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Air Travel and Pets: Navigating the Skies with Your Curious Copilot

Wheels up, paws down! We're sharing expert advice and everything you need to know about flying with your cat or dog. Air travel can be a breeze — with a few pre-flight strategies.

Dog in Pet Carrier

Content reviewed by Preston Turano, D.V.M.

Embarking on an adventure with your cat or dog is exciting, but the thought of air travel may seem daunting. If you’ve got your eyes on the sky, fear not — in this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through the essentials of pet-friendly air travel and everything you need to know for flying with your pet.

What to know before you go

When making travel plans, remember that some essential requirements apply to pets. These restrictions can vary from destination to destination, airline to airline.

  • Airline pet policies: Each airline has its own rules and regulations for pet travel. Research and choose a pet-friendly airline that aligns with your preferences. We’ve outlined many of these below.

  • Consider your destination: Not all destinations treat pet travel the same. Consult the USDA’s APHIS pet travel resource and your airline's resources for specifics for the country or region you’re heading to. For example, Hawaii is a rabies-free state requiring specific lab tests before entry.

Get the timing right.

  • Book a non-stop flight: Non-stop flights help avoid problems with delays and missed connections. On the other hand, strategically booked layovers may be a good break in the middle of an otherwise long journey.

  • Pick off-peak travel periods: Avoid particularly hectic moments by traveling on off-peak periods, like taking mid-week flights and avoiding holiday crowds.

  • Check the weather: When it’s hot outside, fly early or late and mid-day during colder weather — especially if they’re not flying in the cabin with you. Although checked pets are in a temperature and pressure-controlled area, it can still get uncomfortably hot or cold, especially during loading and unloading.

  • Allow extra time: Checking in, boarding, and TSA may take longer with a pet by your side. Make sure they can stretch their legs and do their business before taking off, and add some buffer time for anything unexpected.

Visit your (USDA Accredited) veterinarian

Not all vets take the time to get accredited to write health certificates. Fewer want to get involved with international certificates.

Get a visit on your calendar before your trip to ensure your pet is fit for travel. Your vet can also guide you on handling your pet’s anxiety if necessary, and help you prepare for the following:

  • Vaccinations: Ensure your pet's vaccinations are current per airline and destination requirements.

  • Microchipping: It’s always good practice to microchip your pet for easy identification in case of separation, including for travel days. Be sure the microchip is ISO-compliant when traveling to Europe. Their microchip readers won’t detect non-ISO-compliant microchips.

  • Documentation: Gather all necessary documents, including health certificates and vaccination records. Some airlines may have specific requirements for how recent these records must be.

  • International travel: Research the country’s requirements at least six months in advance. These documents can take time to be completed. Specific screening tests may also be required, and certain exams or tests may need to be done at a specific time before entering the country.

Flying with your pet in the cabin

Most airlines allow small pets to fly with their owners in the cabin, where they will be subject to rules like staying in their carriers for the duration of the flight. The cabin could be more comfortable and less anxiety-inducing.

Flying with a checked pet

If you imagine a bunch of luggage flying around while your pet’s kennel rolls around the bottom of the plane, don’t worry — they’re secured in a separate area.

It may seem scary, but the cargo hold is temperature- and pressure-controlled. Your pet’s kennel will be secured, and the cargo area will be accessible to airline staff during the flight.

Pricing and other factors will vary, and there is often a separate check-in area for pet parents checking animals in the cargo area.

Cat in Carrier Airport

International flights with pets

On international flights, take extra care to plan for food, water, and potty breaks as your airline permits. The rules when flying internationally will also likely vary regarding health record requirements, breed restrictions, and other factors that may be less stringent on domestic flights.

You may deal with multiple airlines and their partner airlines for an international journey. Consider every step of the way when making plans.

Pet shipping services

For destinations or airlines that won’t allow your pet to travel with you, some airlines have services meant to help transport pets that do not qualify as carry-on or checked pets. This may be a great solution for one-off events like a cross-country move, but less ideal for planning a holiday away.

Paws, planes, and pre-flight checklists

Get ready to pack your bags and check their tags. Preparation is key to a stress-free journey — for you and your pet.

  • Training: Familiarize your pet with the sights and sounds of the airport and the travel carrier. Make sure they’re well-socialized and well-trained.

  • Practice runs: Consider short practice trips in the carrier to help your pet acclimate. Familiarize your pet with their carrier in advance to reduce anxiety during the flight.

