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16 questions about flying with your pet in the U.S., answered

A comprehensive guide, from figuring out checked vs. carry-on vs. cargo to whether Benadryl is a good idea.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

If you thought it was complicated to fly with your pet, you’re right. Just like traveling with family members, it can be stressful and confusing to coordinate your flights together. For our furry friends, getting in the air is not as simple as buying a ticket and showing up to the airport, even if you’re only traveling within the country. There can be certificates to obtain, medicine to be prescribed and fees to pay.

But it’s doable. Every year, more than 2 million live animals are transported by air, according to the Transportation Department. If they can jet a 240-pound panda from Washington to Chengdu, China, you can get your goldendoodle to Cincinnati. Really. All kinds of animals go wheels-up, from common creatures like pigs, rabbits, birds and miniature horses, to exotic species like kangaroos. Since cats and dogs are the most popular pets, far outpacing giant pandas, they’re what we’ve researched.

To help you figure out a game plan for flying domestic with your companion, we got answers from pet professionals to the most common questions.

How do I know if my cat or dog can fly?


Ultimately, the airline you’re flying will have final say. Your pet’s age, health, size and breed will all be taken into account when officials determine whether it can board a plane.

As far as age goes, the federal Animal Welfare Act from the Agriculture Department states that dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and weaned for at least five days, but airlines may have older age minimums. You’ll also have to provide a certification from a veterinarian that your pet is healthy enough to fly.

Then there’s breed. Snub-nosed, or short-nosed, dogs and cats, like pugs or Persian cats, are more likely to die on planes in cargo than breeds with longer noses. Many airlines ban them from flying checked or in cargo. Owners of small snub-nosed breeds can arrange for their pet to join them in the cabin. Owners of larger snub-nosed dogs, like pit bull terriers or mastiffs, are out of luck — they’re too large for in-cabin flying.

Can my dog or cat fly in the cabin with me, or will it need to go into cargo or be checked?

Size plays a major role in your pet’s arrangements. If your pet is small enough to travel in a ventilated carrier that fits under an airplane seat (among other requirements that can vary from airline to airline), you can usually bring it onboard domestic flights for a fee. Note: If you bring a pet onboard, its carrier will count as your carry-on bag, so you’ll have to check other luggage.

The other methods for pets big and small are making them cargo or checking them. Heads up that some airlines have restrictions on crate sizes, which might mean that larger dogs won’t be allowed to fly.

Okay, what’s the difference between cargo and checking?

When your pet can’t fly with you in the airplane cabin, your other two options are checking it, like you would luggage, or transporting it in the cargo compartment, a space usually reserved for shipping commercial goods (vs. passenger baggage). Both spaces are climate-controlled. Animals going in cargo will have to arrive at the airport much earlier than those being checked, which will add hours to your pet’s crate time.

Do I need to let the airline know about my pet ahead of time?


Airlines may have a limit on how many pets can fly in the cabin, making it a first-come, first-served situation. Register your pet with your airline early.

How much is it going to cost?

The price varies depending on how your pet is being transported and which airline you choose. You can expect to pay roughly $75 to $125 each way for pets traveling inside the cabin and $200 for pets that are checked or in cargo. Prices can skyrocket to more than $1,900 for very large dogs, or for special circumstances.

Does my pet need to go to the vet before we fly?

You’ll at least need to be in communication with your vet. No matter where you’re flying, you must check in with them ahead of your trip either in person or via email. Most airlines will require you present a health certificate issued and signed by a licensed vet within 10 days (or shorter, depending on where you’re going) of your trip to prove your pet is healthy enough to travel, and won’t spread anything harmful upon landing. While electronic health certificates are acceptable, you should also print out copies of the required documents to have with you at the airport.

Make sure your pet is up to date on vaccinations, both general ones like rabies and specific ones for the place you’re visiting. Your pet may be protected from diseases found in a metropolitan area but not ones found in rural environments, or vice versa. Your vet will know what precautions to take.

What is considered an emotional support animal? What type of paperwork do I need?


According to the Americans With Disabilities Act National Network, emotional support animals — a formal term, and sometimes called comfort animals — are not considered service animals, but rather therapy animals used as a part of a medical treatment plan.

“These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities,” the ADA website reads. “Therapy animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”

The federal laws that protect the use of service animals do not cover therapy animals; however, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) does require airlines to allow both service animals and emotional support animals to fly with their owner in the cabin. Airlines usually require a passenger to submit a medical or mental health professional form, a veterinary health form, and a confirmation of animal behavior form in advance of a flight to get the airline’s approval for an emotional support animal (usually dogs) to fly.

For anxious fliers, an emotional support animal can be a godsend. However, pet owners have abused the category in the past to avoid paying standard fees or to keep pets nearby.

“It is a problem that we see, and I fly a lot,” says John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

What kind of carrier do I need to use in the cabin?

Pets traveling in the cabin need to stay inside a carrier. Carrier requirements may change from airline to airline, but dogs should be able to stand naturally and turn around inside it without touching the sides or top.

Can my cat or dog sit on my lap?


