Everything to know about flying with pets, from people who do it most

Experts share their best advice, from picking your seat to keeping your animal calm

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)
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Flying with your pet is not as simple as adding an extra bag. A flight with animals requires additional planning well before you get to the airport. It can be a big stressor on your animal — and you.

It’s also more complicated than it once was, thanks to federal rules enacted last year that narrowed the definition of service animals. Airlines are no longer required to make accommodations for emotional support animals. Gone are the days of emotional support peacocks or your dog being allowed to sit on your lap.

Fortunately, there are still ways to make the journey easier on everyone. Experts — most of whom have firsthand experience — shared their best advice on how to fly with a pet, from booking your plane ticket to keeping your animal calm in transit.

What to think about when booking

Travelers with small pets such as cats and dogs are on the hook for fees — ranging from $95 to $125 each way depending on the airline — and have to place animals in a carrier small enough to fit under a seat. Larger animals can fly as checked baggage in the plane’s cargo hold or as an air cargo shipment, but fewer airlines are offering these services because of the pandemic.

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Jennifer Kopczynski, a “flight nanny” who transports pets to their new homes and does about three flights a month, said travelers will need to call their airline after booking a ticket to confirm space for their pet, as airlines may limit the number allowed on a given flight. (Some airlines do not permit pets on board at all.)

“You just have to always be on top of what the current rules are,” she said.

Susan Smith, owner of PetTravel.com, advised trying to find a flight with the fewest possible stops. “The more layovers you have, the more stress for your pet,” said Smith, who has been through the process herself. She remembers flying with her mini Wheaten terrier, Emily. “She was a good traveler,” Smith said.

That is especially important if you can’t take your pet in the cabin with you, noted Tracey Thompson, owner of PetFriendlyTravel.com. “You do not want your pet getting lost in transit,” she said. “If you have to change planes — really bad idea.”

Consider your pet’s temperament, too. While Thompson’s site serves people traveling with pets, she has never flown with hers. All her dogs have been too big to fly in the cabin, she said, and she wouldn’t put them in cargo because they were “too high-strung or had abandonment issues.”

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If your pet is flying in the cargo hold, Smith urged travelers to fly during the spring or fall, when temperatures are less extreme. She also said to book a midweek flight to avoid popular travel days and increase the chance that there will be room; baggage handlers will also have more time to care for your pet.

For travelers bringing their pets in the cabin, she said, book a window seat, as the pets will be farther from commotion in the aisle. Those seats also may have more space underneath.

Thompson said most airlines only allow dogs and cats in the cabin, though some allow birds. She said that “99 percent of them” will take any kind of animal in checked baggage. Some airlines will permit animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs in the cabin, Smith added.

Placing pets in the cargo hold has been the subject of scrutiny over its safety. Short-nosed dog breeds, such as Boston terriers and pugs, may be more sensitive to changes in air quality and temperature in that part of the aircraft, and they are more likely to die on planes than breeds with longer snouts, per the American Veterinary Medical Association. Short-faced cat breeds also may be more prone to respiratory problems.

How to prepare your pets

Just like people, animals that haven’t flown before may need time to get used to it. You can help your pet by getting them acclimated to their carrier or crate. “You can’t just throw it in the crate [on the] travel day and expect it to know what to do,” Smith said. She recommended starting as early as a month before your trip.

Smith said pet owners should get one that is compliant with the International Air Transport Association, which includes having enough space for the animal to lie down, sit up and stand and turn around normally. In general, if your pet is over 18 pounds or 18 inches long, Smith said, it is probably too big to fly in the cabin.

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Like regular crate training, Laura MacLean, medical director at VCA Old Town Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va., said in an email that owners should “leave it out and open in the home to allow the pet to go in and out at their leisure to become accustomed to it.”

When Brian Kelly, founder and chief executive of the Points Guy, flew with his French bulldog — aptly named Miles — he put treats in the dog’s carrier leading up to a trip “so he associated it with a happy place,” he said. Kelly also put Miles’s blanket inside the carrier to make it feel and smell familiar, he said, and owners can practice by toting their pet at home.

Kopczynski recommended a similar kind of role play. If you are working at home, she suggested putting the carrier under your desk with your pet inside. “So, it’s kind of like you’re simulating sitting in an airplane seat and they’re under the seat in front of you,” she said.

For cats who are not regularly on a leash or in a harness, MacLean said, give them extra time to get comfortable wearing it. She recommended practicing around the house before traveling.

