Thinking about traveling by air with your pets?
My first flight with my pets, a dog and bird, was when I moved back to Calgary from Dallas. It still brings back memories of my beagle Tessa’s big mournful eyes looking through her kennel door. Her shocked expression as her kennel tipped backwards down the luggage conveyer belt, following my suitcases through the noisy machinery, baggage trains, and 95F heat on the runway, sparked the realization that Tessa’s subjective travel experience had not really been factored into my overall travel plans.
With carry-on in hand, I proceeded to gate security where Pookie the Pocket Parrot narrowly escaped the x-ray; pets do NOT have to be x-rayed, but you may be required to open your carry-on pet kennel and take your pet out so the carrier can be x-rayed separately. Whether the carrier is a hard-sided plastic kennel or one of the newer gym-bag look-alikes, it is counted as one of your carry-ons and that means there are restrictions – only one pet carrier per passenger, and it must fit under the seat in front of you. Sadly, it may not come out again until you disembark.
After I’d settled in for my flight with Pookie under the seat in front, the 2nd Officer informed me that they had purposely left Tessa in the air-conditioned terminal until they were completely finished the other loading. He promised to go down and visually confirm that my dog was properly loaded before our plane would be pushed back from the gate. What a relief…or so I thought. After taxiing out and waiting on the runway for 10 minutes before takeoff, we were all starting to wonder what the delay was…and what was that strange sound? At that moment, the captain’s voice came over the loudspeakers explaining the cause for the delay. The unusual noise wasn’t mechanical, it was a beagle; Tessa was baying counterpoint to the whine of the jet engines.
Your Pet’s Point of View
Tessa had good reason to howl. Although the cargo hold is lighted and pressurized, it’s just as noisy as the passenger cabin, and can be subject to more temperature extremes – especially in certain types of planes. Boeing 737′s have heated holds, but some Airbus models do not, meaning that the temperature in their cargo holds can reach the freezing point. Regardless of the type of plane, you might want to insulate the floor of your pet’s kennel with corrugated plastic and wool blankets (and if your pet is a chewer, especially when anxious, take adequate precautions!). Be sure to read your airlines’ rules and regulations about what may go into a kennel ahead of time. I’ve never seen an airline refuse to allow a pet’s blanket, but other articles may be an issue to some airlines or their employees.
Your pet down in the cargo hold won’t be seeing or hearing anything familiar until it sees you again, so the whole experience will be very stressful unless you have taken the time to accustom him or her to the smells and sensations associated with travelling. Prior to your trip make sure that your pet has spent sufficient “happy time” in that same carrier at home, and travelling in your car. “Happy time” means training with a food treat or reward associated with going into the kennel and more treats for staying in without a fuss. Remember, that kennel will provide your pet with a safe place during your travels, a home of its own while you stay in hotels, and a safe place to travel while in your rental car. Follow this preparation strategy, and include a couple of soft well-used toys as part of the kennel’s appointments, and your pet’s travel experience will likely be far less traumatic. It’s the least you can do!
For your carry-on pet, don’t forget that the passenger cabin might be a lot colder and draftier at floor level than it is by your head and shoulders. For birds, being on a cold drafty floor is definitely not beneficial to their comfort or health; you’ll want to have their carrier insulated on the bottom, and wrapped in a blanket or towel to block the draft without blocking the air. For a cat or small dog, lean down after your flight reaches cruising altitude and feel the floor to assess whether you should put your coat around the kennel.
Service animals may travel onboard the aircraft and sit at the feet of the person they are accompanying on WestJet, Air Canada and JetsGo. Service animals generally ride free-of-charge, as long as you can provide the necessary documentation illustrating their service status (I wish I could put a fancy harness on my beagles and call them service animals…after all, I’m sure they think I’m olfactory-impaired).
Veterinary Paperwork, Sedating Your Pet and International Travel
Always follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding sedation. Most vets do not recommend sedation because it can cause complications that may prove fatal, but this depends on your pet’s health and disposition – so ask your vet! There are also herbal products with great reputations that may reduce your pet’s anxiety without actually sedating the pet. Bobbie Glazier of Mature Pet Adoptions, an Ontario dog rescue group, highly recommends ‘Rescue Remedy’, a Bach flower essence available in health food stores, to help prepare your pet for the stressors associated with air travel. “I have had success with Rescue Remedy in a number of situations in which it has helped dogs cope with anxiety levels. The maximum recommended dosage is 4 drops up to twice a day”.
