Flying With Dogs: The Not-So-Friendly Skies

Unless a dog is small enough to take on board, air travel is risky.

Commercial airlines are not deliberately cruel or even particularly careless when it comes to shipping dogs; they just aren't set up to deal with pets efficiently. Unless a dog is small enough to carry on board the plane, air travel is risky.

The basic problem is that to an airline, your pet is just an especially bothersome piece of baggage. And as everyone knows, baggage slip-ups are inevitable. When a mistake means your luggage goes to Minneapolis while you go to Atlanta, you'll survive the inconvenience. But if your dog goes to the wrong city or is forgotten on a luggage carousel, it may not.

Special rules for assistance dogs.  Assistance dogs travel with their owners, in the airliner's cabin.

The Problems With Flying

A lot of things can go wrong when a dog goes on a commercial flight. Most problems occur on the ground, not during a flight. Here are some of the more common problems:

  • The dog escapes from a cage. This can lead to tragic results, as it did in 1988 for a small dog named Loekie. Loekie, on a TWA flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, got out of his cage during a stopover in St. Louis. The dog was killed by a car on an airport road.
  • The cage gets tipped or crushed during transport. Sturdy travel kennels alleviate this problem to some degree, but mishandling—for example, putting a pet carrier on a regular baggage carousel—can toss an animal around.
  • The plane is delayed on the ground, with the dog in it. During flight, the cargo area in which pets travel is pressurized, and the temperature is controlled. But on the ground, no fresh air gets in, and the temperature can fluctuate dramatically in a short time.
  • Baggage handlers remove the dog from the plane during a stopover and then forget to load it on again. Animals are shipped in a compartment near the door of the plane where baggage is loaded. They may be removed during a stopover (so that other baggage can be unloaded more easily) and inadvertently not reloaded.
  • The dog is shipped to the wrong place. Because few airports are equipped to handle animals well, a dog flown to the wrong destination can have a bad or even life-threatening experience waiting for another flight or for you to show up and claim it.
  • The dog is left in the heat, cold, or rain. Many airlines don’t accept pets during the summer, and federal regulations prohibit shipping animals if they will be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees for more than four hours.
  • The dog is left unattended, without food or water, in a "lost luggage" area. Because most airlines don't have special places for live animals, employees care for dogs as best they can. But if a dog is scared and snappish, as it may well be, it may get little care. Employees may not even know a pet is there.

Even if you plan carefully and everything goes as planned, air travel is frightening and stressful for a dog. And you often can't cope with problems as they come up, because you and your dog are separated during the critical times.

Airlines are required to report any incident involving an animal who is injured, lost, or killed to the Secretary of Transportation. You can read the reports in  the Department of Transportation's monthly publication, Air Travel Consumer Reports,  Very few problems are reported.

How Dogs Travel on Airlines

There are three ways an animal may fly on a commercial plane:

  • with you in the passenger cabin
  • as checked baggage, or
  • as cargo.

The American Kennel Club provides a summary of airline animal shipping policies.

With You in the Cabin

If your dog is tiny enough—generally under 20 pounds—to be comfortable in a pet carrier that fits under an airline seat, you can take it on the plane with you. This is by far the best way to fly with your dog. You can find out the exact measurements of the under-seat space from the airline. Many airlines will rent or sell you a kennel that will fit.

Most airlines allow only a few animals in the cabin per flight, and some don’t allow any in the business section. So don't just show up with your dog; make arrangements when you buy your own ticket. Most airlines charge about $125 for the animal's one-way fare, regardless of destination.

On Your Flight as Checked Baggage

If you're traveling with your dog, some airlines will allow the dog to travel as checked baggage. The fee will probably be about $250 for a domestic flight, no matter what the destination. Some airlines base their charge on the dog's size or weight.

The dog travels on the same plane you do, in a cargo compartment that's pressurized, lighted, and heated. It's where fragile items (flowers and musical instruments, for example) travel, according to airline officials. Notify the airline in advance that you want to ship a dog as baggage. A plane will only carry a few animals, and certain items—things being kept cold with dry ice, for example—can't be put into the compartment with live animals.