Get comfy, from cabin to cargo.

  • Stock up: Pack familiar toys and blankets to provide comfort, a sense of familiarity, and in-flight entertainment. Include blankets for warmth in cooler weather, which are especially helpful during loading and unloading.

  • Remain calm: Ease your pet's nerves by reassuring them throughout the journey. For anxious pets, talk to your veterinarian about using calming treats to help keep them chill.

  • Exercise and feeding: Exercise your pet before the flight and avoid feeding them one hour before takeoff.

  • Hydration: Especially on longer flights, provide water during the journey to keep them hydrated. Just don’t overdo it since they can’t potty until you land. For checked pets, try installing a water dispenser that mounts on the kennel.

Plan for potty breaks.

If you’re wondering, “Can I take my pet to the bathroom on a plane?” the answer is, unfortunately, no.

Short flights may be no problem on your pet’s bladder. For longer trips, it may be wise to line their kennel with bathroom pads for longer flights, just in case.

Check whether your airport has pet relief areas and at which terminals. Some airports, like Minneapolis-Saint Paul, have relief areas outside and inside. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson even has a 1,000-square-foot dog park!

Denver International Airport, Reno Tahoe, Washington Dulles, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Sea-Tac, and New York JFK are among those known for pet-friendly accommodations.

Airport Pet Relief Area

Should I sedate my pet before a flight?

Talk with your veterinarian about whether a calming medication would benefit your pet and not jeopardize their health during travel. There are natural and pharmaceutical options that can help decrease anxiety and stress. Ultimately, the goal is to relieve stress without completely sedating your pet. Here’s why:

Airport employees are not trained to determine whether a pet is having an emergency or just sedated, and sedation makes it difficult to determine your pet’s health status during travel.

It is often not advised for pets traveling by air, as it may exacerbate health conditions or breathing challenges on their flight. Some airlines may even require a signed statement that you did not sedate your pet before flying.

If a vet does prescribe a calming medication, it’s imperative that you follow the exact dosages as prescribed, as too high of a dose can cause effects like sedation.

Do not give your pet Benadryl or any other substance not prescribed and advised by a veterinarian.

Don’t wing it! Make sure your pet is clear to fly.

Can I fly with my short-nosed dog?

Short-nosed (brachycephalic) dog breeds prone to respiratory problems may experience worsened breathing or higher risks while flying. Some are not allowed to fly at all. It is best to consult your veterinarian about your pet’s health before flying with these breeds. 

When flying, what’s the difference between service animals, emotional support animals, and pets?

Similar to riding public transit, your airline will consider service animals and pets in different capacities. Because pets are not certified and trained service animals, they are subject to different requirements. This includes Emotional Support Animals (ESAs).

Can I fly with an emotional support animal?

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced in 2020 that they no longer treat emotional support animals the same as they do service animals, and the ADA does not protect Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) when flying on planes.

If your cat or dog is not a service animal, they’re considered a pet and will be subject to the same fees and policies as any other pet.

What about psychiatric service dogs?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) are formally trained to help people with mental illnesses and disabilities. Airlines are required to treat PSDs as they would other service animals.

Get runway-ready and cleared for takeoff.

Airlines offer a range of services and have different pet policies, so check their specific guidelines when traveling with your pet.

In most cases, the following standards apply:

  • Breed, age, and other restrictions: Pets must usually be at least eight weeks old to travel by air and weaned at least five days before flying. Some breeds may face restrictions based on your destination. Others, like Brachycephalic dogs, cannot fly due to health risks.

  • Carriers: Often counting against a passenger’s carry-on allotment, carriers must fit under a plane seat and have a combined weight under 20 lbs., including the pet. Kennels for larger dogs have different size and weight restrictions.

  • Number of pets: Usually, the rule is one carrier per ticketed traveler. This means that your carrier can contain one pet, sometimes up to two, so long as they are of the same species and can comfortably and safely share the space.

  • Destination rules: Traveling outside the contiguous U.S.? Whether flying to the Hawaiian Islands or a territory like Puerto Rico, the rules that apply at your destination for vet records and other legalities are your responsibility, not the airline’s.

  • Seating: Pets must stay in their carriers for the duration of the flight. Travelers with pets cannot sit in exit rows and sometimes first rows. Some flights may have a dedicated animal-friendly compartment for takeoff and landing.