In addition to discussing sedation, you’ll want your vet to do a full medical checkup – there are some medical conditions that, if pre-existing in your pet, could cause your pet to become seriously ill or even die during transport. A medical certificate within 10 days prior to departure is always a good idea, and is mandatory for some destinations. Remember to check with the airline as to what additional paperwork you may need to provide when traveling with your pet. Most airlines require documentation that shows your pet has been vaccinated for rabies within the last year. If your veterinarian does recommend sedation for your pet, West Jet requires that the sedative type and dosage are recorded on the medical certificate. American Airlines requires a vet’s statement regarding cold acclimation before transporting an animal in the US where the expected temperature is below 7C; and they will not accept pets if the temperature anywhere enroute is below -6C or over 30C. Similar temperature restrictions are applied by Canadian airlines.
For international travel, your pet’s medical certificate is as vital as a passport. If you are crossing an international border, research the current requirements of both the country you are visiting, and your home country so that you can obtain all of the necessary veterinary paperwork (you need to know if your own country will let your pet back in when you return!). Many countries require your pet to be microchipped – and European border crossings will attempt to read the chip (and you will need the type of microchip that can be registered in Europe, otherwise you may encounter some serious difficulties!).
United Kingdom pet travel regulations, and their PETS Travel Scheme, offers an excellent example of how important adequate research and preparation are for international travel. To assist UK-bound travelers, Air Canada has created a very clearly written list of ordered steps that must be taken, http://www.aircanada.com/cargo/en/news/030301.html, SIX MONTHS before you plan to travel with your pet, to help you avoid the SIX MONTH quarantine that would normally be required! The bottom line is, think it through carefully before deciding to travel internationally with your pet. I personally won’t travel outside of the country with a pet bird because of all the talk of pandemics related to Avian Flu. Who knows when something dog or cat related will pop up.
Plan Ahead – and Have a Contingency Plan
Airline travel for pets continues to improve, thanks to airline employees’ efforts, the adoption of IATA standards, and increased awareness. Airports don’t use baggage conveyor belts for pets anymore (at least, not that I’ve seen), as friendly airline employees pick your pet up at the counter using a smoothly wheeled cart. Sheila Lewis, founder of Beagle Paws, a beagle-rescue organization in Newfoundland, says that sending dogs through the airlines has greatly improved over the years – Beagle Paws has flown over 100 dogs in the past two years to every part of Canada, all with good results. So, can you rest assured that your pet will travel comfortably?
In my experience, the airline employees I have met while travelling with my pets have all been extremely helpful and caring. Occasionally I hear a story about a dog that was not delivered safely to their destination. When I dig a little deeper, I might uncover speculations or hints of an underlying medical condition or sedation problem. Pets can experience motion sickness and if they vomit during the flight – while sedated – it could be fatal. Regardless of whether or not your pet is sedated, do not feed your pet within two hours of boarding or leave food in its carrier! Water should be provided inside the kennel, and here is a great tip: freeze water in the water dish and insert the frozen dish-shaped ice cube just as the kennel and your pet is taken away for boarding. The ice will provide moisture without spillage for the bumpiest part of the early journey.
On the outside of the kennel, tape enough food and a day’s worth of necessary medications, along with instructions for each that can be followed if your flight is delayed, or if you are separated from your pet. Make sure contact phone numbers are clearly marked on the kennel – and make sure that those contacts will know your itinerary and your pet’s needs. Clearly marking your pet’s name on top of the kennel is also a great idea – I’ve witnessed baggage handlers reassuring my beagle, Angel, by name due to this practice of mine. I’ve also started putting her picture on top too – along with a special message like “My name is Angel. I’m a beagle. Don’t forget to feed me”.
Many of the bad-news air travel stories I hear are about dogs that have gotten loose somewhere on the tarmac. As a precaution, check your pet’s kennel. Does the door stay closed even when weight is applied to the top of the kennel? Are the top and bottom of the kennel held together with flimsy, plastic pins? If so, replace those pins with metal bolts and nuts, using LokTite to make sure they don’t vibrate loose during travel (be aware that some airlines require the kennel door to be secured with releasable plastic cable-ties at all four corners). Write a sticker with “Live Animal” and “This Side Up” in large block letters to be placed on the top of the kennel, and put ‘up’ arrows on the sides, to help the handlers and your pet. I also leave a leash tied to the kennel itself – even if it’s not needed by the airline employees (I’m told that airline employees are not permitted to open the kennels) it sure comes in handy when you meet your pet at the other end.
