The Expert’s Guide to Flying With Your Pets

The Expert’s Guide to Flying With Your PetsNow more than ever before, our pets are a huge part of our families. Because of this love affair with our ‘fur babies’, fewer people want to leave their babies behind when they travel. As a result, we are seeing a large number of people bringing their pets along during domestic and international trips, whether it be for vacation or relocation.

As accredited (officially recognized/authorized) veterinarians with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), we are trained in writing domestic and international health certificates and are well versed in the individual country and state requirements for pet travel/importation. Below is a summary of important points to keep in mind when flying with your furry co-pilot.

1. Start Planning Early

If you have decided to take your pet with you on your next vacation, or if you are relocating to a new state or country, the first and best piece of advice we can give you is to start planning EARLY. Begin by contacting your family veterinarian and your selected airline to determine exactly what it is you need to do for your pet to fly with you. Never leave anything until the last minute or you may end up having to temporarily leave your furry friend behind.

2. Do your research

We recommend that all pet owners who are traveling with their animals do their research. Different countries have varying rules and regulations in regards to the importation/travel of pets through their borders – from specific vaccinations and worming treatments to import certificates. The UDSA has an easy-to-use pet travel website with all the information in regards to specific countries, states and animals.

The veterinarians at AirHeart Pet Hospital always refer to this site for up-to-date information. Got questions? We prepare pets to travel all over the world every day and are happy to help you with any questions or concerns you may have.

3. Make an Appointment

Anytime you are traveling with a pet on an airplane, whether it is international or domestic travel, you will be required to produce a health certificate that is issued by a USDA-accredited veterinarian. Not every veterinarian is accredited. Becoming a USDA-accredited veterinarian requires specific training so be sure to ask your veterinarian if he or she is able to issue a health certificate for your pet.

Make an appointment as soon as possible with your accredited veterinarian and with the USDA. Most international destinations require that the USDA APHIS Veterinary Services office endorse the veterinary health certificate issued by your veterinarian. However, they have strict guidelines as to when you can book appointments for endorsements and you may be turned away without a scheduled appointment.

4. Ensure you have the right crate

There are strict regulations on the types of carriers that are allowed for pet travel. This includes the material they are constructed from, the size, weight, and even how much ventilation it has. Make sure your crate meets the standard with your airline’s rules and regulations. If you book your pet’s travel through a pet travel company, they may supply the appropriate crate for you.

5. Make sure Fido fits

It’s important to measure your pet and make sure Fido or Fluffy can fit comfortably in their crates. A crate that is too big may result in your pet being tossed around during any turbulence, and a crate that is too small can leave your pet feeling cramped and uncomfortable, especially on a long journey. Crates that are too small may also hinder your pet’s ability to reach the water bottle and pets may get scratches or scrapes from constantly being in contact with the edges of the crate.

Most airlines provide information online with the size of crate recommended for your pet based on measurements (including height, weight and width) and suggestions on how to accurately measure your pet. You may be denied onto your flight (or your pet will be) if their crate size is inappropriate.

6. Don’t overpack Fido’s suitcase

Check with your airline about what is and isn’t allowed inside the crate, particularly if your pet is not flying with you in the cabin. As pet owners, we often like to place our pet’s favorite blanket or toy inside the crate as a comfort. However, as much as this makes us feel better about being separated from our furry friends, these items can pose a risk during transit. Pets may choke, become tangled in, or accidentally ingest these ‘foreign’ objects, resulting in injuries or even fatalities. Ideally, the fewer number of items in the crate the better. However, you may wish to pack your pets a separate bag if they are flying in the cabin with you to ensure you have everything needed during the flight.

For pets not traveling in the cabin with you, we recommend taping an extra water bottle to the crate, as well as additional kibble in a zip lock storage bag. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that your pets will be fed in transit if they are traveling in the cargo hold. We will discuss this in a future article on Traveling Pets as Cargo vs. Excess Baggage in the coming months.

Following the above guidelines will help your pet to feel more at ease during travel, which can be a stressful time for everyone involved.

7. Pheromones

If you feel that your pet needs a ‘calming’ influence while traveling, you may want to consider pheromones. These are chemical substances produced and released into the environment by an animal when they feel safe and secure. Pheromone products mimic these substances with the idea that they will help a pet feel comfortable in stressful situations, such as traveling. Pheromones come in all different formulations and you may wish to spray or wipe down your pet’s carrier prior to travel to help them feel more relaxed.

8. Prepare your pet for the journey

If your pet will be flying in cargo rather than onboard with you, be sure to get your pet acclimated and comfortable in his or her crate beforehand. For pets that are already crate trained, this will be easy. For pets that are not, a crate needs to be seen as a safe space to go and relax. We recommend starting this process as soon as possible and for as long as possible prior to travel. Here are some basic guidelines to help with the gradual introduction of the crate:

  • Introduce your pet to the idea of the crate slowly. Place the crate in a central area in your house where your pet is able to see, approach, and smell the crate at a leisurely pace and without force. Get your pet used to the crate as if it was a new piece of furniture. Don’t make a fuss over it or force your pet into it straight away; this will cause your pet to develop a fear of the crate and create many problems in the future.
  • Feed your pet near the crate and slowly move the food bowl until it is at the entrance of the crate. The goal is to eventually move the food dish inside the crate. This will develop positive reinforcement and teach your pet that the crate is not a bad thing.
  • Place one of your pets’ favorite blankets/beds within the crate and leave the door open. When your pet is ready, he can choose to enter the crate and curl up for a nap. By doing so you are helping to associate the crate with a positive, safe environment.

9. Does Fido need his daily meds?

If your pet takes prescription medications, make sure you have arranged in advance to have enough medication for your journey prior to takeoff. Many veterinarians who are not familiar with your pet will not simply refill a prescription from another veterinarian for state and federal reasons; and the veterinarian at the other end of your trip may require a complete exam and further diagnostics before doing so. Therefore, call your pet’s primary veterinarian well in advance of your travel (not 24 hours before) for medications, especially if blood tests to monitor medication levels are required prior to being given additional refills.

10. Give yourself plenty of time

We cannot stress enough the importance of extra time when traveling. Be sure to get to the scheduled drop off point for your pet several hours in advance. Many airlines require that pets be checked in up to 4 hours prior to their flights. Be sure to ask your individual airline for specific timing requirements.

Being early is not a waste of time. You never know when an unforeseen issue may crop up that needs to be resolved at the last minute. The gift of extra time may mean the difference between you and your pet making or missing your flight.

Dr. Stephanie Austin received her Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in Veterinary Technology from the University of Queensland, Australia, and then attended Murdoch University where she received her Bachelors of Veterinary Biology and Masters of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery. Following an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group, she now works at AirHeart Pet Hospital, a general and urgent care veterinary hospital located inside The ARK at JFK. Dr. Austin’s special interests include emergency and critical care, anesthesiology and neurology as well as equine medicine.


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