Traveling by Air with Pets
More than 2 million pets and animals are transported by air each year in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. Federal and airline restriction regulate the process.
Make it a happy trip for your pet by following these tips from government agencies, airline representatives and pet owners on preparing your pet for air travel:
WHN Tip: Most of these tips pertain to dogs, since many vets stress that cats prefer to stay home and do better with a pet sitter taking care of them. If you do take your cat on trips, keep it in a crate for the duration of the trip. (See our article Choosing and Using a Pet Crate for Travel.)
WHN Tip: Know Before You Book
Some airlines do not allow pets at all so check before you book. Head to our Pet Links - Pet Travel resources page [WHN page link TK] to find out the policies of most major airlines.
Before You Start
Know your pet's weight
- Less than 16 lbs (including the crate) — your pet can fly as a "carry-on"
- 15 to 100 lbs (including the crate) — your pet is "checked baggage"
Know your pet's age
- Pets also must be at least eight weeks old in order to travel by air
Get the paperwork
- For most flights, a health certificate issued within 10 days prior to the flight is required.
Know where you're staying
- Find out if your accommodation welcomes pets. Read our Finding Pet-Friendly Hotels article to tips on finding pet-friendly accommodations.
Three Pet Traveling Options
- Usually limited to small dogs, cats and birds
- Must be in a carrier that fits underneath an average airline seat (17” L x 12.5” W x 8” H)
- Pet and kennel combined must weigh less than 15 lbs., depending on the airline and their policies.
- For larger animals (combined weight of pet and crate generally can't exceed 100 lbs. Check carried for specific limitations.)
- For unaccompanied pets (combined weight of pet and crate generally can't exceed 100 lbs. Check carrier for specific limitations.)
- Animals will be in the same area as mail, baggage and other items: a pressurized compartment with a temperature range from 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Booking Your Flight
Try to schedule a non-stop flight to your destination and avoid peak travel times such as the weekends and holidays.
If you must book a flight with connection, try to book flights on the same airline. This eliminates the need for your pet to be inspected before each flight and the risk that it might not meet one of the carrier’s requirements.
WHN Tip: Using multiple carriers? Check the pet transport rules with each one before booking.
Choose flights that depart early morning or late evening so the temperature is cooler (summer) or warmer (winter) for the pet, depending on the season.
WHN Tip: Temp Rules
Many airlines have temperature restrictions on flights with pets (i.e. if it's below 20 degrees or above 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside, they won't take the pet as cargo). Check links to airline policies at our Pet Links - Travel Resources page. [WHN page link TK]
Questions to Ask
After booking tickets for yourself and other passengers, call the airline(s) directly to make arrangements for your pet. Policies, laws and regulations will vary from airline to airline, state to state, and country to country.Top questions to ask:
- What are the fees for traveling with a pet? (usually $100-300, depending on the airline).
- What is the time and location for the pet drop-off and pick-up for my flights?
- What will I need to have with me when checking in my pet for the flight?
- What is your list of requirements, restrictions and vaccinations for each flight?
- Will my pet be able to board the flight with me as a carry-on? As checked baggage? (If not traveling with your pet, ask about shipping your pet as cargo.)
- What are your carrier/crate size, weight and other requirements?
- Will you provide a cage or crate for my pet if it will be checked?
- For overseas travel: Will there be any special health requirements such as quarantine?
WHN Expert Tip: Buddy System
"Ask if there's another animal on the flight. It's good to have another dog [or cat] with them to lessen their anxieties." Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler
WHN Tip: Traveling or Moving Abroad
You may need a specific international certificate or pet passport for traveling abroad. Some countries require that the certificate is USDA-certified. To learn more, contact the Veterinarian Area of Services in your state.
Before You Go
Head to the Vet
- Have your pet make a vet visit within 10 days of the flight — you may need a health certificate or other certificates issued by a licensed vet. Ask your current vet or contact the U.S.D.A.'s Veterinarian Services.
WHN TIP: Check Expiration Date
Make sure the certificate is valid for both outbound and return flights. Most certificates are only valid for up to 30 days. You may need to obtain another certificate before heading home. Ask your vet for a referral to vets in your destination, just in case.
WHN Tip: Don't Have a Vet Yet?
Read our Choosing a Vet article for top tips from veterinarians and pet owners on how to find and select the best vet for you and your pet.
- Discuss the travel plans with your vet: where you're going, how long you're staying and how many modes of transportation your pet will be on.
- Make sure your pet's vaccinations are up to date.
- Ask about current medical conditions and if they could pose a problem while traveling.
- Ask about feeding instructions and other things you can do to prepare your pet.
WHN Expert Tip: Dangers Ahead
"Anticipate dangers you may encounter along the way. Each area of the country has endemic diseases, plants and animals that might affect your pet. In Arizona, owners should look out for scorpions and rattlesnakes. The Pacific Northwest has salmon poisoning: this infectious disease can kill dogs without aggressive treatment. Animals traveling to the East Coast should be vaccinated against Lyme disease. The fleas are ferocious in Florida. Prevention is a must so ask your vet about these diseases and travel concerns." Dr. Kristen L. Nelson of Veterinary Creative in Scottsdale, AZ
- Make sure your pet's ID tags are up to date with your current contact details and vaccination information, if necessary.
