How To Prepare Before Bringing Your Dog On A Plane

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison
HAWTHORNE, CA - JULY 16:  A dog sits in its crate before the southern California maiden voyage of Pe...
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

I love dogs of all sizes, but one of the real perks of having one on the small side is being able to fly with your dog in-cabin. Most airlines allow passengers to travel with small pets tucked inside carriers under the seats in front of them, and most airports have facilities of some sort to accommodate travelers with pets. If you have a small dog, this ability to fly with your pup opens up all sorts of fun possibilities: Take your dog to visit family! Take your dog on vacation! You and your pooch can become fancy, sophisticated globetrotters together, eating pizza and gelato in Italy, meditating in India, falling in love in Indones — wait, that’s just the plot of Eat, Pray, Love.

Whether you’re looking to share profoundly transformative travel experiences with your pup, or simply trying to avoid having to put your dog in a kennel when you go home for Christmas, flying with your dog in-cabin is relatively simple and easy, once you get the hang of it. The key to creating a safe and happy travel experience for both you and your dog is preparation; knowing what to expect and having everything you need organized before you get to a bustling airport will allow your flights to go as smoothly as possible.

Here’s everything you need to do before flying with your dog: (Please note that I am writing particularly about flying with a pet in-cabin. Airports and airlines have different regulations in place for people traveling with service animals).

1. Figure out if your dog is eligible to fly in-cabin.

The first thing to do is to figure out if your small dog is actually small enough to fit under an airplane seat. Size and weight restrictions vary from airline to airline, but most require that your dog and carrier together not weigh more than around 20 pounds. They also insist that your pet fit comfortably inside a carrier that can fit under the space in front of you. The dimensions of that space are slightly different from airline to airline. (United, for instance, requires that soft carriers be no larger than 18 x 11 x 11 inches, while American lists its max as 19 x 13 x 9 inches).

There are also some restrictions as to breed and age. Most U.S. airlines don’t allow puppies under eight weeks to fly in-cabin, and many have restrictions against flying with short-nosed dogs like pugs and bull dogs because of increased risk of respiratory problems in-flight. However, some airlines that don’t allow short-nosed breeds to fly in cargo will still allow owners of small dogs to take their short-nosed breeds in-cabin, so if you have a dog with a “pushed in” nose, talk to your airline — and your vet — about whether you can take your pup in the passenger area of the plane with you.

2. Visit your veterinarian.

If you’ve never flown with your dog before, visit your vet to make sure that your dog is fit to fly, especially if your dog is elderly or has serious health conditions (especially respiratory problems).

While you’re at the vet, you’ll also want to get some paperwork to take with you, particularly your dog’s vaccination record and (possibly) a health certificate. Most U.S. airlines do not require a health certificate to fly with a pet in-cabin (though they usually require one for cargo), but you should check with your airline to make sure. If you’re flying internationally, you should get a health certificate. (When a health certificate is required, there’s usually a limit to how old it can be to still be valid, so you may need to plan to take your dog to the vet within a week or so of your flight).

3. Buy your ticket, and your dog’s ticket.

Usually airlines restrict the number of dogs that can be on a plane at any given time, so it’s important to reserve your dog’s space in advance. Some airline websites will let you book space for your dog and pay your fee at the same time that you buy your ticket online; other airlines require that you call to make your pet-reservation. Fees for flying with a pet vary; in the U.S., it’s usually between $100 and $125 each way.

4. If you’re traveling internationally, look into your destination country’s rules for bringing animals across its border.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard got into major trouble last year with Australian authorities when they illegally brought their two dogs into Australia. Countries have strict animal import and quarantine laws for a reason — usually to preserve their delicate ecosystems — ­­­ so don’t try to get around them. (Hawaii has very strict rules about bringing in animals from the mainland as well). Find out what regulations are in place for bringing dogs into your destination country, and be sure to have any necessary paperwork on hand.

My own international-flying-with-a-dog experience has been limited to crossing the U.S./Canada border. Taking a dog from the U.S. into Canada is simple, with no quarantine required; if your dog is an adult, you must be able to show proof that he or she is vaccinated against rabies. Just to be on the safe side, I also travel with an up-to-date health certificate, attesting to my dog’s general good health.

5. Go carrier shopping.

Sherpa , $56, Amazon

Unless you have a very small dog, a soft-sided carrier is usually best (You can get a little more room out of a soft carrier because it’ll squish to fit under the seat). There are many different types, so shop around to see what’s best for you and your dog. Some bags, like the one below, can expand to give your dog room to stretch once the plane has taken off.

