially if they’ll travel as cargo.


Know your airports

Airports serving more than 10,000 passengers per year are required to offer “pet relief stations” in each terminal. But facilities vary: Some have just a tiny patch of fake grass, while others offer real grass and play rooms.

TSA facilities at airports also vary. Some have animal inspection rooms, which might be less frightening to a pet than being removed from a carrier at crowded security checkpoints.


Time and planning

For international flights, investigate local laws, airport rules and airline rules. Pets likely need vaccinations and health clearances within a specific timeframe, which can range from 30 days to just 48 hours before departure.

Pet owners who are relocating can hire a service to handle their pets’ flights, immunizations and even immigration into a new country. But the costs can be high. Door-to-door service for an international move can cost as much as $2,500 per cat, Langfitt says, and $3,000 to $4,000 per dog. And these services may need several months to handle all the paperwork and examinations.


Slome, a canine nutritionist who runs the New York-based pet food delivery service Ollie (, suggests thinking ahead to your pet’s arrival: Familiar items such as a blanket can make a hotel room seem like home, and it helps to feed the pet the same food they eat at home.