Travelers with dogs small enough to fit under an airplane seat don’t have to wave good-bye as their pet’s crate is rolled away, or worry about conditions in the plane’s cargo area on the tarmac or during flight. When we were deciding to add a dog to our life, we deliberately chose a breed small enough to fly at our feet. We travel often, and I didn’t want to leave our dog behind or add fear for her safety to the usual stress of plane travel. Happily, all of the major U.S. airlines, and many international airlines, allow passengers to travel with an in-cabin dog. Here are ten things you need to know to make flying with your small dog straightforward and comfortable.
1. Assess your dog’s size
Our dog Chloe is as large as a small dog can be and still fit comfortably under a plane seat. She weighs 13 lbs., and stands about 12 inches tall at the shoulder (which is where you measure a dog for height). She is fairly light-boned, however. A sturdier dog her size could weigh up to 15 lbs. If your dog weighs more than 15 lbs., you will likely find that she cannot stand or turn around in her carrier. That kind of freedom of movement is necessary for your dog’s comfort, and is required by the airlines.
Please note that very young puppies are not permitted to travel by plane: Nearly all U.S. airlines, and most international airlines, require that your dog be at least 8 weeks old.
2. Choose a good pet carrier
A good carrier will be the correct size for your dog, fit under a plane seat, and have features that make your pet’s flying experience as comfortable as possible.
The official size maximums for pet carriers vary by airline, but typically describe a carrier between 16 and 19 inches long, about 10 inches tall, and about 12 inches wide (carriers on international flights can generally be a bit larger). The most popular pet carrier is a medium-sized Sherpa bag, but I prefer a large-sized SturdiProducts bag or the Sleepypod Air carrier.
Some carriers are structured to allow them to flex in height and length. You may, therefore, be able to use a slightly larger carrier than is officially allowed, as long as it will compress to fit in a plane’s under-seat space. Once you are airborne and you pull your dog’s carrier out into your legroom area, a larger carrier will give your pet a bit more room to move around. There is a risk, however, that an airline agent will object to your non-complying carrier.
A carrier must be made of water-repellant material (in case of accidents), it must have padding under your pet, and it must have at least two large ventilation panels. I also look for a carrier that allows me to see down into it when it is at my feet, and that has a zipper that allows me to reach into the carrier and hand Chloe treats and ice cubes.
3. Accustom your dog to being in the carrier
If your dog only sees her carrier when she’s being taken to the vet, she’s not likely to regard it as a cozy den. Spend some time in the weeks before your first flight taking your dog in her carrier on short trips to loved destinations (an off-leash dog park, for example). Leave it out so she can curl up in it if she chooses (improve the chances that she’ll choose to by tossing treats and her favorite toys inside).
4. Reserve a space on the plane
Nearly all airlines limit the number of pets that can travel in-cabin on a given flight. When you make your own reservation, tell the reservation agent that you are traveling with an in-cabin dog to reserve one of the available spots. If you make your reservation on-line, call and add your dog to your reservation over the phone. As of early 2010, only Continental allows you to make reservations on-line for your pet. On most planes, a middle seat offers the most under-seat space, but ask the reservation agent if the plane you’ll be traveling on has a bulky electronics box in that space.
If possible, choose a non-stop flight to your destination, to reduce your travel time. If you must change planes, schedule a long layover between flights (at least an hour and a half) to give you time to visit a pet relief area with your dog.
It is very expensive to travel with an in-cabin pet (typically about $100 each way), and you may be tempted to smuggle your pet onboard. Resist the temptation. An increasing number of airlines are adding a special tag to pet carriers upon check-in, and airline representatives will look for that tag. You must remove your pet from her carrier to go through security, so it won’t be a secret that she’s with you. Finally, another passenger may have a severe allergy to pet dander. The location of in-cabin pets must be known to the airline so they can seat allergy sufferers in another part of the cabin.
5. Two weeks before you depart
Make an appointment with your veterinarian to get a health certificate for your dog (officially called a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection), saying that your dog is fit to travel and is up to date on her vaccinations. Not every state requires a health certificate, nor does every airline, but enough do that it is safest to get one. Schedule your appointment within 10 days of travel, and keep in mind that a health certificate is only good for 30 days after your vet signs it. Both ends of your journey need to be covered by the certificate, so if your trip lasts longer than 30 days, you’ll need to get another one in the state you’re visiting.