One For Pets , $110, Amazon

6. Introduce your dog to his or her carrier.

Give your dog some time to get used to his or her new travel home; you definitely don’t want to spring it on your dog the day your flight is scheduled. Well in advance, put the carrier on the floor, with the end flaps open, so that your dog can walk around it, smell it, and maybe even crawl in it. Try putting treats inside to encourage your dog to walk inside. Take your dog on some short “practice” trips inside the carrier. (My dog had a number of trips on the subway in her carrier before her first flight, going to fun places like the park or obedience class, so she had already built up positive associations with it).

7. Find out what the pet facilities are like in your connecting airports.

Depending on the length of your trip and how long your dog can "hold it,” you may want to plan to take your dog to a pet relief area when you hit a layover. All airports have pet relief facilities of some kind, but what they are and how convenient they’ll be for you will vary from airport to airport.

In most cases, the pet area is outside of the terminal, which means you’ll have to leave the building and go back through security again on your way back in. Be sure to plan an extra long layover to do this, as going though security again and finding your way around a strange airport takes time. There are a few airports that have pet areas inside the security boundary, which is fantastic if you have a shorter layover. For example, I often try to organize trips with my dog to fly through Washington Dulles, which has two pet relief areas inside the security boundary. (Each is a room with a floor covered in AstroTurf and a drain in the middle. It’s not pretty, or particularly nice smelling, but it’s SO nice to be able to give my dog a chance to walk around a little and go to the bathroom in the middle of a long itinerary. I wish all airports had that setup). Check out Dog Jaunt for information about pet relief areas in airports all over the country, as well as lots of useful info about traveling with pets in general.

8. Pack!

You’ll need to bring along

  • Vaccination records and any other health info.
  • At least two meals worth of food (in case you get stuck somewhere overnight).
  • An empty bottle for water. (You can fill it once you get through security.)
  • A water bowl. (You can buy collapsible travel bowls, but I use a tiny Tupperware dish.)
  • A collar and leash. (It’s a good idea to keep the collar, with ID tags, on your dog, on the off chance that he or she gets out of the carrier).
  • A familiar smelling toy (or even a dirty t-shirt that smells like you).
  • Dog treats.
  • Poop bags.
  • A few wet wipes would not be remiss, either.

Keep the rest of your carry-on baggage light — your pet’s carrier will take the place of your larger carry-on item, so everything else needs to fit in your “personal item” (such as a purse, backpack, or laptop bag). It’s also a good idea to have a record of your dog’s flight reservation on you. (Most likely your dog won’t actually have a “ticket,” but there should be a receipt from when you paid your fee or other record).

9. “What will happen at the airport?”

Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but here’s what I’ve learned flying with my pup:

You’ll have to take your dog out of his or her carrier to go through security. It can be a bit tricky to deal with taking off your shoes, your small liquids, your jacket, and so on, while also wrangling a dog (who is, let’s be honest, probably more than a little freaked out by everything that’s going on). It’s helpful if you’re traveling with another person who can hold on to your dog as you get everything together, but if you’re traveling alone, it’s best to leave your dog in its carrier while you get everything loaded onto the x-ray machine, and then take him or her out. You’ll be asked to hold your dog in your arms and walk through a metal detector. (No, your dog will not have to stand with her hands over her head inside a body scanner). You may also be asked to have your hands swabbed or go through other security measures. In general, your dog has to stay in its carrier at all times, both at the airport and on the flight, unless you're in a designated pet relief area.

10. “Will my dog freak out on the plane? Should I try to medicate my dog?”

I have flown with two different dogs (one young and one on the elderly side), and both were good, relatively calm flyers. They were fairly similar, in that they would both get nervous while the plane was sitting on the runway or taxying, but they would both settle down and go to sleep as soon as the plane took off. I think the rumble of the engines may have been soothing, the same way that car rides are often sleep-inducing for human babies. If one of them got restless before takeoff, sneaking my hand through the top flap of the carrier to stroke their ears seemed to help (though remember, even if you unzip the carrier a little to reach your hand in, you cannot let your dog out).

I may just have gotten lucky with those two; some dogs will have a harder time with being inside the carrier for long periods, or with the strange, hectic environments of the airport and plane. There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s safe to sedate a dog while flying. The American Veterinary Medical Association advises against it, saying, “It is recommended that you DO NOT give tranquilizers to your pet when traveling by air because it can increase the risk of heart and respiratory problems. Short-nosed dogs and cats sometimes have even more difficulty with travel.” Sedatives can also cause problems with balance, which may lead your pet to injure itself. VCA Animal Hospitals also recommends against sedating animals in flight.

If you have an incredibly nervous dog, and you feel like medication is your only option, be sure to talk to your vet. He or she may have advice about calming your dog without sedation, and, if medication is necessary, will be able to tell you how to use it in the safest way possible. Absolutely do not medicate a dog in-flight without your vet’s approval — the last place you want to have a medical emergency with your pet is 39 thousand feet up in the air. If ultimately your dog is an animal who just really, really hates flying or who panics inside a small carrier, the best option might be to let your pup stay earthbound.

Images: David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)