Traveling with dogs

17 Things You Need to Know Before Putting Your Dog on a Plane

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I’ve talked about transporting dogs by air before, in Flying the Pet Friendly Skies, which was kind of a brief rundown of how dogs are handled when they travel on planes as baggage or cargo. So why am I going back to it now? Because I think there’s more to be said than I dealt with in that brief post, and because my mind has been taken back to the issue recently.

Regular readers will remember me talking about Al and his Saint Bernard, Hannah. Sadly, Hannah passed recently, and Al has been utterly bereft. On a happier note, though, Al now has another Saint in his life. Hannah was a rescue, so Al wanted to give back to another dog in the same way, and after investigating several options, he found another rescue Saint that spoke to his heart. Otis is just 9 months old, and already a very big boy! Getting Otis to Al, though, wasn’t easy. The rescue facility was about 2,000 miles away, and it simply wasn’t practical for Al to drive all that distance. So, reluctantly, he agreed to have Otis transported by air.

Then the airline, which will remain nameless to protect the guilty, lost Otis.

How in Hell Do You Lose Something the Size of a Saint Bernard?

I know, right? But they managed it. I’m not really sure how it happened, and neither is Al, since he feels he pretty much got the runaround from the airline, but what did happen was that somehow Otis ended up in (I kid you not) London instead of the good old US of A, and airport personnel there wanted to quarantine him for six months pending pickup! It took tons of phone calls, and threats to sue, before the rocket scientists at Heathrow saw the error of their ways and put Otis on a plane to where he was supposed to go in the first place.

Now, maybe this sounds like an extreme case, but I’m not so sure. Once I heard Al’s story, I started doing a bit more research on the things that can go wrong when dogs are shipped by air, and what I discovered was pretty awful.

The Worst Airline

I found horror stories involving each and every major airline, but one airline really stood out – Delta. This airline has had the highest number of pet deaths over the past ten years of any airline, according to US DOT statistics reported in Market Watch. Delta has recorded the deaths of 74 pets during that time period. Now sure, Delta ships a lot of pets, and pets are sometimes going to die in-flight, the same way that people sometimes will. But here’s what’s sobering – there are 19 major airlines operating in the United States, and Delta is responsible for 25% of pet deaths in-flight, Oh, and never mind deaths – Delta has also lost 14 pets. And by lost, I mean lost – as in no one knows, or will ever know, where those pets ended up or what happened to them.

Listen, losing your luggage is bad enough, but losing your dog? So before I go any further with this, let me just say that if you don’t absolutely have to transport an animal by air, find another way. If you have no choice, though, here are the 17 things you need to know to improve the chances of safe, stress-free air transport for your dog.

1. Take Your Dog In-Cabin if Possible

Airlines transport dogs in one of three ways – small dogs (those that will fit in a carrier that goes under the seat) can travel in the cabin of the aircraft, with their person. If the dog is too big for the cabin, he may be able to travel as checked baggage, in the cargo hold. Dogs that are not accompanied by a person are shipped as cargo (as Otis was).

There is no guarantee that an airline won’t lose your baggage dog. And if you’re not actually travelling with the dog (as Al wasn’t), then you don’t have the advantage of being immediately able to say, upon deplaning, “Where’s my dog?” Time is lost.

Al wishes that he’d taken a flight out to pick up Otis and another to bring him back. He went through a hugely stressful experience, and he believes that if he’d been on the plane when Otis was in cargo, he might have been able to deal with matters before Otis ended up across the pond.

2. Know That Size Doesn’t Necessarily Matter

Don’t assume that you can have even a small dog in-cabin. There’s no consistency across airlines when it comes to the rules. The cut-off for crate height size, for instance, can vary widely across various airlines, from a maximum of 11 inches to 19 inches. There can also be restrictions on the weight of the dog. Also, cargo facility personnel are the final authority when it comes to what they’ll accept – if they think that the crate is too small for your dog, they can refuse to ship, and there are no “across the board” guidelines – a cargo facility manager who is on duty one day might say “Nope, the crate’s too small,” whereas the one who’s on duty the next day could very well say “That’s just fine.” And you will have no avenue of appeal whatsoever.

3. Know the Federal Regulations

One area in which the rules are hard, fast, and verifiable is when it comes to the age of a dog that can be transported.  Federal law requires that any dog travelling by air be at least eight weeks of age, and must have been fully weaned five days before the flight. Don’t even think of asking for an exemption – you can bring all manner of letters from your veterinarian stating that the puppy will be just fine on the flight, and it will make no difference whatsoever. The law is the law.

