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Flying the Pet-Friendly Skies

A veterinarian’s essential advice when traveling with animal companions

by Dr. Amy Attas

June 4, 2024

Dr. Amy Attas / Illustration: Joel Kimmel

Many of the 87 million American homes who have pets consider them true family members and will even travel by airplane with them. Although industry-wide statistics aren’t available, Delta Air Lines alone reports approximately 500,000 pets on flights each year. Air travel with pets requires a great deal of preparation, and it is up to the owner to get it right, as there is no central checklist for what you need to comply with regulations.

A few years ago, I flew from Chicago to New York with my newly rescued adult pug, Hermite. Because this breed can suffer from respiratory issues, I brought cooling towels to place in her carrier and even a battery-operated fan that I used throughout the flight to help cool her down when she overheated. I recommend doing lots of visual checks during the flight, using a flashlight, and addressing any issues until the pet eventually calms down.

Commercial airlines permit small dogs and cats to accompany a passenger in the cabin, while larger animals must travel in the cargo section. Although the specifics vary between airlines, there are some general rules.

All nonservice animals must be in a carrier while in the airport and on the plane. For pets traveling in the cabin, there are size restrictions for the animals and requirements for their carriers. Pets must be small enough to fit comfortably in a carrier and be able to move about inside without touching or sticking out from the sides. If the pet is traveling in a soft-sided bag, the bag must be leakproof and have ventilation on three sides for domestic travel and four sides for international flights.

All carriers must fit underneath the seat in front of the accompanying passenger and may not have a maximum dimension greater than 18” x 11” x 11”. It is the traveler’s obligation to know the specific aircraft model and confirm that the carrier is appropriate. Often airlines will ask for the carrier’s dimensions when the pet’s ticket is booked to prevent day-of-travel problems.

There is a charge to bring a pet in the passenger section, approximately $100. It is wise to book a pet’s travel early. Large pets must travel in hard plastic kennels that will be The pet’s name, owner’s name, phone number and destination address should be written in indelible ink on the sides of the carrier. The carrier should contain absorbent bedding on the bottom and a familiar-smelling item of the owner’s clothing and a favorite toy. The fee for a pet in cargo is determined based on the size and weight of the pet in the crate and the flight’s destination. All passengers traveling with pets in cargo must check in personally, and it is important to leave time to do so.

Travelers with pets should choose a destination that can be reached with a nonstop itinerary. If this is not possible and the pet must travel in cargo, an overnight layover should be considered. This allows the pet to eat and relieve itself comfortably. Travelers might consider driving the remaining distance to the final destination rather than having pets transferred to a regional flight. If these are not  placed in the cargo hold. practical options, it is best to choose the itinerary with the fewest stops.

Most airlines require certification within ten days of flight that specifies that the pet is free of infectious diseases and in good health to travel by airplane. Certain destinations require up-to-date vaccinations, and certification must be presented to the airline before travel. International destinations require vaccinations and country-specific permits that must be applied for by an accredited USDA veterinarian. The permit turnaround can take days to weeks, so it is best to start the process with your veterinarian as early as possible.

Discuss with your veterinarian if your pet is healthy enough to fly and whether any medications are recommended. Obtain an electronic copy of your pet’s medical record and locate a veterinary hospital in the final destination in case there are concerns after the flight or if your pet becomes sick while away. Travelers should keep their pet’s medications and a supply of food with them on board in case the flight is delayed.

Dr. Amy Attas is an award-winning veterinarian and the founder of City Pets, which for more than three decades has been the premier veterinary medical house-call practice for dogs and cats living in or visiting Manhattan. Her book, Pets and the City, is available this month. She shares a home with her husband, Stephen Shapiro, and if she is lucky, some rescued pugs.