Plus, what to pack for every step of the journey—from check-in to take-off.
dog in a carrier bag on an airplane
Credit: Getty

Are you planning to have Fido or Fluffy join you on your next vacation? Your whole furry family is bound to have a good time. But if your trip involves air travel, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the logistics of traveling with a pet before you head to the airport-long before you leave, actually. Here are some key things to know if you're traveling by plane with your pet, but you'll need to do a little extra research, too. Be sure to check with your individual carrier for any specific rules they may have. It's also important to note that these rules pertain to pets, not working service animals.

Make Plans Ahead of Travel with Your Pet

First, make sure that your pet is actually eligible for travel. The USDA requires dogs and cats to be at least eight weeks old and weaned for at least five days. Then, find out if your pet can travel in the cabin with you or if they'll have to travel in cargo, which happens when they're too big to fit in a carrier that can go under the seat. Check your airline's policies when you call. That's right, we said call. That's because you'll want to book this flight the old-fashioned way by speaking with a reservation agent. The earlier you can call the better as most airlines limit how many pets can be in the cabin. Also verify whether your pet's breed is permitted, since some airlines have implemented bans on particular types or breeds of cats and dogs.

Prepare your pet for travel by getting them accustomed to their carrier well in advance, making it a place they associate with something good. They should also be used to eating and drinking in the kennel. In the 24 to 48 hours before your flight, call your airline carrier to confirm their place on the flight. You'll also want to have a back-up plan in place-if your pet will travel in the cargo hold, extreme temperatures may cause the airline not to allow pets on that flight.

What to Do on the Day of Your Flight

Get to the airport early-but not too early. Most airlines won't let you check in with a pet more than four hours before the flight. Even for in-cabin travel, it's best to exercise your dog for at least 15 minutes before boarding to quell her anxiety (avoid sedatives, which can slow breathing, especially for dogs prone to respiratory issues). Since she'll be confined for awhile without breaks, don't feed her for four to six hours before departure. (But do freeze water in the tray inside the crate, so she'll stay hydrated.) Head to the ticket counter; no curbside check-in today.

If your pet is with you in the cabin, once on board their container must be stowed properly before the door to the airplane is closed and remain stowed for take-off and landing (and anytime the flight attendants say so). Of course, it's good manners, if not an outright rule, that you keep control of your pet and don't let them bother other passengers. (Not everyone is an animal person.)

Secure an Approved Kennel or Carrier

The USDA requires that pet carriers meet minimum requirements for size, ventilation, strength, sanitation, and design for safe handling; this list of guidelines is available from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), but take note that they don't "certify, approve, endorse, or sell any particular pet container manufacturer, brand, make, or model." A key item to keep in mind is that the animal should have enough room to stand, turn, and lie down naturally.

Most carriers are made of hard plastic with plenty of holes for ventilation. Since no part of the animal can poke from the carrier, wire kennels aren't allowed (note soft-sided carriers can only be used in the cabin). Kennels also have to have handles, and a leak-proof, solid floor covered with absorbent lining in case of an accident. For pets in cargo, include an empty dish for food and one for water as well as feeding instructions, and attach a bag of food with enough to last 24 hours to the top of the carrier. If your pet is traveling in the cargo hold, attach information to the carrier including their name and your contact details both at home and your destination. (Even printing a temporary tag is a good idea.)

Carry Proper Health Certificates and Medication

If you're traveling internationally, you'll have to meet the animal health requirements of the country you're headed to. Visit the USDA's website for details on various countries' rules. Headed to Hawaii? Read up on their rabies quarantine guidelines. Most airlines require a health certificate, even on domestic flights. American, for example, requires that it be issued by a veterinarian within 10 days of travel. If you're crossing state borders you'll also need proof of rabies immunization.

Although it may be tempting to relax your pet with a sedative, the American Veterinary Medical Association counsels against it. Instead, plan ahead by making the kennel a relaxing place for your pet. Make sure your pet's overall health is good; if not, it may be better to leave them at home. Pack your pet's food and water dish; unfamiliar things can cause undue stress and stomach upset. It's a good ideas to include a selection of your pet's favorite toys, and bring along updated medical records, medications, collapsible food and water bowls (as a back up), plus a blanket or towel to sleep on. If you need to fly but don't want to risk cargo, keep this in mind too: Pet Airways flies animals in their main cabin.


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