4. Communicate When You Buy Your Ticket

When you buy your airline ticket, no one is going to ask you if you are bringing a pet – you have to tell them. So, you buy your ticket, and then you inform the airline that your dog will be travelling with you. Keep in mind, though, that this will not necessarily guarantee your dog a place on the flight you’ve chosen. There’s always a chance that the flight is over-booked when it comes to pets, and that means that you’ll have to take another flight. The airline won’t charge you a “change fee,” but if the flight you’re moving to costs more than the one you booked, you will be expected to pay the extra cost. To avoid this problem, book early.

5. Make Sure Your Dog Has a Health Certificate

Whether you’re traveling as a passenger with your dog, or shipping your dog unaccompanied, you will have to provide a health certificate. Most airlines require a veterinary examination no older than ten days before your flight for international travel, and sometimes for domestic travel as well. It is also wise to get in touch with the airline to find out what vaccinations are going to be required.

6. Make Sure to Practice

Assuming that you’ve purchased your ticket, and also made arrangements for your dog, you should practice getting your dog ready to fly. If you’re taking him in-cabin, you don’t want to annoy your fellow passengers with crying and fidgeting, so get your dog used to the carrier well in advance. This is even more important if your dog is flying in the cargo hold – there won’t be any passengers down there for him to annoy, but if he’s not accustomed to being in a crate, you’re going to have to get him used to it. Put him in the crate with toys, food and water for a few minutes several times throughout the day, increasing the time spent in the crate as time progresses. Then, begin removing the food, water and toys gradually, because he will not be allowed them in the cargo hold.

Once your dog is comfortable in the crate, experiment with moving it around, and introducing various sounds. You don’t want him to be stressed by unfamiliar noises while on the flight, so switch it up. Bang on the crate, scrape your hands along the sides, and just generally change the experience so that the dog gets used to a variety of different stimuli.

Practice having your dog enter and exit the crate. Try to do this in a variety of different settings – indoors and outdoors, in bright and dim light, and so on. When he goes in and out calmly, reward him with a treat.

7. Look After the Physical Issues

Remember that a dog who is flying may be agitated, and may try to escape the crate. So make sure that his nails are clipped – you don’t want him to tear a nail scrabbling at the door of the crate, and end up bleeding.

8. Make Sure Your Dog is Properly Identified

Your dog should always be wearing identification with your contact number on it. It doesn’t happen often, but there have been cases where panicked dogs have escaped their crates and headed off down the runway. If this happens, you want to be assured that you’ll get him back. You might also consider microchipping.

9. Withhold Food and Water

Six hours prior to your flight, you should stop feeding and watering your dog. The last thing you want is for him to defecate, urinate, or vomit in the crate. Airline staff won’t mind – they see it happen all the time. But dogs don’t like to mess where they sleep, and doing so could just add to what is already going to be, no matter how well you prepare for it, a stressful experience.

The exception to this would be toy breeds and young puppies. In such cases, if you withhold food and water, you could end up with a dog who experiences hypoglycemia. He could end up with muscle weakness, tremors, staggering, or seizures. He could go into a coma, and could even die.

With puppies and toy breeds, too, avoid vigorous play before the flight. It’s better that they rest, since exhaustion during the flight can also lead to harmful medical issues.

10. Start Early

On the day of the flight, make sure that you have allowed enough time for a potty break. Then, once you get to the airport, give your dog another opportunity to pee and poo before finally putting him in his crate.

11. Know When to Say “No.”

Here’s the scenario – you’ve bought your ticket, arranged for your dog to travel on the same flight as you, and then you’re told “Oops, we made a mistake – we actually don’t have room in the cabin, so your dog is going to have to travel in the cargo hold.”

Just say NO.

You had a reservation, the airline told you that your dog could travel in the cabin, and you should insist on a no-fee re-ticketing on another flight. With an upgrade, I might add.

On the other hand, I’m not suggesting that you be totally unreasonable. If you’re on a short flight, and you’re confident that your dog will be fine in the cargo hold, you might just want to smile politely and live with it. Provided, of course, that they upgrade you.

12. Don’t Break the Rules

I remember the last time I flew – it was a long time ago, because I don’t fly well. I’m firmly convinced that the pilot on my plane is probably the one who graduated at the bottom of his class, and I’m equally convinced that if I stop pulling up on the armrests, the plane will plummet into the ocean or onto the ground like so much lead. So, flights are invariably stressful for me, and this one was made even worse by a blue-haired old lady who took her little dog (I don’t know the breed – just some sort of rodent, I guess) out of the under-seat carrier in mid-flight.

“Oh, but he’s such a little sweetheart, and no trouble to anyone,” she proclaimed, as the rat-like creature proceeded to crap on my shoes.

