How to Travel Safely With Pets
Pet travel has earned some very bad publicity of late. In March, a United Airlines flight attendant forced a dog to spend its entire flight in an overhead bin, where it suffocated to death. The next day, two dogs traveling in cargo—also on United—were mixed up and flown to the wrong continents. Capping off the week, Delta sent an eight-week-old puppy to Vegas instead of Boise. Sensing a systemic problem (or at least the public perception of one), United suspended its widely used PetSafe program to conduct a thorough review.
The introspection is welcome, especially since it resulted in a revised set of policies that’ll go into effect when the program resumes next month. But as we’ve reported, the risks of pet travel are real. According to the Department of Transportation (which, it’s worth noting, only includes data on traveler-owned pets and dogs and cats flown by commercial breeders, meaning research animals and those falling into other categories are excluded from the report), 24 animals were killed and 15 were injured while traveling in cargo in 2017. Most were on United flights.
For many pet owners, the risks outweigh the benefits. But some travelers have no choice. And still others have found happy ways to bring their pets along by car, train, and plane. In fact, the percentage of dog owners taking their pets on trips more than doubled between 2006 and 2016, from 20 percent to 40 percent, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. And the news isn’t all bad. There are more pet travel options now than ever before. With the right preparation, your furry family member can tag along safely and happily. Here’s our advice on how to do it.
The Basics of Pet Travel
- Make sure your pet’s up for the trip “The first thing you want to ask yourself is, ‘Are you sure your pet really wants to go?’” says Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and author of The Education of Will. “I’ve seen people who believed their dog would be fine or they wanted their cat to go with them, but the animal was terrified of strangers or a wreck in noisy places. So think about your pet’s personality and remember that traveling will involve exposure to new people and changing environments.” Also, consult with your vet if you have any doubt as to whether or not your pet is healthy enough to handle the adventure.
- Book in advance. And confirm! Book your hotel or rental property early—and call to confirm you can get a pet-friendly room. “A lot of times hotels will only have a certain number of rooms available for pet use,” says Amy Burkert, co-founder of GoPetFriendly.com. Airlines and trains also have a set capacity for pets on each trip, so reserve ahead of time to be sure there’s a spot for your animal.
- Get a (space-age) pet ID. “Your animal should always travel with tags that carry his name and your cell number. And ideally, your dog or cat should have a microchip,” says Dr. McConnell. Yes: a microchip. They’re about the size of a grain of rice, they’re programmed with a unique ID number, and they’re easily injected beneath your pet’s skin. If he gets lost, a simple scan can identify you as his owner. This isn’t just about keeping your tech edge—a 2009 study showed that microchipped dogs are more than twice as likely to be reunited with their owners as non-microchipped dogs, and microchipped cats are more than 20 times as likely to be returned home. Just be sure to keep your contact information current with the microchip registry database.
- Get an approved pet carrier. Make sure the airline or railway has officially sanctioned your carrier by checking the requirements on the website. Then label the carrier with your pet’s name as well as your name and contact info. Mark it clearly and prominently with the words “Live Animal,” so nobody can mistake it for regular luggage.
- Acclimate your pet to the carrier. As soon as you’ve got your carrier, start enticing your dog or cat to use it. “A lot of the hard carriers come in two pieces, so I recommend setting out just the bottom piece and placing your pet’s bedding—and even treats—in there to make your pet feel comfortable with it,” says Susan Smith, president and CEO of PetTravel.com. “Then put the top on and leave the door open at home. We have owners whose pets would prefer to sleep in the crate than the bed.”
- Bring medical records. Gather health records, medication information, and proof of vaccinations from your vet—and carry them with you. Rules vary by airline and country, so check for any “pet passport” requirements (more below) long before it’s time to leave. You might even need your pet’s medical documents when driving across state lines, or to make an emergency visit to the vet. “I’ve scanned my dogs’ entire medical records to a USB drive and I keep that with us all the time on the road,” says Burkert. It’s also wise to attach your dog’s rabies tag to her collar (which proves vaccination), and to treat your pet with preventive flea and tick medication before you go.
- Get the right gear. Invest in collapsible water bowls, waste bags, a safety harness, and a leash. Don’t forget comfort items like a dog bed and toys. “Bring things that feel like home because even for a dog who is used to traveling, the first days of a trip can be unnerving,” says Dr. McConnell. “Always travel with bedding that the animal has slept on or with one of your t-shirts placed in the crate because it smells like home and like you, which is calming to your pet.” The pet bed or crate can then serve as a cozy sleeping spot once you’re at your destination.