What to ask your vet

Experts say travelers should take their pet for a pre-trip checkup. Inform the veterinarian of your plan well in advance to make sure it’s a good idea, “because there may be instances where flying because of a health condition or something might not be in the best interest,” said Douglas Kratt, a veterinarian and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

If your pet is cleared for travel, make sure their information is up to date with your vet, including pertinent medical history and microchip information, Kratt said. Have the record on your phone or printed out to take with you. Check that you have a recent photo of your pet on your phone, as well, and look for veterinary clinics in your destination in case of emergency.

For out-of-state travel, you will probably need a certificate of veterinary inspection, Kratt said, which you can get through an accredited vet.

Travel outside of the country is more complex. If you are traveling internationally or to Hawaii, MacLean said to research your destination’s requirements for pets, as some have strict rules. Equally important, Thompson said, is making sure your pet meets U.S. entry rules for your return.

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“When in doubt,” MacLean said, “reach out to your veterinarian for help navigating the requirements.” Kopczynski added that the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website can help you determine state- and country-specific rules.

How to keep your pet calm

Air travel can be nerve-racking for animals. “If we think we’re stressed flying, think about how stressed they are,” said Thompson, noting that pets are exposed to noise and unfamiliar surroundings.

Kelly said he tried to tire Miles out at the dog park before getting to the airport “so he was kind of spent and ready to nap anyway.” Kopczynski, for her part, always gives dogs pep talks before the flying.

Though you may want to load them with treats, Smith advised against feeding your pet within four to six hours of the trip (you should still give them water).

Consider finding a quiet part of the airport to hang out in before the flight. “Try not to go into the middle of the food court with your pet when it’s anxious and people are all around,” Kratt said. He also recommended limiting the number of people that come up to pet the animal and “get in their face and get in their space and everything.”

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Smith added that anxiety wraps such as ThunderShirts can be helpful, but only for pets traveling in the cabin, as airlines will not allow animals to wear any type of apparel in the cargo hold.

If your pet is highly anxious, she said, you can ask your vet about a mild sedative. She noted that many airlines will not take a sedated pet, particularly in the cargo hold.

Kratt said he advised against that, as there are too many unknowns and potential risks. “They’ve not been tested under those situations,” he said. “They’ve been tested under fairly strict rules of how these drugs work.” Using them in travel scenarios with different stressors, temperature extremes and other factors, “we don’t know how the metabolism’s going to affect those drugs,” he said.

On the plane, pets must remain in the carrier. But if they’re getting anxious, Kopczynski said, owners can reach inside to comfort them, as she once did the entire way from Seattle to Boston with a restless Japanese Chin. “The dog was whining the whole time, but it would stop every time I put my hand in the carrier and gave it attention,” she said.

You can also help your pet by taking steps to lower your own stress levels. “I always tell people that if they’re already wound tight or anxious, the pets pick up on that, too,” Kratt said.

How to go through TSA

When going through TSA, travelers should remove animals from their carrier, then put the carrier through the X-ray machine. Keep your pets on a leash, except when carrying them through the metal detector.

Solid pet food — dry or moist — is allowed, per the TSA, as is wet food at 3.4 ounces or less in carry-on bags. The size requirement also applies to prescription pet food, even for service animals.

Kratt said communicating with security personnel can make the process go smoother. When he flew with his then-five-month-old English Cocker Spaniel, he said, “it was just very easy that we had the conversations as I was going through the line, saying, ‘Hey, I’m bringing my dog through, it’s in this carrier. How do you guys want to handle it?’”

However, Kratt cautioned travelers not to be late so they are not rushed.

Smith added that for some pet owners, particularly those with cats, taking their animal out of the carrier may be challenging. In that case, she suggested travelers get to the airport early and request a security room. If a TSA agent balks at the idea, ask for their supervisor and explain the situation. “They will accommodate you,” she said. “You just have to allow a little extra time for that.”

How to find pet relief areas

Thompson said airports used to “barely have maybe a piece of grass” outside where you could take your pet. Now, U.S. airports that board 10,000 passengers or more each year are required to have at least one wheelchair-accessible service-animal relief area in each terminal. They have gotten increasingly elaborate, she said, with some being more like dog parks.

Experts said signage should point you to the nearest one, or you can check terminal maps online.

As an alternative, Kratt said, owners will need to get to the airport early and take their dog for a short walk. With cats, he added, you may be able to place cat litter in the carrier and then throw it away.

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