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Opinion is divided as to whether air travel is truly safe for pets. Statistically, it is less dangerous than being a passenger in a car, but some experts warn of potentially deadly conditions for animals. The truth lies somewhere in between: Most pets arrive at their destination in fine condition, but death or injury is always a possibility. Before you decide to fly, know the risk factors and the necessary precautions to keep your pet safe.

  • Determine whether your pet is fit to fly: The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) specifies that dogs and cats must be at least 8 weeks old and weaned at least 5 days before air travel. Cats, snub-nosed dogs (pugs, boxers, etc.) and long-nosed dogs (shelties, collies, etc.) are prone to severe respiratory difficulties in an airplane’s poorly ventilated cargo hold and should travel only in the passenger cabin (if size allows) with their owner. Some airlines will not accept snub-nosed breeds if the temperature exceeds 75 degrees anywhere in the routing.

  • Do your homework: Investigate the airline’s animal transport and welfare policies, especially if you are flying with a small or commuter airline. All airlines are subject to basic AWA regulations, but specific standards of care vary greatly from one company to another.

  • Understand the potential hazards: Because a plane’s cargo hold is neither cooled nor heated until takeoff, the most dangerous time for your pet is that spent on the ground in this unventilated compartment. Both summers and winters potentially expose pets to the possibility of serious injury or death from heatstroke or hypothermia. To minimize these risks, regulations prohibit animals from being kept in the hold or on the tarmac for more than 45 minutes when temperatures are above 85 F or below 45 F. Some airlines impose even tighter temperature restrictions and may not permit animals. (Exceptions may be made for animals whose veterinarians certify they are acclimated to colder temperatures, but never warmer.)

  • Decide where your pet will fly: Most animals fly in the hold as checked baggage when traveling with their owners, or as cargo when they are unaccompanied. The AWA was enacted to ensure animals traveling in this manner are treated humanely and are not subjected to dangerous or life-threatening conditions. For specific requirements pertaining to your animal, check with the airline in advance, as policies vary.

  • Small pets may be taken into the passenger cabin with you as carry-on luggage. This places the animal’s welfare squarely in your hands but is feasible only if he is very well-behaved and fits comfortably in a container that meets standard carry-on regulations. Keep in mind that the carrier — with the animal inside — must be kept under the seat in front of you throughout the flight. Note: AWA regulations do not apply to animals traveling in the cabin.

  • Flying the not-so-fur-friendly skies: Many airlines have raised their travel fees for pets, with costs now ranging from $95 to $150 for pets traveling one-way in-cabin.

  • Make stress-free travel arrangements: Once you decide to fly, reserve space for your pet when you arrange your own tickets, preferably well in advance of your travel date. Airlines accept only a limited number of animals per flight — usually two to four in the passenger cabin and one pet per passenger — on a first-come, first-served basis. More animals are generally allowed in the cargo hold. Prepare to pay an additional fee, about $95-$150 each way; the cost is often greater for large animals traveling on a flight without their owner. Always reconfirm your reservations and flight information 24-48 hours before departure.

  • If your pet will be flying in the hold, travel on the same plane, reserve a nonstop flight and avoid holiday travel whenever possible. In summer, fly during the early morning or late evening when temperatures are cooler. Additional precautions may be necessary when traveling outside the United States and Canada. Other countries may impose lengthy quarantines, and airline workers outside North America may not be bound by animal welfare laws. (See Canadian and International Travel)

  • Prepare for the flight: Keep in mind that traveling with an animal will require additional pre-flight time and preparation on your part. Exercise your pet before the flight, and arrive at least 2 but not more than 4 hours before departure.

    • If he is traveling as carry-on luggage, check-in is normally at the passenger terminal; if he is traveling as checked baggage or as cargo in the cargo hold, proceed to the airline’s cargo terminal, which is often in a different location. Find this out when making reservations and again when confirming flight information.

    • Make sure your animal’s crate is properly labeled and secured, but do not lock it in case airline personnel have to provide emergency care.

    • Include an ice pack for extra comfort on a hot day or a hot water bottle on a cold day and wrap in a towel to prevent leaking. Do not feed your pet less than 4 hours before departure, but provide water up until boarding. You could also freeze water in the bowl so that it melts throughout the trip, providing a constant drinking source.

    • Your pet should wear a sturdy collar (breakaway collars are recommended for cats) and two identification tags marked with your name, home address and phone number, and travel address and phone number.

    • Clip your pet’s nails before departure so they won’t accidentally get caught on any part of the carrier.

    • Attach food and water dishes inside the carrier so that airline workers can reach them without opening the door. If the trip will take longer than 12 hours, also attach a plastic bag with at least one meal’s worth of dry food. Animals under 16 weeks of age must be fed every 12 hours, adult animals every 24 hours. Water must be provided at least every 12 hours, regardless of the animal’s age.

  • Be prepared for emergencies: Carry a list of emergency contact numbers and a current photograph of your pet in your wallet or purse, just in case. In the unlikely event your pet gets lost en route, contact the airline, local humane shelters, animal control agencies or USDA-APHIS.

  • Protect your investment: Inquire about insurance — an airline that won’t insure animals in its care may not be the right one for your pet. (Always read the fine print before purchasing any insurance policy.)
Note: Service animals are normally exempt from most of the regulations and fees specified in this section. Check policies with the airline when making reservations.
Important Precaution: Alert the flight crew and the captain that your pet is aboard. The pilot must activate the heater for the cargo hold; make sure this is done once you are in the air. If there are layovers or delays, ask the flight crew to be sure your pet has adequate shelter and/or ventilation; better yet, ask them to allow you to check in person. If you have arranged to watch your pet being unloaded, ask a flight attendant to call the baggage handlers and let them know you are on the way. Above all, do not hesitate to voice any concerns you have for your pet’s welfare — it is your responsibility to do so.

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Find this information and more in Traveling with Your Pet: The AAA PetBook®.

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