Common restrictions include:

  • Summer travel. Most major carriers won’t take dogs as baggage during the summer months, however.
  • Breed bans. Some airlines refuse to transport short-nosed breeds such as bulldogs, pugs, and Lhasa Apsos, either all year or during the summer.
  • Health. Many airlines require a recent veterinarian's certificate, saying that the dog is healthy and has had a rabies vaccination, before they will accept it as checked baggage. You must present the certificate when you check in with the dog before your flight.
  • Size. Generally, a dog and carrier that together weigh over 100 pounds (a large carrier weighs about 25 to 30 pounds) must go as air freight instead of baggage. That means if you have an extra-large dog, you may have to pay an extra-large price to ship it.

Alone as Cargo

If you're not traveling with your dog, or if your dog is too big to ship as checked baggage, or the airline doesn't accept pets as baggage, the only alternative may be air freight. It's a poor option, for lots of reasons. First of all, it is tremendously expensive. Think of it as sending an overnight mail letter that weighs 100 pounds or so.

Additional regulations may apply to dogs shipped as cargo. For example, you may need a health certificate signed by a veterinarian and rabies vaccination certificate.

Advice for Air Travelers

If you must ship a dog, it's up to you to make sure the dog is on the plane every time you take off. Ask a flight attendant for confirmation from the baggage handlers that the dog is on board—or talk to the baggage people yourself. If there's an extended delay, ask that the dog be taken off the plane. Be polite, but be persistent.

If you can, book a nonstop flight, even if it means choosing a less convenient schedule or airport. Most problems occur in airports, not during flights. Missed connections are a prime source of complications when you're shipping a dog; if you can't get a nonstop, make sure there is enough time between flights to get all the baggage loaded on the connecting flight. You can also do valuable research on how often a certain flight is delayed; statistics are available from the airline customer service representatives. Avoiding peak times (holiday weekends, for example) may also get you more cooperation from airline personnel. During hot weather, avoid flights in the hottest part of the day. During cold weather, try to schedule a stopover in a southern city instead of a cold northern one.

Be sure to get a well-made kennel. Don’t use kennels that use wing nuts to attach the top and bottom; they can come off because of the vibration of the plane. You may also want to put a note on the outside of your dog's cage. The note should include the dog's name, your name, destination, flight numbers, and any special instructions or cautions.

Don't feed your animal for six hours before the flight, but make sure the dog will have access to water. One way is to freeze water in a plastic container; as the ice melts, water will be available but won’t spill.

Your dog should be wearing an identification tag—with your home address and your destination, including a phone number where you can be reached. (You may also want to consider permanent identification, such as having an identification number tattooed on your dog or injected on a microchip.)

What about mildly tranquilizing your dog? The answer depends on the dog's temperament, health, and metabolism. Tranquilized dogs may be more susceptible to breathing problems, especially if they get overheated. And tranquilizers slow down an animal's metabolism, which is also affected by the change in pressure during flight. A less drastic alternative is motion sickness medication, which a veterinarian can prescribe. Talk to a vet who's familiar with your animal before you decide.

Checklist for Air Travel

  • Book the most direct and reliable flight, nonstop if at all possible.
  • Tell the airline know you're bringing an animal, and know all the airline's rules.
  • Get health or vaccination certificates, if necessary.
  • Get a kennel big enough for the dog to stand up, lie down, and turn around in comfortably (required by USDA regulations), and is sturdy and well ventilated. Line the bottom with shredded paper or other absorbent material.
  • Securely attach your name, contact information, and any special instructions to the outside and inside of the kennel.
  • Label the kennel "Live Animal" and "This End Up" in letters at least an inch high.
  • Put an identification tag and a snug but comfortable collar (not a chain collar, which could get caught on something) on the dog.
  • Get adequate liability coverage for your dog from the airline or an outside insurer.

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