The key is to start planning well in advance to help make your pet's trip more comfortable (and calm for you both!) when taking your canine companion on a flight.

By Katie Morrell
November 19, 2020
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Credit: Ryan Jello / Getty

Sara Ochoa, DVM, has a tremendous amount of experience in air travel with dogs. While today she is a small animal and exotic vet in east Texas and a veterinary consultant for DogLab.com, she attended vet school at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, and frequently flew back and forth with her pooch in tow. And all that flying time really taught her the ins and outs of how to take a dog on a plane.

Tips for Flying With Your Dog

1. Plan in advance.

This part is critical. “Depending on where you’re going, it can take time to get all the paperwork needed,” Ochoa says. “And then flying to places like Hawaii or international destinations [from the U.S.] will often require testing and waiting periods before traveling with a dog on a plane, and that can take months.”

2. Get your dog familiar with the airport.

Getting your pooch accustomed to the common surroundings of travel is another necessary (and sometimes lengthy) process, and this means allowing them to become familiar with the smells, sounds, and scents of an airport.

“When I first started flying with a dog, I would take her to the airport and let her ride the escalator,” Ochoa says. “Pretty soon, she learned to jump off when we got to the top; it only took her about 30 minutes to get used to it.”

3. Consider your pet’s bathroom needs.

Ochoa recommends bringing a potty pad and a small trash bag with you. During a layover, she will take her dog into the ‘family’ restroom (usually a single stall) and then dispose of the pad and the trash bag. “That way, no one has to even smell my dog’s waste,” she says.

In order to better plan for bathroom breaks and your pet's comfort, do not feed your dog right before a flight, as this can create stomach discomfort in the air.

4. Consider your seat placement on the airplane.

Ochoa suggests booking the window seat so as not to take up legroom of your fellow passengers. That is, assuming your dog is small enough to fit in a carrier under the seat in front of you. If you have a larger service dog, be sure to arrange for a seat where your dog can fit in front of you comfortably without blocking the aisle.

How To Fly With Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows any animal that is trained to be able to provide assistance to a person with a disability.

While service dogs do not require documentation, most airlines have a variety of requirements for emotional support animals that must be met, including physician documentation and 48-hour advance notice before boarding the plane.

In all cases, dogs are not permitted to block the aisle, and airlines are not responsible for upgrading your seat to accommodate your animal, so plan accordingly to ensure your pet has a comfortable flight.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines might require documentation that an animal will not need to go to the bathroom (or can do it in a sanitary way) for flights that are eight hours or longer.

Flying With Small Dogs vs. Big Dogs

Small Dogs

Every airline has different restrictions and rules, but it is best to tell the airline ahead of your trip that you will be flying with a dog, even if she is small. For example, Delta Air Lines charges a one-way fee for small dogs at check-in. Importantly, these dogs must be able to fit under the seat in front of you in a small, ventilated pet carrier. According to the American Kennel Club, flying with a dog in the cabin is available to pet owners with dogs that weigh 20 pounds or less.

These are some important questions you should be prepared to ask before bringing your small dog on a flight in the cabin with you:

  • What are all the rules regarding dogs and pet travel on my specific airline?
  • What is the weight/size limit for a dog on my specific airline?
  • What size and types of carriers are allowed?
  • What can I do to reduce my dog’s anxiety about the experience according to my veterinarian?
  • How far in advance do I need to let the airline know I’m bringing my pet on board?

Big Dogs

With larger dog breeds, most airlines will allow you to ‘check in’ dogs that weigh 100 pounds or less as designated ‘excess baggage’ (weight limit can change depending on the airline). This can be done at the same time as when you check in your luggage at the airline desk. Make sure you have a carrier for your dog large enough that he or she can stand up and turn around and bring a blanket that smells like home to put in the carrier to keep them more relaxed and comfortable.

If you’re wondering how expensive it is to fly with a dog, it depends on the stipulations of the airline. Some airlines will charge as low as $200, while others charge as much as $600.

While it is an option, taking your dog on a flight, especially in the cargo hold, has risks involved. If possible, transporting your pet in a more controlled environment such as driving in a car may be a better choice so you can monitor your pet’s levels of stress and anxiety and mitigate them. Or it might be best to consider leaving your pet behind to be cared for at home by a trusted pet sitter or boarding facility while you’re away.

If there are no other options and you must take your dog on a flight in the cargo hold, ensure you ask these questions ahead of time:

  • Do I need to consider the weather and season we’re traveling in when I choose which flight to book?
  • What are my airline’s specific regulations when it comes to taking a pet in the cargo hold?
  • Who do I need to inform that my dog is being carried in the cargo hold?
  • What recommendations does my vet have to help me do my best to ensure my dog’s safety on the plane?
  • If my dog were somehow lost in transit, have I done everything I can to help airport employees locate him? (Ensure he has a name tag, keep a photo handy for identification, etc.)
  • Are the risks associated with air travel for dogs worth it?

Can You Fly Internationally With a Dog?

Yes, it is possible to take your dog on an international flight, but it pays to do your research well ahead of time and weigh the pros and cons of the risks involved. Be sure to book an appointment with your vet to discuss your upcoming travel, look into all pet travel policies with your specific airline(s), and check the CDC guidelines. If you are flying from the U.S., the pet travel guidelines outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is also a helpful resource.

“Some people hire pet travel companies to help guide them through the process,” says Jamie Richardson, BVetMed, Chief of Staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City. “If you can, it makes sense to tell your vet six months in advance, to make sure you have all of the proper vaccinations. I also recommend booking an overnight flight if you can and to exercise your dog earlier in the day so the flight will work with their natural circadian rhythm.”

Before taking your dog on any flight, always make sure to talk with your vet about any considerations they recommend and call your specific airline to get a good understanding of their pet travel rules and restrictions before heading off on your next adventure together.