Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Photo by Charles Deluvio
Traveling by air with a pet can be a challenge. If you have a dog small enough to fit comfortably in an airline approved carrier that slides under the seat in front of you, it’s much easier. If your dog is not a service animal or small enough to travel in-cabin, you’re almost better off to drive to the destination. Placing an animal in cargo has a mountain of risks associated with it.
There are actual horror stories about the trauma animals have suffered during air travel by cargo. There was a period of time where it seemed these stories where prevalent in news headlines. Most airlines have since attempted to improve their service to animals in cargo but there are still many factors they cannot control. To begin with the stress from simply being separated from you can be devastating to a dog. Add to that the air temp which will usually be extreme to one end of the thermostat or the other and the noise of it all is a definite recipe for disaster. God forbid you should hit turbulence while flying with a pet in cargo! I can’t even imagine what goes through their minds being isolated, cold (or hot) and dealing with the deafening sounds of the jet engines accompanied by the banging and rattling of other cargo items! By the time you land, you have an animal who is a nervous wreck at best. Personally I would never recommend flying with an animal who has to be taken to cargo.
If you have a small dog, it can still be challenging, especially if the dog has never flown before and is an adult. But if he or she knows you are right there with them, it helps. The first thing you need to do is find out the airlines policy on traveling with pets. Each airline is different. They have restrictions on the types of pet, size of the pet and the number of pets allowed per carrier as well as carrier requirements. But all airlines have one common rule; the animal is NOT to be removed from the carrier while in flight. Now granted, while I was traveling with my 3 month old Chihuahua, I would stick him inside my jacket and hold him during the flight on the first 3 or 4 trips he took to help ease his nervousness. But this was all done on the down low; added attention was not what I needed! I avoided letting the person sitting next to me be aware of what I was doing, let alone any flight attendants!
Once you know the airline rules, research the airports you will be in. Pay close attention to the airports where you will have long layovers. Many airports are pet friendly enough to provide pet relief stations. You typically need someone’s assistance to reach these areas, but if the dog needs a potty break he can get one. I actually trained my dog to use puppy pads so if a pet area was not available I could take him to the rest room and put him on a puppy pad. Or while sitting at the gate I could lay down a puppy pad under my seat to help avoid unwanted accidents. Some airports tag themselves as pet friendly and will allow you to put your dog on a leash while in the terminal. Restaurants can be another challenge, but most will allow a pet in as long as it remains in the carrier and on the floor. Others are friendlier and may even be willing to provide a bowl of water. If you travel with your pet regularly you will learn where your best pet friendly options are.
If this is the first flight or first trip for your pet, do not go buy a carrier the night before and then stuff the dog in it the next day for the first time and expect to have a good trip. Buy a carrier well enough in advance that you can let the dog get used to it beforehand. Leave it in the house with the door open so he or she can explore it. Place a familiar blanket or t-shirt in it along with a toy and chew stick. Chew toys can be useful in allowing the dog a way to release nervousness. Since they will be spending multiple hours in the carrier, being comfortable and feeling secure will help the trip.
One of the best things you can do is limited what your dog eats and when; especially on the first trip or if your dog is a nervous traveler. We have one Chihuahua, my husbands, who does not travel as much as my little guy does. My husband took him on his first trip and it was a horrible experience for both of them. Not quite realizing how nervous he would be, my husband allowed him to have breakfast just before leaving. Well let’s just say there was a very stinky and messy incident which thankfully took place prior to boarding. Had the incident happened while on the plane, it would NOT have been a good scene! Limit what you give your dog to eat if he or she is not experienced with air travel. If your trip will take most of the day and you want to feed him something, feed him at least 3 hours prior to leaving for the airport. The best solution is to avoid feeding him or her until you get to your destination. If nerves do become a problem he or she won’t get hungry anyway.
Withholding food is easy enough, but withholding water is another story. You will want to be able to offer your dog a drink at least once during the trip. Nerves can cause them to get thirsty which if not satisfied leads to more stress. You can find collapsible bowls or measuring cups that work excellent for traveling. When not in use they collapse flat for easy storage. Allow enough water to keep him hydrated.
Another good trick is to actually allow for time to stop by a park before you get to the airport. Let your dog out to run off some energy and take care of business before getting to the airport. This will at the very least give him or her the opportunity to empty the bladder! Releasing some energy is good as well since it might help him or her calm down a bit once you get to the airport. If you anticipate your pet being nervous you can also check with your veterinarian about a mild sedative to help calm the nerves. Although I personally have never had any luck with this option. Your presence, along with being attentive and reassuring them that everything is ok, can often times be enough to help with the nervousness. If you are familiar with essential oils, you may be able to provide some relaxing and calming aromatherapy during the trip also.
Don’t be afraid to let people know if the pet is nervous and should be left alone. In my experience most flyers are aware of this fact and cautious about petting unfamiliar animals. Children are the biggest problem I have; not all of them have been raised to understand the boundaries of approaching unfamiliar pets. If the parent is not keeping an eye on them, they can get very excited about seeing a dog in the airport and try to pet him. If your pet is nervous, even if you do not believe they would bite someone, play it safe, politely ask people to leave him alone. The last thing you need during your trip is a stranger who has been bitten by your otherwise friendly and loving companion! Stress can have an enormous impact on their normal behavior.
With consideration to these primary concerns, some patience and understanding, you can help reduce the stress both you and your pet may experience during your first air travel trip.