Flying with Your Dog in the Airplane Cabin

I need to make an extended trip away from home and I have planned for my small dog to join me. I'll be flying to my destination. What do I need to consider?

A successful flight with a dog begins long before the day of travel. It requires planning and preparation to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for both you and your dog.

Do your homework with the airlines. Confirm that your dog can travel in the airplane cabin under the seat in front of you. Identify with your airline the precise weight requirements and dimensions under the airline seat, as this will dictate the size of your transport carrier. Determine what paperwork you must have for travel, including vaccination records and a health certificate for travel. Most airlines provide this information on their website.

Acquire your dog’s travel carrier well before your trip. Consider a relatively soft-sided travel carrier, as it is more “forgiving” for fitting under the airline seat, but not one that will collapse on your pet and make them uncomfortable. Teach your dog that the carrier is a great everyday place to hang out; feeding your dog in the carrier can help to create a positive association. Always have the carrier open and available in your home and make it as inviting as possible. Practice entry and exit from the carrier to make it routine - this will be important during security screening.

Once your dog’s flight reservation is made, schedule a visit with your veterinarian close to the date of travel. Most airlines require a valid health certificate for travel, completed by your veterinarian, for your dog to fly with you. Be sure all relevant vaccinations are up-to-date and be sure to have your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate and any other necessary travel certificates handy when traveling.

What details should I attend to when booking my flight?

Some airlines restrict how many pets may travel in the cabin or on a particular flight, and they may have certain flights on which no pets can fly in the cabin. Book your travel early to ensure a spot for your dog. When choosing your seat, be aware that you will not be able to sit in an exit row or against a bulkhead (there must be a seat in front of you for the carrier). Try to travel non-stop, if possible, as layovers and transfers only add to a long day for you and your dog.

How will I move through the security checkpoint at the airport?

Your dog’s travel carrier must go through the luggage X-ray screening device at the airport, and your dog cannot, so you will have to carry him in your arms through the human screening device. He should be wearing a firm-fitting harness with a leash attached to prevent escape. Follow these steps:

  1. Prepare yourself and your belongings. Remove any items the airline requests from your carry-on bag, and place them in the bins to go through the X-ray machine.
  2. Remove your dog from the carrier and send the carrier through the X-ray machine.
  3. Once you are through the screening with your dog, find the carrier and safely reposition your dog inside before gathering your belongings.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires pets in the airplane cabin to remain in their carriers for the entire flight.

What else will help my dog be comfortable on this trip?

On the day of travel, do not feed your dog breakfast. Traveling on an empty stomach minimizes the risk of nausea and vomiting. Line the carrier with an absorbent “puppy potty pad” in case your dog needs to urinate or defecate during travel. Carry extra pads as well as a couple of plastic zip-lock bags, some paper towels, and a few pairs of latex gloves for any necessary cleanup and containment of a mess. Carry some of your dog’s food with you, a water bottle, and a bowl, and do not forget to bring any medication.

Until you get to the plane, be aware of where you put your dog in their carrier. Try not to put them on the floor where they may feel threatened. Place the carrier on your lap or the seat beside you. Stay away from areas that are noisy or that have other dogs or cats. If there is an area to walk your dog prior to the flight, try to stay away from other pets whose anxiety may result in aggression towards your dog.

Should I ask my veterinarian for a dog sedative for travel?

Most of the time, dogs travel quite well, without needing medication. Some dogs, on the other hand, experience tremendous stress when subjected to air travel. Consult your veterinarian to create the best travel plan for your dog if he does not travel well. Strategies to de-stress canine flights include:

  • A Thundershirt® swaddles a dog much like an infant is swaddled and can reduce anxiety.
  • A pheromone calming collar can help lower anxiety (Adaptil®).
  • Trazodone, gabapentin, and alprazolam are sometimes prescribed by veterinarians to reduce the anxiety that some dogs experience when traveling. Test the medication at home, before your trip, so you know how your dog will react.
  • If your dog experiences motion sickness in a car, your veterinarian may be able to prescribe a medication specifically to help avoid that issue during your flight.

With some planning, attention to detail, and consultation with your veterinarian, flying with your dog can be a great experience.