How to Fly with Your Pet or Service Animal

According the US Department of Transportation, over two million pets and other live animals are transported by air every year in the United States. Federal and state governments impose restrictions on transporting live animals. In addition, each airline establishes its own company policy for the proper handling of the animals they transport. There are many rules and procedures that passengers have to be aware of when they travel with pets. The following overview will give you a general idea of what to expect when it comes to pet travel.

US Government Pet Travel Rules

In the US, the Department of Transportation has some basic regulations when it comes to animal travel. Dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and must have been weaned for at least five days. If puppies or kittens less than 16 weeks of age are in transit more than 12 hours, food and water must be provided. Older animals must have food at least every 24 hours and water at least every 12 hours. Written instructions for food and water must accompany all animals shipped regardless of the scheduled time in transit. Dogs and cats can be brought to the airline for shipping no more than four hours before departure. This limit goes to six hours if shipping arrangements are made in advance. Airlines can't accept dogs and cats for shipment if the airline cannot prevent exposure of the animal to temperatures less than 45 degrees F (7.2 C) or more than 85 degrees F (29.5 C) for more than 45 minutes when the animal is transferred between the terminal and the plane, or for more than four hours when the animal is in a holding facility. These cold temperature limits (but not the high temperature ones) can be waived if if approved by a verterinarian.

Airlines Have Different Pet Travel Rules

The most important thing to know that is that rules can be very different for different airlines. In the US, the FAA allows each airline to set its pet travel policy, including whether they are allowed in the cabin, or for that matter whether they are transported at all. There are a number of things you have to consider, including what extra charges fees the airline may have for pets. Typical airline limitations include the following:

  • A limited list of the types of pets that you can bring into the cabin
  • A limit on the number of pets in the cabin
  • A limit on the number of pets that may accompany you on the airplane
  • A requirement that your pet be harmless, inoffensive and odorless
  • A requirement that your pet remain in the container for the entire flight
  • A requirement that you be able to produce a recently issued health certificate for your pet (typically a certificate of veterinary inspection (health certificate) issued within 10 days of travel)

Airline Travel Planning with Pets

Most airlines have additional requirements for travel with pets. It is important that you contact the airline as soon as possible to find out about their rules and limitations. Depending on where you travel, you may also have to make additional arrangements with other authorities, especially if you are traveling internationally with your pet. You should get advice from your verternarian to see if your animal is healthy enough to fly. Depending on your animal's breed or overall health, the air quality inside of an airline cabin may put a lot of stress on your pet. Cabin air is typically much drier than normal air, and the typical cabin air is thinner (has less oxygen) than air in Denver, Colorado.

Traveling to Hawaii with Pets

Hawaii has special limitations on pet travel, including a quarantine of animals traveling to the state, even for passengers flying from other parts of the U.S. Make sure that you review Hawaii’s requirements (at http://hawaii.gov/hdoa/ai/aqs/info), contact the airline, and possibly consult your pet's veterinarian, prior to your travel to Hawaii. Otherwise, your pet could be quarantined for up to 120 days.

Pets in the Passenger Cabin

Not every airline allows pets in the passenger cabin. Those that do typically allow only small animals that must be kept in some kind of cage or kennel for the duration of the flight. Also, the pets must be able to fit in the area under the seat and can’t be in the overhead baggage compartments. An airline may also limit the maximum number of pets in the passenger cabin, as well is the number of pets in coach, business, or first class sections of the aircraft. It is also possible that an airline may allow pets in one class of service or section of the aircraft, but not another. Call your airline or visit the airline's web site for more details. If you are using two or more airlines for a trip, contact all of them.

Pet Containers in the Passenger Cabin

If an airline allows you to bring your pet into the cabin, your pet container is treated as carry-on baggage and you must follow all carry on baggage rules of your airline and of the FAA. FAA rules include the following:

  • Your pet container must be small enough to fit underneath the seat without blocking any person's path to the main aisle of the airplane.
  • Your pet container must be stowed properly before the last passenger entry door to the airplane is closed in order for the airplane to leave the gate.
  • Your pet container must remain properly stowed the entire time the airplane is moving on the airport surface, and for take off and landing.
  • You must follow flight attendant instructions regarding the proper stowage of your pet container.

Since airlines typically allow one carry-on item for the overhead baggage compartment, and one other item small enough to fit under a seat, you will likely be able to take both a carry-on bag and your pet carrier.

Pets and Pet Containers in the Cargo Compartment

If pets are not in the passenger cabin, they are typically transported in pressurized, temperature-controlled cargo compartments. This would not be the same area where checked baggage is kept. The cargo compartment where your pet would be kept would be heated or cooled to keep the temperature comfortable. Also, your pet will have enough oxygen as well. Confirm with your airline that this is the case becasue some aircraft may not have this kind of temperature controlled baggage compartment.

What to Do If You Have Allergies

If you are allergic to certain kinds of pets or to pet dander, but need to fly, you can reduce the chance that there will be an animal in the cabin on your flight. You can fly on an airline that does not allow pets in the cabin. You can also ask the reservations agent for your airline if another passenger on the same flight has made reservations to travel with a pet. You should also check with your allergist or doctor before your trip to discuss travel related risks and ask if you should carry medications with you. If a reaction should occur during the flight, follow your doctor's treatment instructions and ask a flight attendant for assistance.

Airline Pet Travel Rules and Limitations

Each airline sets its own rules when it comes to travel with pets. These rules usually include limitations on pet travel based on weather, time of year, size of the pet, or any number of other criteria. You should check directly with the airline when you purchase your ticket and also shortly before your departure date, since changes in the airline’s rules may happen quickly or without advance notice.

Service Animals and Airline Travel

A service animal is not a pet, but rather an animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. In the US, a disabled passenger can travel with his or her service animal in the passenger cabin with relatively few limitations compared to the limitations on other kinds of pets. There is no limit to the number of service animals that can be on any flight. Service animals do not need any health certificates to travel and they do not need to be confined in a container or cage. While US airlines are required to make accommodations for travelers with service animals, there may be situations where a service animal may not be allowed in the cabin. If you plan to travel with a service animal, it would be a good idea to contact the airline prior to your travel to see if there may be any difficulties.

Reducing Your Pet Travel Risks

You can reduce your chances of you pet getting too stressed during the trip by taking a nonstop flight, or a flight where you and your pet don't have to change planes. Put full contact information and any special car instructions in your pet carrier in case you and your pet get separated. You should also check your pet carrier to make sure it is in good working order. You can also avoid air travel during hot weather or busy holiday travel periods. Reconfirm your flight the day before you leave, and check the status online on the day of the flight to ensure there have been no unexpected flight changes. Get to the airport early so you can exercise your pet. You should personally place your animal in its travel crate, and pick up your animal as soon as possible after you arrive. When you get on the plane, let your flight attendant know that you have a pet is in the cargo compartment.

Other Resources
Advice from the American Veterinary Medical Association
Advice from the takeyourpet.com
FAA pet travel advice
Department of Transportation advice and inforamtion


Fear of flying resources

Fear of flying resource guide

How to Fly with Your Pet or Service Animal
http://airsafe.com/issues/pets.htm -- Revised: 17 November 2011