How to Fly Safely With Your Small Animal

I was on a flight recently with a cat who was not enjoying herself, and consequently, neither were the passengers around her. It can be tough to fly with small animals as a bystander, and it’s even harder when you’re the animal’s guardian, because flying with pets can turn into a gauntlet thanks to airline requirements, security issues and your animal’s own stress. We’ve got some tips on making it safer, and more comfortable, for both of you.

For starters, avoiding flying really is the best way to go. It can be incredibly stressful even when everything goes smoothly. If you’ve got to fly and your animals are coming with you, focus on finding nonstop flights, if you can, although they may be more expensive. Make sure to contact the airline to let them know you’re flying with a pet and get information about whether your pet needs to be ticketed, and what the requirements are for carriers. Airlines are very particular about carrying containers, and their standards vary highly. Here are some example policies from Delta, United and American to give you an idea.

If you’re traveling internationally, you may need a pet passport, which will include certification of current vaccinations, an examination by a veterinarian, and microchipping. Check ahead to find out about quarantine regulations. Sometimes it’s possible to skip or cut down on quarantine with the right passport endorsements or a short voluntary pre-quarantine in your home nation. If your pet doesn’t meet international travel standards, she could be sent back at the border, quarantined, or even euthanized, so make sure all your bases are covered before you fly — check with the embassy, department of agriculture, and related agencies in both nations before you go.

Once you’re all set to fly, we strongly recommend against putting animals in cargo. Animals in cargo could, just like your luggage, be routed to the wrong place, or abused by baggage handlers. They can also escape on the tarmac, like Jack the Cat, who ran on the loose for two months before being captured, but ultimately had to be euthanized due to poor health. Animals in cargo are put in a specially pressurized section of the hold, but they can still sit in extreme cold or heat, as well as wet and windy conditions during loading. They may be deprived of food and water, and sudden pressure or temperature changes can occur during flight. The environment can be noisy and stressful, and it can be too much, especially for brachycephalic (snub-nosed, think pugs and Persians) breeds.

If your animal absolutely must go into the cargo hold due to size, consider working with an air transport company that specializes in animal transportation and will treat your companion animal with the respect and attention she deserves. Get a stout, well-made kennel, and affix a label with contact information, emergency contact information, and flight details. Consider etching your contact information and the animal’s name so it won’t be lost, and if your animal has medical needs, make sure these are clearly detailed.

If this isn’t an option, work closely with the airline. Ask to see your animal loaded and unloaded at each stop, and make sure your animal is last on, first off when cargo is loaded — and kept in a safe, comfortable location during waits and layovers. Always make sure you’re on the same plane with your animal, and inform the head flight attendant and the captain that you have an animal on board. If you have a long layover or there’s a delay, ask for your animal to be unloaded and brought into a temperature-controlled area so she can get some rest and water.

Meanwhile…if you’re bringing Fluffy, Fido, or Cottontail on board with you, you need to start with an airline-approved carrier. Remember that carriers will be jostled by vibrations from the plane, as well as the animal, who may be agitated due to stress. Avoid carriers held together by wing nuts, and if you use a soft carrier, look for one made from tough, double-stitched materials. The last thing you want is a cat, bunny, or dog clawing out and getting loose on the plane or in the airport.

Attach all your information as above to the carrier, and equip it with a traveling water bottle and food dish — but don’t feed your animal for around six hours before the flight, as some animals might vomit from stress. Hand out food and treats judiciously. Get your animal used to the carrier before you fly by leaving it out so she can get comfortable with it and associate it with home. Consider lining it with a garment that smells like you, and adding a favorite toy as a distraction.

If you’re concerned about stress, discuss the issue with your vet to determine if your animal would benefit from a sedative. Veterinarians tend to be judicious about sedatives, as they can slow an animal’s heart and breathing rate. While this is part of the goal, it also makes it more likely that your animal will go into cardiac or respiratory distress. On the plane, you’ll need to monitor your animal carefully for signs of distress like panting, heaving, or listlessness. Contact a flight attendant immediately in the event of an emergency.

Consider boarding last, to reduce the amount of time your animal will spend under your seat waiting at the gate and during takeoff. Ask your flight attendant to help you deplane early, explaining to the passengers around you that it’s important for you to get off the plane as quickly as possible for your pet’s safety. It may be possible to move you forward in the aircraft to assist with this.

Getting through security: you may have heard that you’ll have to take your animal out of her carrier to get through security, so the carrier can be screened separately. However, you can actually request what is known as a “secondary screening,” which will allow you to skip this step. Arrive early, as this can take longer, but it’s much safer for rabbits, nervous cats, and other small animals who might become distressed or bolt if taken out of their carriers in the busy security line. If a security agent insists that this isn’t possible, politely request a manager and stand your ground until you get a secondary screening.

Finally, whether you’re flying with animals or not, if you see a loose animal in the airport, spot animal abuse, or see someone with an animal who looks like she needs help, intervene. Report animal abuse to the airline and ask for immediate action — for example, if you see a baggage handler throwing a crate with a live animal inside, immediately contact your flight attendant.

Photo credit: Jannes Pockele.


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago

good point, Lisa

Lisa Zarafonetis
Lisa Z3 years ago

I vowed to NEVER fly Delta after they had multiple pet losses.
D.E.L.T.A. means:
Don't Ever Leave The Airport !

Alondra Pacheco
Alondra Pacheco3 years ago

United charges about $125 to have your pet fly in a carrier with you. I would not trust an airline to store my cat as cargo as so many poor animals have been lost that way.

Sheri D.
Sheri D3 years ago

great advice

June Sharp
June Sharp3 years ago

For $100 or a little more, you can take your small animal on board on most airlines. Three years ago, I took a former friend to the airport with her pug in a soft container to be on board with her on the seat.

Susanne P.
Susanne P3 years ago

Thx for sharing!

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Graham Parker
Graham P3 years ago

@Jacqui G- Luv it, Luv it, wonderful comment and have sent you a star.How many times have I sat on a flight for 4 hours and suffered due to parents who have not prepared sufficently to take their chidren on a flight.So s.e.Smith writer of this article please do one on how to take your kids on a flight.

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Good information. Thanks!