WHN Expert Tip: Make a Cell Phone Tag
“Have a little tag made that has your cell phone number on it (many pet stores have machines that do this) [to attach to] your dog's collar when you're traveling. If your dog gets away from you while you're traveling, they'll call you at home but you won't be there!" Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA Executive Vice President of National Programs and Science Advisor and owner of a dog, two cats and some fish
WHN Expert Tip: Sedatives and Tranquilizers
Most veterinarians advise against sedating your pet since the effects of tranquilizers on animals at higher altitudes are unpredictable. If you believe that some form of sedation might be helpful, be sure to obtain and follow a veterinarian's advice. USDA
WHN Expert Tip: Road Test The Meds
"If your pet needs tranquilizers to travel, don't ask for them last minute. If your pet has never used them in the past you will want to try them out before you hit the road as they may be overly sensitive and get excessively sedated or possibly get over-stimulated by them. Also, if you wait until the last minute to do this, there may not be any appointment times available." Dr. Susan Nelson, asst. professor of clinical studies at Kansas State University
Purchase and Prepare the Crate
You will need a pet carrier or crate for your pet. The requirements, size and weight restrictions will vary depending on the airline and other government regulations. Follow the airline's instructions before purchasing a carrier or crate. Read our Choosing and Using a Pet Crate for Travel article for more tips on how to select and prepare the best crate for your trip.
WHN Expert Tip: Plastic Shipping Sleeves
For photocopies of health documentation, we use plastic shipping sleeves (normally used for address labels) to secure the documentation to the top of the travel crate. These sleeves are great as they show the content, stick to the crate easily and usually have a resealable closure - perfect for airport officials to quickly and easily access the documentation." Rachel Farris, PetRelocation.com
Groom Your Pet
Groom your pet before the trip to help it stay clean and healthy.
Brush your pet's hair and trim nails before the flight.
Need a groomer? Read our Choosing a Pet Groomer.
Pack a Bag
Visit our Create a Pet Travel Kit article for a complete checklist of items to pack.
The following items should be packed in your carry-on bag:
- Your pet's food, treats,
- Your pet's medications and emergency items
- Leash or cat harness
- Toys for your pet (these can't go in the crate or carrier)
- Your pet's health certificate and medical records
- Your tickets and IDs
WHN Tip: No H2O
Remember no bottled water is allowed in your carry-on until you pass through the TSA security checkpoint. Instead pack an empty water bottle to fill up after going through security and a small bowl for your pet to drink from.
Before Leaving Home
Reconfirm with the airline 24-48 hours before departure since there is a limited number of pets allowed on each airplane, according to the Air Transport Association.
Ask where to check your pet in:
- For pets traveling as carry-on or checked luggage — usually at the passenger terminal
- For pets traveling as cargo —may be in a different location such as the air freight terminal.
Check the temperatures in your current area and those in your connection and destination sites. Call the airline if you think you will not be permitted to fly to reschedule or make flight changes (i.e. if it's below 20 degrees or above 75 degrees Fahrenheit).
At the Airport
WHN Expert Tip: Security blanket
"Cover the kennels with a blanket. The less dogs [and cats] see, they'll be more calm." Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler
Walk your pet outside the airport so it can relieve itself before being checked in.
When checking in, ask about the claim process when you reach your destination and at what location you can pick up your pet.
Connecting? Ask if you'll need to claim and re-check your pet or if your pet is booked all the way through to your destination.
WHN Expert Tip: Right to Refuse
Even though you've reconfirmed your flight and followed the necessary requirements, understand that airlines reserve the right to refuse to transport a pet for reasons such as illness or extreme temperatures at origin, transfer or destination airports. Air Transport Association
If your pet is traveling with you in the passenger cabin or as checked baggage, TSA will likely require your pet to accompany you through the passenger screening equipment at the security checkpoint.
TSA will ask you to remove your pet from its kennel to allow TSA to do an X-ray screen of the kennel or pet carrier.
You will be asked to walk through the metal detector with your pet. TSA may also examine your pet but it will not be subjected to X-rays.
WHN Expert Tip: Airline Security Pet Exam – Tips for Dog Owners
"TSA may tell you that the dog needs to be examined. The exam will be very similar to petting the dog from head to toe. I would highly suggest that the parents go in front of the dog and hold the dog's head and let the dog's muzzle rest in your palm so that the dog feels secure or so if the dog decides to snap you can control it. We get anxious when we fly, just imagine how the dog feels!" Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler
WHN Expert Tip: When Boarding
When boarding the plane, tell a pilot and flight attendant that there is a pet in the cargo hold. The airlines have a system for providing such notification, but it doesn't hurt to mention it yourself. Aviation Consumer Protection Division
In The Air
Have a carry-on pet? Keep it in its carrier while in the airport and throughout the entire flight.
Stuck on the plane and the flight is delayed? Notify the flight attendant or pilot and ask to have your pet unloaded during the delay or layover. If the delay is long enough, ask to claim your pet, take it for a walk, and offer it water before you re-board.
Making a connecting flight? You may need to claim your pet and re-check your pet when making connections.
Depending on the airport and airline, your pet may be near the baggage claim.
WHN Expert Tip: Bags First
"Understand that you may get your baggage before you get your animal. This is because the bags need to be brought off quickly so that the next flight can take off on time. Your pet may be brought to a special holding area first before it's brought to you." Susan Simms, Midwest Airlines marketing specialist, AKC judge, professional English Setter breeder and handler
Be prompt when picking up your pet and have your airline documents and your health certificates ready.
WHN Expert Tip: Unleashed
"Be prepared when you get to the destination to have that leash available. It should be in your carry-on luggage. You'll need it when you claim your pet so you can immediately let them out for a walk." Matt Stelter, Drs. Foster & Smith representative and professional collie owner and handler
For more pet travel tips, go to U.S.D.A.'s Veterinarian Services' Pet Travel section.
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