  • Cabin or cargo: Most airlines allow small pets in carriers to ride in the cabin. Others may only allow pets to be checked in the cargo hold.

  • Fees and booking:You may be expected to pay a pet fee. Fees vary between the cabin and cargo hold. Even if it’s not required, providing your airline with advance notice of your intent to travel with a pet is good practice.

How does TSA work with pets?

Like any other carry-on bag, your pet’s carrier will be scanned through the X-ray. Then, carry your pet through the metal detector with you and be mindful of any direction from the TSA agents in your lane.

Do not put your pet through the x-ray! Be careful removing pets from carriers at the airport, especially cats, as they can be frightened and try to escape. We promise it won’t be as funny as it appears in the movies.

Finding an airline-approved pet carrier

Ensure your pet carrier meets the airline's size, ventilation, and security requirements, and clearly label the carrier with your contact information and any tags provided by the airline.

The TSA refers to airlines for their policies on what is approved for carrying small pets. We’ve linked the most common airlines and their policies below.

Pro tip: Consider a collapsible kennel with some flexibility to aid in fitting under your seat, and it doesn’t hurt to double-check your measurements.

Pet policies at the top airlines

Airline policies can change, so check for your airline’s most up-to-date information when planning your trip. We’ve linked these below, along with some highlights as of publication.

  1. Delta Air Lines: Delta welcomes passengers with small pets (including cats and dogs) in the cabin on flights within the United States, Canada, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, pets are not permitted on flights to Hawaii. Pets must be ten weeks old — 16 if traveling to another country. Two pets may ride in one carrier if they fit safely.

  2. Southwest Airlines: Southwest allows small dogs and cats onboard domestic flights within the United States, so long as they are in an approved pet carrier. They must be vaccinated, but the airline does not require documentation.

  3. American Airlines: American Airlines allows cats and dogs to travel in the cabin if the combined weight of the pet and carrier is under 20 lbs. They will not check pets except for those belonging to active-duty military or State Department employees.

  4. United Airlines: United Airlines allows small pets in the passenger cabin, such as dogs and cats. These pets must remain inside their pet carrier and be placed underneath the seat in front throughout the journey.

  5. JetBlue Airways: JetBlue allows dogs and cats to travel in the cabin in an approved carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. No large dogs are allowed. Only one pet can travel in each carrier, and they must be able to turn around comfortably when closed.

  6. Alaska Airlines: “Fur-st Class Care”? We love to see it. Alaska Airlines allows small pets like dogs and cats to fly in the cabin if the combined weight of your pet and their carrier is under 25 lbs. Pet fees are $100 per pet in the cabin or $150 per pet traveling in the baggage compartment. Two pets of the same species and of similar size may travel in the same carrier.

  7. Spirit Airlines: Spirit accepts domestic dogs and cats only in the cabin. This applies to all domestic flights, plus Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. Guests traveling to the Virgin Islands must provide a health certificate, and rabies vaccination records are required for flights to Puerto Rico. While each ticketed passenger can only have one carrier, two pets may be in one carrier as long as they can comfortably stand. Spirit does not transport pets in cargo.

  8. Frontier Airlines: Frontier Airlines allows small pets to travel in the cabin, including dogs and cats. A directional charge applies when adding a pet to your reservation, but they do not require health certificates.

  9. Hawaiian Airlines: Hawaiian Airlines welcomes small dogs and cats to fly in the passenger cabin and as checked baggage on inter-island flights and flights between the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Mainland. There is an exception for pets riding in the passenger cabin to or from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Boston (BOS), and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS).

  10. Allegiant Air: Allegiant Air only accepts domestic dogs and cats in the cabin — they do not transport animals in the cargo bin. There is a non-refundable $50 fee per segment, per carrier, and no more than two pets can ride in one carrier. Health certificates are not required.

Wheels up, paws down

There’s a lot to consider for first-time flyers. Still, as many pet parents can attest, your flight will likely be as standard as any other — with a cat or dog at your feet and some extra planning involved. Here’s to safe travels and fun adventures wherever that next flight takes you.

Dylan M. Austin is Independence Pet Group’s highly caffeinated Sr. Content Writer, supporting Figo Pet Insurance, Pets Plus Us, and PetPartners. Based in Seattle, he's usually hanging out with his Chihuahua Terrier mix, Will, and tending to an increasingly excessive houseplant collection.

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