Being the patient, kind-hearted soul that I am, I asked the flight attendant for a towel and asked my seatmate to “please put that little wretch back in his doggie prison.”

Here’s the thing. No one. And I mean no one, not even a dog-lover like me, wants to see dogs running around the passenger cabin, making their little deposits and generally making what is already a very unpleasant experience even worse. The rules are in place for the comfort of your fellow passengers, so obey them.

13. Don’t Tranquilize

In this matter, you might not even have a choice. Some airlines won’t accept a tranquilized dog, and some even require that you provide a statement from your veterinarian to the effect that no tranquilizers have been administered to the dog.

There are good reasons for this. First of all, it can be difficult for airport staff to make the distinction between a dog that is tranquilized and one that is ill. For another thing, if your dog is tranquilized, and the plane hits turbulence, the dog could be too sedated to be able to brace himself against the inevitable bouncing around. And finally, it’s not usually necessary – if you prepare your dog adequately for the flight, introducing him to his crate and to different noises and disruptions, he’ll just roll with it without the need for tranquilizing.

14. Flight if Necessary, But Not Necessarily Flight

Would I fly Janice or Leroy? No. For one thing, Boxers are brachycephalic dogs (they have short noses that can lead to breathing difficulties, which can be aggravated in a cargo hold). There have also been a lot of reports lately of dogs who have gotten loose in cargo holds, or worse, have escaped on the ground. Injuries have frequently resulted.

You have probably heard that you are safer flying in an aircraft than you are driving your car, and that’s probably true. But you’re not travelling in a cargo hold, and you’re not being transported from plane to cargo building on a baggage cart. If you think that air travel is 100% safe for your dog, you only have to look at the restrictions that airlines place on pet shipping. They won’t ship along certain routes, or with too many connections, or during certain times of the year. Some airlines won’t even transport pets under any circumstances. That’s because they know that things can go wrong.

15. Consider Other Options

Before putting your dog on a commercial flight, think about other possibilities. You might consider a charter flight, where even big dogs are permitted in the cabin. Sure, it’s going to be expensive, but what price are you putting on love? There are also several services that will transport your pet by ground. And of course, if at all possible, you could drive, even if it means renting a car.

16. Do the Following if You Absolutely Must Ship By Air

Consider the risk level. If you have a dog with health issues, who is old or obese, or very young, or brachycephalic, then you need to know that those dogs are at a higher risk when it comes to travelling by air.

Never transport a dog in very cold or very hot weather. Most of the time, the airline will make this decision for you, telling you that it is not safe to ship your dog. If that happens, take them at their word and don’t try to work around it. For one thing, the airline is not going to allow you to sign anything saying “I’ll take my chances,” and for another, why would you want them to?

Always choose the most direct route, and the shortest flight time. Again, most of the time, the airline will take care of this for you, but mistakes can be made. So always ask about routing and travel time.

Choose the strongest possible crate, and ask the airline about their requirements. Don’t try to re-think the crate requirements. Ask the airline what they want, and give them what they ask for – otherwise, they’re just going to refuse to take your dog.

17. Chill Out

If you must ship your dog by air, you’re just going to have to sit back and relax. Notwithstanding the problems that can occur, no airline is going to deliberately try to harm your dog. So if you do have to send your dog from Point A to Point B on an airplane, try to stay calm. Airlines ship dogs every single day, and it is very rare that anything goes wrong. The numbers I gave you in the introduction might seem troublesome, but in the grand scheme of things, they don’t add up to a whole lot of dogs that are lost or harmed. I know that this doesn’t mean much when we’re talking about your dog, but I think that most of the time it’s safe to send dogs by air.

Conclusion

That said, would I do it? Not in this lifetime. I’d drive across the country, and maybe even consider walking, before I ever put Janice or Leroy on a plane. But that’s just me. I’m obsessive, and I admit it. Take that in the context, though, that I’d also rather crawl 4,000 miles over broken glass, sick with the flu, in my underwear, than get on a plane. So I might not be the most reliable source when it comes to advising you as to whether or not you should fly your dog.

I think what I’m telling you is that it’s probably okay to put your dog on an airplane. But make sure to check out the airline first, and then be certain that you understand what they will and will not do for you and your dog. Additionally, it’s always best if you fly with your dog, but if you can’t, be prepared for what is going to be required of you when it comes to sending your dog as cargo.

Otis came through his flight just fine, despite the little “burp” when he ended up at Heathrow. I think most dog shipments will likely be “burp-free.”

Oh, and Al? Congratulations, big guy! Much happiness to you and Otis; you deserve it!

About the Author Ash

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