Flying With Your Pet FAQ

Air travel for animals can be tricky and dangerous business, so it is important to know what the law, the airlines, and veterinarians recommend.

What steps should I take prior to a flight to make sure my pet's trip goes smoothly and safely?

There are many things you must and can do to keep your pet safe. Here are the basics.

Have your pet examined by a veterinarian. Most airlines require that you provide a health certificate from a veterinarian stating that he or she has examined your pet and approved the animal for the flight. Usually, the certificate must be issued within ten days of the plane trip.

Communicate with your airline. Each airline handles animal travel differently, so you should make sure you know what your airline will expect of you, the pet owner. If your pet is traveling to an international destination, be sure to tell the airline that fact when you call for information about pet travel. Some airlines have additional and more stringent requirements for international travel. These rules may require additional ventilation and labeling, and a shipper's certification.

Plan your trip with your pet in mind. In the summer, choose early morning or evening flights to avoid extremely hot temperatures. In the winter, choose daytime flights to avoid extremely cold temperatures. Try to book a nonstop flight for your pet to avoid accidental transfers or delays. Don't travel during heavy traffic times such as weekends or holidays.

If your pet is traveling to an international destination, contact that appropriate embassy or consulate. You should do this at least four weeks in advance to learn about quarantine or health requirements for arriving pets. Hawaii and U.S. territories also have quarantine and health requirements that you should learn about.

Purchase the appropriate travel kennel for your pet as far in advance of the trip as possible. Get your pet acquainted with the kennel by keeping the kennel in the house with the kennel door open. Try to get your pet to sleep in the kennel or eat there prior to the trip. (See Kennel Regulations, below, for rules governing travel kennels.)

Make sure your pet's toenails are clipped. You don't want them to get hooked on the carrier door or other openings.

Take a photograph of your pet. You will want to have a current photograph with you in case airline personnel lose your pet.

Purchase a sturdy collar for your pet with two identification tags. On one tag, write your pet's name, your name, home address and home phone number. On the other tag, write your destination address and phone number. Make sure the collar and tags cannot get hooked on metal grates or other parts of the kennel during flight. Veterinarians recommend breakaway collars for cats.

Feed and offer water to your pet four hours before the flight. Federal law requires you to do this. Don't allow your pet to overeat, however. Veterinarians recommend against having pets travel on a full stomach.

Arrive early, but not too early.Leave plenty of time so you aren't rushed. But, don't arrive too early -- you cannot turn your pet over to the airline more than four hours before the flight.

Exercise your pet before handing your pet over to the airline. This will help your pet to be more comfortable during the trip.

Can my pet travel in the cabin of the airplane, rather than in the cargo hold?

Most likely. When a pet travels in the cabin, the airlines call the pet "accompanied baggage." If you want your pet to travel in the cabin as accompanied baggage, you must be a passenger traveling on the same flight as your pet. Most airlines place a limit on the number of pets allowed in the cabin, so make sure you inform the airline when you make your reservation that you want to bring your pet on board with you. At that time, ask for the airline's rules on pet travel, including the recommended dimensions of your pet's carrier and the types of pets the airline will allow in the cabin.

Just because the airline allows you to travel with your pet, that doesn't mean that you can spend the flight playing fetch. Federal law prohibits you from taking your pet out of the carrier while you are in the plane's cabin.

What does the law require me to do if my pet is going to travel in the plane's cargo hold?

The goal of the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is to keep your pet as safe and as comfortable as possible during what will be a stressful and possibly frightening experience. To that end, the Service and its parent, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have established a number of regulations that you must follow when transporting your pet in a plane's cargo hold. These regulations are designed to keep your pet -- and the airline personnel who will be caring for your pet -- safe and healthy.  

Kennel Regulations

In order to travel in the plane's cargo hold, your pet must travel in a kennel that meets the following requirements (most pet stores and airlines sell kennels that meet these requirements):

Kennel Size and Strength. The kennel must be big enough for your pet to stand, sit and lie in a natural position. The kennel must be easy for airline personnel to open (latch the kennel door, but do not lock it!) in case of an emergency, and it must be strong enough to withstand the rigors of transportation. Make sure that the kennel is free of any objects that might injure your pet during the loading process or in flight.

Kennel Floor. Your pet's kennel must have a solid leakproof floor. Although the regulations allow for wire or other types of ventilated subfloors, they prohibit pegboard floors. Be sure to cover the kennel's floor with litter or some other absorbent lining.

Kennel Ventilation. Obviously, your animal must be able to breathe freely and comfortably during the flight. Therefore, the regulations are quite specific as to how much ventilation your pet's kennel must provide. The ventilation openings must take up at least 14% of the total wall space of the kennel. At least one-third of the openings much be located in the top half of the kennel. The kennel must have rims -- usually on the sides -- to prevent the ventilation openings from being blocked by other cargo. These rims must provide for at least three-quarters of an inch clearance.

Grips. There must be grips or handles on the kennel so that airline personnel can lift the kennel without having to place their fingers inside the kennel, where they might get bitten by an anxious and frightened pet.

Markings. Your pet's kennel must be marked so that airline personnel know that it contains a live animal. Writing the words "live animals" or "wild animals" on the top and one side of the kennel will do the trick. The lettering must be at least one inch high. Also, draw directional arrows on the kennel to show which side is up. Although the law does not require you to put your name, address and phone number on the kennel, it is a good idea to do so. You should also put the address of your travel destination if it is different from your home address.

Food and Water Regulations

Regardless of how long or short the flight is scheduled to be, you must provide airline personnel with written instructions for feeding and watering your pet over a 24-hour period. This is because the flight may be delayed or your animal may be diverted from its original destination. You must attach these instructions to the kennel. Also, you must securely attach food and water dishes to the kennel in such a way that caretakers can access the dishes without opening the kennel door. Attach a bag containing food to the outside of the kennel.

Federal regulations require airline personnel to provide food and water to puppies and kittens that are between 8 and 16 weeks of age every 12 hours. Airline personnel must give food to older animals every 24 hours, and they must give water to older animals every 12 hours.

More Information About Pets and Air Travel

To learn more about how to transport your pet by airplane, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 800-545-USDA. For an up-to-date practical guide to the legal issues that affect dogs, their owners and their neighbors, read Every Dog's Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book for Your Owner, by Mary Randolph (Nolo)

How do I know if air travel is appropriate for my pet?

Not all pets can or should travel by plane. Air travel is stressful for pets, so you should consider a number of factors before deciding to transport your pet on an airplane, including your pet's disposition, age, breed and health.

Heat or Pregnancy. Animals who are in heat or who are pregnant should not travel by plane.

Age. Federal law requires that animals be at least eight weeks old and fully weaned (meaning weaned for at least five days) before they travel in the cargo hold of a plane. Although the law does not say so, veterinarians generally recommend against putting elderly pets through the discomfort of air travel.

Breed. Pug-nosed animals should never travel in the cargo hold of a plane. This is because of the structure of their faces, which may inhibit their breathing during air travel. If your dog is of one of the breeds listed below, be sure to discuss the issue with your veterinarian and with the airline. Many airlines will not accept pug-nosed animals for air travel, including:

  • American Staffordshire
  • English Toy Spaniel
  • Dutch Pug
  • Shih Tzu
  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  • Brussels Griffin
  • Pekinese
  • Boston Terrier
  • English Bulldog
  • French Bulldog
  • Japanese Pug, and
  • Japanese Spaniel.

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