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The Real Scoop on Pet Air Travel
On commercial airliners, there are only two options, cabin and cargo. Only very small dogs are are allowed in the cabin with their owner. Small dogs need to comfortably fit in a carrier that is approximately 8-9 inches high, 12-13 inches wide and 15-23 inches long. Carrier measurements vary by airline. Dogs must be able to stand and easily turn around in the carrier. If you are a dog owner that is lucky enough to have a small dog that will actually fit in the carrier required by most airlines and if your dog is more than 8 weeks old, you have it made. Mostly. Most airlines restrict the number of dogs in the cabin from one to seven dogs in the cabin per flight. I have heard reports from dog owners where airlines tried to refuse letting people on board if only one person is flying and has more than one small dog. But if you travel with only one small dog, hopefully you will not have this kind of trouble. Pets are also not allowed outside of their carrier or kennel during the flight. If you take your small dog with you, most airlines charge about $100 - $125 each way for your pooch. Airline companies also vary on their policies of allowing small dogs in the cabin regarding the weight of the dog, size of the carrier, etc. For details, it is best to contact each airline directly as their policies can change often. Here is DogFriendly.com's detailed airline pet policy guide for U.S. airlines and International airlines.
If you have a medium to large size dog or even a small dog that will not fit in the required carrier, cargo is the only option on a commercial airliner. Cargo travel for dogs is a whole different story. This section of the plane, located below the cabin, is not accessible by people during the airline flight. The cargo hold where pets are put used to be the same as the one with baggage. With many of the newer jets, their is a second area specifically for pets that is walled off from the baggage area. But is is still beneath the passenger section and nobody will be able to check on the dogs. The pet cargo area normally has the proper ventilation, air pressure, and heating or cooling that is required for safe animal transport. While loss of pressure and temperature control has not been recently reported, other things do go wrong. Stories range from pets getting loose on the runways because they broke out of their carriers to dogs overheating or freezing in the cargo hold. Most airline companies will not let pets fly in cargo during extreme hot or cold weather or during particular seasons. But sometimes the weather is unpredictable and we cannot always exactly determine or estimate temperatures. And even if the temperatures are okay, a flight may be delayed and while the plane is waiting on the ground, it might become too hot in the cargo hold. Not all airlines allow dogs to be transported in cargo. See DogFriendly.com's information on airline pet cargo policies. But, despite the difficulty, hundreds of thousands of people each year take their dogs on airplanes in the cabin and in cargo.
Since 2005, the airlines have been required to report monthly on incidents involving pets while under their care for travel. Incidents include injury, loss, and deaths of animals. According to this data there were 29 deaths of animals and 26 injuries to animals while flying in 2012. However, with well over 500,000 dogs traveling per year by air, these numbers do not seem significantly higher than the general death rate in the animal population. If you would like more information on the reports see DogFriendly.com's link.
If you do need to take your pet on a commercial airliner, there are some tips that may help. Airports have recently been required to provide pet relief areas for service dogs as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They allow pet dogs to use these areas as well. Some airports, such as Atlanta, Reno and JFK's American Airlines terminal have full scale dog parks at the airport. Other airports have a small dirt area. A few airports such as Seattle and Salt Lake City have a dog relief area after passing through security. Most airports would require that you be outside security to access the pet relief area. DogFriendly.com has information on the pet relief areas at a number of airports at this link.
If your dog has to go in the cargo hold, it may be helpful that they are not alone on the flight. Dogs, being pack animals, feel comfort in having others with them. If you have more than one dog traveling, that would give comfort to each. In addition, some airlines carry many more dogs than others. In the United States, it appears that United, American, Delta and Alaska Airlines carry the most dogs. So on these airlines you are more likely to have other dogs on the flight and have people skilled in handling the dogs. There is much debate on whether tranquilizing dogs helps or hurts, so you and your vet will need to make that decision.