No. Pets are required to stay in their carrier throughout your domestic flight, stored under the seat in front of you.

What type of crate should I use for a pet in cargo?

For pets being checked or traveling in cargo, not just any crate will do — and there are a lot of bad ones out there. Check with the airline you’re flying to see their kennel requirements, which usually follow the USDA and IATA’s recommendations. By law, you must pad the crate with an absorbent material like shredded paper or a bath towel. Certain specifications include that the crate must be equipped with water dishes, something you’ll probably have to buy, that are attached to its door. However, you can’t stick anything else in there, like a toy or a bone.

What type of crate should I use for a pet that’s checked?

Airlines may have their own guidelines for your checked pet’s kennel requirements. American Airlines, for example, requires a crate made of specific materials that are large enough for your pet to stand and turn around in naturally without touching the sides or top. The airline also requires separate food and water dishes attached inside the kennel, food for a 24-hour period, and being leakproof in addition to padded with an absorbent material inside.

Should I consider flight lengths when booking?

As you’re shopping for flights, take into account how long your pet will be in transit. For a shorter domestic jaunt, try to take a direct flight to limit your pet’s time on a plane. Pets should not be in the air longer than they have to be, and getting to the destination quickly has other advantages — it can be critical for pets traveling in cargo who have to arrive hours early to the airport.

Does it matter what time of day my pet travels?


Yes, if your dog or cat is flying in cargo. You don’t want your pet freezing or overheating before or after the flight. If the weather forecast is too hot or too cold, an airline may cancel your pet’s travel arrangements.

“If it’s going to be warm weather, it’s probably better to get on an early-morning flight,” Howe says. “If it’s cold weather, maybe a midday flight, and always reconfirm the flight arrangements before you go to make sure there’s no unexpected changes.”

Once onboard, your pet should be in a climate-controlled environment.

“In many of the aircrafts, it’s the same air in the cabin that circulates through the cargo area,” says Sally Smith, a licensed veterinary technician, certified kennel operator, and president of Airborne Animals, a pet-transportation and -moving company. “Captains are always made aware when there’s live animals onboard — how many and what kind and where they are in the aircraft — because they can control some of the air temperature and airflow in the bins, as they’re called, and in the cargo area.”

How can I prepare my pet for travel stress?

If your pet will be flying in cargo, a critical step is to make sure it’s crate-trained. Crates, kennels and carriers are more than a means for getting your pet on a plane; they’re a tool for keeping your pet calm when traveling. Remember that your pet will be going through the same emotional roller coaster as you are.

“Flying on planes is stressful for people and stressful for dogs or any animal,” says Derek Huntington, a former president of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA) and the managing director of Capital Pet Movers. “Crate training is vital, because that’s going to be the dog’s safe space during the travel time.”

Should I tranquilize my pet before flying?

No. You might think sedating your pet is a humane thing to do. It’s actually the opposite. Pet experts do not advise tranquilizing pets for travel, and airlines won’t accept them on flights, anyway.

A tranquilizer “depresses their heart and lung function. You don’t want that when they’re traveling,” Smith says. “The airlines actually will refuse anything that’s been tranquilized.”

Howe, the AVMA president, says that giving dogs or cats tranquilizers could lead to injury on a flight, particularly if your pet is flying as cargo.

“They need to be able to balance themselves,” he says. “If there is rough air or anything like that and [your pet is] tranquilized, they don’t have the best equilibrium, so they could theoretically get hurt.”

Can I give my pet Benadryl?


Your vet is your best source for managing your pet’s anxiety through medication or supplements. No matter what you’ve read on Google, don’t give your dog or cat any drugs before consulting an expert.

“Sometimes that could be very detrimental,” Howe says. Travelers “should really talk to a veterinarian, because if you’re going to give [your pet] some over-the-counter medication, or even Benadryl, you need to know what else the dog is taking or what health problems the dog might have.”

Your veterinarian will be able to prescribe the most effective and safe medication for its anxiety needs, or recommend a more natural alternative, like pheromone products. Huntington recommends acclimating dogs to other stress-triggering elements of travel, like exposing them to more people and loud noises.

Should I give my pet water during the trip?

Your pet can’t use the lavatory, so limit its food intake before and during a flight. Howe says owners shouldn’t feed animals anything within two hours of departure, saying that it’s better they have an empty stomach.

Your pet should be okay without food regardless of whether it’s a short- or long-haul.

“We don’t feed them during travel. We don’t want them having to defecate halfway through a flight,” says Smith, who runs the pet-moving company. “Pets are not going to starve even if it’s a 15-hour flight to Australia or Hong Kong.”

Water, however, is more essential. For flights under four hours, Howe does not recommend giving pets water. On longer flights, give your pet some water, and if it’s in cargo, make sure its water dish is properly secured to its carrier.

Where do I take my pet to the bathroom?

Airports should have animal relief areas, but the airport’s size will determine whether the area is either inside or outside of the terminals. If your pet is traveling in a carrier, you may want to line it with absorbent, quick-drying pads in case of in-flight accidents.

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