by Stephen Vanderpool, writer for NerdWallet | Travel

Like people, dogs don’t have wings. Canine biology never intended man’s best friend to fly. So if you’re taking your pup into the sky, remember, you’re both traversing strange territory. As humans, we may not always understand the precise mechanics of how a 300-ton heap of steel and aluminum can rip through the air at 500 mph, but we comprehend what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to deal with the side effects.

Dogs aren’t as fortunate. They don’t know to yawn to pop their ears. They can’t run to the bathroom if they feel queasy. They can’t even peruse Sky Mall when boredom sets in. Their safety and comfort are the sole responsibility of human handlers. They are at our mercy.

To take some of the stress and uncertainty out of flying, we’ve put together a short list of tips for flying with dogs. Here we’ll address a number of precautions you can take to prepare your pup for flight. While most of this advice is pertinent to dogs flying both in cabin and in cargo, we’ll pay special attention to dogs in the cargo hold–the guys too big to fit in a box below your seat.

1. Be sure your dog can handle the trip

As with any living creature, dogs are most susceptible to sickness and injuries at very young and very old ages. By USDA law, your pup must be at least 8 weeks old and completely weaned to board a plane. Canines in tiptop shape will better handle turbulence and pressure changes.

The best way to evaluate your dog’s preparedness is to swing by the vet and get a professional opinion. The vet can also give you an Airline Veterinary Health Certificate, a document most airlines require you to obtain no longer than 7-10 days before the flight

2. Book direct, nonstop flights

You’ll pay more–there’s no doubt about that. But if you value your pet’s well-being, it behooves you to book direct flights without connections. A single three-hour journey will be considerably more manageable than 2 shorter flights with a length layover in the middle. Sadly, dogs in cargo are treated as little more than luggage. Minimizing the duration of the journey will decrease the risk of injury or incident.

3. Call the airline

Larger dogs usually need to fly as checked baggage or in cargo. Not all airlines offer this service. Don’t assume your airline of choice will be 100% pet-friendly, and make certain you understand the airline pet fees prior to booking. Most flights limit the number of pets permitted onboard. You don’t want to accidently book a flight already at maximum canine capacity. To sort out your pooch’s travel needs, give the airline a call. Some airlines will waive the phone reservation fee if you are also paying pet fees. However, if the airline does not waive the phone fee, book online and immediately call back to reserve space for your dog. A couple days before your flight, call again to make sure everything is in order. Be sure to ask plenty of questions and get specific instructions for loading your dog at the airport. Find out if there are any additional costs and what documentation you’ll need to bring.

4.  Prepare the proper carrier

The IATA stipulates a crate should provide your pet the room to stand, lie, and sit in a natural position as well as turn around fully while standing. If there’s room, add bottom and side padding to make the carrier as comfortable as possible without sacrificing too much space. For extra insurance, clearly inscribe your name, address, and destination on the crate’s exterior. It is also a good idea to display the words “LIVE ANIMAL” in big letters across each side. Add arrows indicating the top of the crate.

Dogs who aren’t used to being confined in a crate could do with a little training beforehand. Take a month or so to get your pup acclimated to the carrier. Set the carrier in a comfortable place and place your dog’s favorite toys, treats or comfort items inside. Leave the gate open and allow your pooch to enter on his own accord. If you can establish the carrier as a comfort zone, being shoved in a little box and thrown in a dark, unattended cargo hold will seem considerably less terrifying.

5. Be careful with sedatives

Dogs worry. Sometimes they panic. Using sedatives might seem merciful, but please be careful. You never know how your pet will react to drugs at a high altitude. When it comes to sedatives, do not trust your own judgment nor that of the Internet. Consult a veterinarian. Always.

6. Know when and how much to feed

Animals can get motion sickness just like us humans. Decrease the amount of food you give him the day before the flight to help stabilize his stomach. Do NOT, however, decrease the amount of water. You are then required by law to provide a small meal 2 hours before checking in. It is crucial you do not overfeed prior to flying. Too much in the tummy can be disastrous.

7. Walk your dog

Dogs aren’t intended to fly, nor are they intended to sit cramped in a little box for hours on end. Walk your pup twice on the day of departure–once before leaving the house and again immediately before checking in. Getting your dog good and tired can help him relax on the journey.


Stephen Vanderpool is a writer for NerdWallet | Travel, a site for adventure on a budget.


One Response to Flying with Dogs in Cargo: Tips for a Smooth Trip

  1. Jana Rade says:

    This is one thing the mere thought of makes me freak out. The only time I’d do this [fly my dog(s) in cargo] would have to be some life and death situation. I can’t imagine I would voluntarily put my dog(s) through this and take the risk that comes with it.

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