- Stay on schedule. Try to feed your animal at the same times of day as you would at home. “Dogs get some of their security from staying on their routine,” says Burkert. Don’t overfeed before a long journey; a light meal a few hours before leaving can help avoid nausea during the trip.
- Avoid adventurous eating. Bring your pet’s food from home, and stick to bottled water—changes in diet can cause GI upset in pets just as they can in owners.
- Mark your territory. Once you’re at your destination, stick with your pet for a while to help get her settled. “If we’re staying in a new rental property, we don’t leave the dogs alone until we’ve been there for 24 hours,” says Burkert. “If we’ve unpacked and slept there, the dogs get a feel that this is home and we’re coming back.” When you do head out without her, consider using an X-pen or baby gate to keep her confined to a safe area. Or use the crate if that’s where she feels safe and comfortable.
Road Tripping with Pets
Driving, it turns out, is the most popular way to travel with pets, especially dogs. A full 37 percent of dog owners do it, including GoPetFriendly.com co-founder Burkert, who’s been traveling the country in an RV with her husband (aka her co-founder) and their two dogs for more than eight years. It makes sense: you can go at your own pace; you can pack as many supplies as you need; and best of all, you get to stay with your pet throughout the trip. “I get more joy doing things with my pets than I would without them,” Burkert says. “There are amazing things you can do when you travel together.”
And it’s getting easier to find those things. A slew of new websites—Burkert’s GoPetFriendly.com, PetTravel.com, BringFido.com, and others—can connect you with all aspects of the pet-friendly travel experience: hotels, restaurants, beaches, stores, campgrounds, off-leash parks, and even wineries, not to mention local veterinarians. The ready-made destination guides on GoPetFriendly.com are a great place to start. They’ve even got a Road Trip Planner tool that will generate a map of your route, complete with pet-related services along the way. BringFido.com has reviews of 25,000 pet-friendly hotels and rentals, as well as a searchable activity planner for each destination (like “Dog Friendly Paris”) and a convenient reservation search engine and booking platform. PetTravel.com has information on every aspect of pet travel, including international import and quarantine policies, local services, and over 35,000 pet-friendly hotels.
Follow these rules of the road:
- Buckle up. You buckle yourself and your children into the car; a pet should be no different. “Animals should be restrained with a harness or a carrier that is secured to the vehicle for your pet’s safety and for your safety,” says Lindsey A. Wolko, founder of Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit that crash tests and certifies pet harnesses, carriers, and travel crates. “An unharnessed pet can be a driving distraction, and during a crash can become a projectile that hits human occupants.” It’s not only smart, in several states it’s also the law: in New Jersey it’s illegal to take your pet in the car without using a safety restraint; in certain states laws prohibit drivers from placing an animal in the bed of a truck without a proper restraint; and in many states drivers can be charged with distracted driving if pets are seated on the driver’s lap, or with their heads out the window, or in any way that blocks the driver’s vision. Check the laws per state here before you hit the road. Also, choose a CPS-certified restraint that’s sized for your pet—and position it in the backseat of your car because animals, like small children, can be injured by front-seat airbags.
- Take pit stops. This one might go without saying, but it’s worth reminding yourself to stop every few hours to let your pet stretch his legs and relieve himself. “Give your dog time to sniff new sniffs,” says Smith. “And always keep him on leash because dogs may try to bolt in unfamiliar environments.”
- Don’t leave your pet alone in a car. “Any animal is at risk of overheating if left in a locked car on a summer day; unfortunately we see this in the clinic frequently,” says Diana Fellen, DVM, a veterinarian at Westfield Veterinary Group in New Jersey. On hot days, the temperature inside a car can reach over 100 degrees in 10 to 15 minutes, even with the windows ajar. That can be deadly. But it isn’t just a problem on hot days. On mild days—low 60’s, say—the temperature inside a closed car can surpass 100 degrees in an hour. On cold days the risk is reversed but equally dangerous, with temps in parked cars dipping below freezing. Partially opened windows also raise the possibility that pets might try to jump out, or that passersby will try to stick their hands in, which can scare animals and provoke them to bite. If you’re driving solo and you absolutely, positively *must *use a restroom, Burket suggests locking your dog in the car with a bowl of water and setting a five-minute timer so you’re reminded to get back as fast as possible.
Pets on Trains
Trains can be a great way to travel with pets, especially when they’re small. For the past few years, dogs and cats weighing up to 20 pounds have been allowed on most Amtrak routes of seven hours or less. The cost is just $25 per animal, but you’ll want to reserve early: there’s a maximum of five animals allowed per train, not including service animals. There are also a few rules:
- Pets must ride beneath seats in approved, labeled pet carriers. The maximum size for carriers is 19″ long, 14″ wide, and 10.5″ high—and your pet must be able to sit and lie down inside it without touching the sides.