Should that rare and very unfortunate circumstance occur where your pet gets loose – a few prior precautions may help it to be found quickly. Ensure your pet has readable accurate identification on it’s collar, including a valid contact number. Have your pet’s name clearly written on their kennel, and tape a recent picture of your pet beside it. Carry another picture with you.
Issues such as air turbulence are why the airlines maintain strict regulations regarding kennel size and construction. IATA Regulations require that the kennel is large enough for the animal to be able to lay down, turn around, and sit without its head brushing against the top of the kennel..
When purchasing a carrier, look for a kennel advertised as “airline approved” – and phone the airline well before your flight date to make sure they accept that brand and model.
Approved kennels will have ventilation on the sides, a waterproof bottom, and a metal (not plastic) door that latches top and bottom. The kennel mustn’t be too large, either – or that turbulence flinging the icecubes out of your glass will be flinging your dog around in her kennel too!
Follow the Rules, and Put Your Pet’s Comfort First
Skipper’s old kennel may be a little small for him, but it’s a short flight and after all, you’re too busy getting ready to worry about little details like that, right? You get to the airport, check him in, and breath a sigh of relief. But imagine checking in for your return flight only to find that Skipper’s kennel doesn’t meet your airline’s regulations for pet carriers, and poor Skipper won’t be able to fly home with you. “What do you mean?”, you ask. “We flew here, didn’t we?”
Which leads to Rule # 1 – If you are planning to travel by air with your pet, follow each airline’s written guidelines precisely.
If you don’t, sooner or later, you’ll find an airline employee who will.
Rule # 2 – airline regulations change frequently, so don’t rely on old information.
Be sure to carry a recently printed copy of the airline’s guidelines with you.
Rule #3 – When travelling by air with your pet, plan ahead…way ahead.
As you are now aware, some trips require blood tests, medical certificates and microchipping that needs to be addressed months ahead of the day of departure. Even where your destination’s regulations are not as stringent, other seasonal factors may come into play. If you are travelling over the Christmas season you’ll need to avoid the blackout periods where pets are not permitted to travel, or you will have to consider sending your pet ahead of you. The embargo on animals lasted three weeks for one Canadian airline this year – and you will want to AVOID that last day before an embargo on any airline because that’s the day when delays or mixups are most likely to occur. And no matter if your pet is flying with you in the cabin or cargo hold, or travelling ahead of you, most airlines only provide space for very few pets per flight, so book well in advance.
Finally, Rule# 4, and perhaps the most important rule of them all – Evaluate what’s best for your pet when you are planning your next trip.
Your pet might be more comfortable staying at home with a pet-sitter, or it might be happiest staying with you. Cost is one element to consider, as prices vary widely for either alternative. When your pet accompanies you within Canada, it could cost as little as $40 extra airfare each way, whereas adding your pet to your ticket for a US flight could cost $140 each way. Prices increase considerably when your pet has to travel ahead of you. Within Canada, the fares for pets travelling on their own start at around $150, and can easily reach $300.
Your pet’s unique disposition and characteristics should also be factored into your decision. If your pet is very old, very young, easily agitated, injured or has a biting/barking problem, you should seriously reconsider taking them on a flight with you. Again, your veterinarian’s advice on your particular pet will help you make an informed decision on what is the most sensible option.
If you do decide to travel by air with your pet, remember that research and preparation are the key. The time you put into preparing a safe and comfortable travel experience for your pet will ensure that both of you will enjoy the trip you’ve been looking forward to. Happy travels!
Loretta Melnychuk can often be spotted in airports with a beagle or two, and has been known to take her pocket-parrot on a flying holiday where his wings won’t get tired. Her passion for beagles has led her to volunteer tirelessly for Beagle Paws, a beagle rescue association (www.beaglepaws.com) that is always looking for loving homes for loving beagles. Beagle Paws needs pet-friendly people flying with any Canadian airline, especially if they have St. John’s, Newfoundland on their itinerary, to help bring a dog out west.
Loretta Melnychuk, B.Sc., P.Geol.
Beagle Paws Coordinator – Western Region http://www.beaglepaws.com