It is important to note that in the U.S. service dogs or guide dogs are normally allowed to travel with their owner in the cabin, regardless of the size or breed of dog. Canines traveling for search and rescue operations or law enforcement are also usually allowed in the cabin but policies vary with each airline company. Dogs used for these purposes must be accompanied by their owner and usually do not need to be in a kennel, but must be harnessed (and sometimes muzzled). This is not necessarily the policy for International flights.
One thing that has become much easier in the last ten years is the ability to take your dog between countries. It used to be that many places, notably the United Kingdom, Hawaii and Australia required lengthy quarantines to bring your dog in due to fear of rabies. While Australia does still require quarantine, most other countries, including the United Kingdom and Hawaii no longer require quarantine if the proper steps are taken. General requirements are micro chipping, up to date rabies shots, and maybe a rabies blood test, but this requirement is becoming rarer. And quite a bit of paperwork. But once you've set up your dog for International travel, then you can travel with your dog to much of the world. If you are planning to take your dog overseas, it is important to plan early, make sure your pet's microchip is in before their rabies shot and that the vet records the microchip number with all of their rabies shots. For more information on these steps, see DogFriendly.com's section on International Border Requirements for Pets.
Are there other options available to dog owners? Well, yes and no. One alternative can be expensive and one involves a longer travel time. First, lets start with the most ideal, but also the more expensive option. Some airline charter companies allow your dog of any size or breed to travel in the cabin with you. They just require that your dog be restrained by a leash or car seat harness during take off and landing. Other than that, dogs are allowed to ride in the cabin with you, right next to you. The majority of chartered planes are typically smaller planes like prop planes or Lear jets. So why isn't everyone flying with their pooch this way? The issue is cost. Who would pay for this? One operator says "Wealthy, VIP's and corporate execs" pay for charters. The cost can be thousands of dollars. A flight from San Francisco, California to Phoenix, Arizona for four people and two dogs could be $6-8 thousand one way. A flight from Nashville, Tennessee to Miami, Florida could be $8-10 thousand one way. However, if you have a flexible schedule and can give advanced notice or be scheduled on an empty leg flight, prices could be cut in half. Some air charter brokers are Magellan Jets, Eljet and Air Charter Network.
The other alternative is to drive or have your pooch driven. Driving does take much longer than flying, especially across country. While your pooch can easily go with you, driving long distances are out of the question for some people that do not want to spend days on the road. So instead of driving your pooch yourself, have someone else drive him or her. There is a number of companies that will transport your pet across the country and other companies that will transport your car with your pets. The dogs will be in kennels and away from you for quite some time. Dog owners are not allowed on the shuttles, but you can fly and they will drive your pooch for you. And of course, they will make the appropriate potty and exercise breaks along the way, give your dog food, water, and even treats and toys. Each animal is in his or her own individual carrier or cage while on the road. Every shuttle bus has two or three drivers on board and they drive 24 hours per day, with the exception of pit stops of course. The rates are pretty affordable and can offer a reasonable alternative when you need to transport your pooch within the continental United States.
If you are heading between the United States and England then there is one other option to commercial airlines or charters. The fabulous Queen Mary II Cruise Ship makes the crossing a number of times a year between New York and Southampton. While dogs are not allowed in
the cabins on the ship, there is a kennel onboard. You may visit the dog there, walk the dog, and spend some time with the dog each day. The crossing usually takes about 5 - 6 days each way.
Our hope is that, one day, dogs of all sizes and breeds will be welcome in the cabin next to us on all commercial airliners. We would like to see a policy on airlines where you can at least buy the entire row of three seats for you and your dog if necessary so no one else would need to sit next to your dog. Maybe airlines could require that people with pets that don't fit in kennels under the seats carry muzzles in case it proves necessary for any reason such as excessive barking or aggression. Most people who travel with pets would much rather have the pets with them in the cabin. Flying is often stressful enough without the additional worries about your pet being unattended. Dogs are allowed on trains in Europe and they co-exist with the other passengers. Why not on airplanes as well?