- Pets have to be at least 8 weeks old, healthy, and harmless.
- Owners are required to sign a document certifying that their pets’ vaccinations are current, and accepting liability for their pet’s well being.
It’s a good idea to give your pet a long walk to tire her out before settling into her carrier. Then, once you’re aboard, be nice to her. Check on her frequently to make sure she has water; talk to her gently to remind her you’re nearby. “Just be sure to use a low, soothing voice when talking to your pet,” says Dr. McConnell. “Our voices can create calm or anxiety, so sing a lullaby to your best friend instead of a grunge rock song and it really might help keep her relaxed.”
Pets on Planes
The safest place for your pet is with you in the plane’s cabin. Typically, though, animals have to be under 15 pounds to ride there, and they have to fit into a carrier that’s small enough to stay beneath the seat throughout the flight. Check the airline’s policies to be sure your carrier is approved. What’s more, your pet must have enough room inside the carrier to be able to stand and turn around—which means in-cabin travel is only an option for small animals like cats, small-breed dogs, and rabbits. Domestic flights require pets to be at least 8 weeks old in order to fly, and you’ll need to bring a recent health certificate and immunization records from a vet. Fees run around $125 per pet each way. Note that the guidelines for flying with emotional support animals or service animals are different, so it’s best to confirm the airline’s policies well before your travel date.
If you’re traveling internationally, regulations and fees will vary according to the airline and the laws in your final destination. Most countries require you to have a pet health certificate from a vet who’s been accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA’s Animal Health Inspection Service lets you check your pet’s eligibility as well as entry and exit requirements for many countries, and PetTravel.com shows you pet policies by airline. If you can, book a window seat. “It’ll keep your pet away from the action in the aisle,” says Smith.
Of course, many pets are too big to fly in the cabin. So unless you’ve got both the time and the money to spend on a pet-friendly cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2, your pet will have to fly in cargo. In that case, follow these tips to help keep your pet safe:
- Travel when the weather’s milder, ideally in fall or spring when it’s less likely your pet will encounter extremes of heat or cold during the flight.
- As with other kinds of travel, use the right carrier—one that’s sturdy and IATA approved. Here, too, the crate needs to be roomy enough to let your pet stand up and turn around, and should to be labeled with “Live Animal” stickers, your contact information, and your pet’s name. Smith also recommends attaching a photo of your pet to the crate to avoid animal mixups. Use removable zip ties to close the crate securely; the last thing you want is for your pet to break free and get into the cargo hold, where the risk of injury is significant.
- Freeze a small bowl of water and place it inside the crate. The ice won’t spill during loading, but it’ll be drinkable as it defrosts during the flight. If you’ve got a layover and someone else will need to feed your pet enroute, put the pet food in a plastic bag and secure it to the outside of the crate along with feeding instructions—and attach an empty food bowl inside the crate. If you need pet crate travel accessories, you can find them here.
- Similar to train travel, don’t overfeed your pet before flying. Give your animal a light meal several hours before take off to avoid nausea during the flight. And if you can, walk your dog before the journey to help him expend some energy pre-boarding.
- Don’t sedate your pet. “Sedatives during air travel can increase the risk of heart or respiratory issues potentially caused by changing altitudes and atmospheric pressures,” says Kurt Venator, DVM, PhD, Purina’s chief veterinary officer. “Sedatives may also interfere with your pet’s balance or equilibrium while being transported in a carrier or crate.”
- When you board, tell the flight attendants and pilots that your pet is in cargo so they can be extra mindful of the temperature and air pressure there.
- Don’t be shy; advocate for your pet. Ask airline staff about her status as soon as you land.
If all this leaves you feeling like it really ought to be easier, you’re not alone. Which is why we’re curious about a startup called The New Pet Airways. Instead of wedging pets under seats in a main cabin, or stowing them in cargo, New Pet Airways plans to go ahead and give them the whole plane. Cabins would be specially configured for crates (even larger ones), and an on-board attendant would supervise the “pawsengers” (hey, work in progress here) throughout the flight. Founders Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel aren’t new to the game; an earlier version of their pets-only airline ran (as Pet Airways) from 2009 to 2011. “We flew over 9,000 pets of all kinds when we were in operation, and our goal is to make sure pets fly safely and in a comfortable environment again,” says Binder. They’re currently in fundraising. Our fingers are crossed.