Also ask your veterinarian to print out your dog’s shot record. Many hotels like to see it, and if you need to board your dog at a day kennel while you’re traveling, the kennel will require it.
If you are traveling internationally with your dog, you will want to research the pet importation rules of the country you are visiting at least two months before you depart, if not more, since the kinds, and timing, of required vaccinations vary by country. A good place to start is the website for the embassy of the country you are visiting.
6. Departure day
If your flight is in the morning or the early afternoon, do not feed your dog her morning meal. Pick up her water two hours before you leave for the airport. Just before you leave, take her for a long walk, keeping in mind that you will not be offering her water at the end of it.
Line the inside of your dog’s carrier with a DryFur pad of the appropriate size (they’re pricey, but they wick moisture away from your dog and don’t bunch up under her as she shifts around). Tuck a small towel or a tee-shirt in the carrier for extra padding and comfort. Put your dog’s leash and harness and a roll of poop bags in the carrier’s pocket.
Your pet’s carrier takes the place of your carry-on bag, so the only other object you will be allowed to bring into the cabin is your purse (or other small personal item). Since your pet’s carrier occupies all of the under-seat space, your purse will need to be stowed in the overhead compartment. In case your luggage goes astray, or you find yourself stranded at an airport, be sure to pack in your purse enough kibble for a meal or two, a packet of treats, a chew toy, a collapsible bowl, and a water bottle. Don’t forget to pack your dog’s health certificate and shot record!
If we are driving to the airport, I sometimes let Chloe ride in her car seat (why not give her another half-hour of relative freedom?). If we are taking a taxi, or are in a rush, I will put her in her carrier at home. Toss a really good treat into your dog’s carrier to remind her that it’s a pleasant place to be. Leave her collar on — you’ll be there to make sure it doesn’t get hooked on anything, and you want her to have identification if she gets away from you.
7. At the airport
Your dog must be fully enclosed in her carrier the entire time that you are in the airport and on the plane. If your carrier has large ventilation panels, she will be able to see what’s going on — and there is no rule against reaching your hand in to her carrier to pat her.
You will need to check in with a ticketing agent since you are traveling with a dog. Some airlines allow you to pre-pay your pet’s fare, but most will take your payment now. Most will also issue you a tag for your pet’s carrier.
Next it’s time to go through security. I recommend taking off your shoes and jacket first, and putting them and any other special items you have (3-1-1 bag, computer) into bins before dealing with your dog. Make sure you have a really good treat in hand. Place your carrier on the belt in front of something heavy (your purse, or a bin), so its weight will push the empty carrier through the machine. Unzip the opening, reach in and scoop your pet into your arms. Do not give her the treat yet.
The carrier will go on through the x-ray machine. You’ll walk through the metal detector holding your dog in your arms. Even with her collar on, Chloe has only set off the detector twice (when that happened, we sent her collar through separately in a plastic bowl). After you get the all-clear, put your dog back into her carrier right away, showing her the treat and tossing it in ahead of her. Then collect the rest of your belongings.
8. On the plane
As with any carry-on, your dog’s carrier will need to fit completely under the seat in front of you. Since the under-seat space is generally wider than it is deep, it works best to stow the carrier left-to-right.
During the flight, you can move your dog’s carrier out and under your feet. On some airlines, and assuming it doesn’t inconvenience your seatmates, you can lift the carrier onto your lap. You cannot, however, take your dog out of her carrier or even allow her head to stick out.
You are allowed to put your hand in the carrier, and during the course of the flight, I will pat Chloe, give her a couple of treats, and two or three ice cubes. I want her to have enough water not to be dehydrated, but not so much that she has to pee.
What if you’ve miscalculated, or it’s a very long flight, and she does need to pee en route? Pack a couple of scented pee pads in your carry-on, and take them, and your dog, to the bathroom when it seems less in demand. Be sure to clean up thoroughly afterwards!
9. During layovers
With luck and planning, though, your dog should be able to travel comfortably until you reach your destination. If you have a layover, look online for the location of that airport’s “pet relief area” (all U.S. airports are now required to have a place where service dogs and pets can relieve themselves). It generally takes about an hour to exit the airport, locate the pet relief area, achieve your dog’s goals, and return through security to your departure gate.
If, despite your best efforts, your layover time has been whittled away to nothing, you can use the pee pad technique in an airport bathroom (you’ll have the most room in a handicapped stall). Be sure that no one else is waiting for the stall, and be sure to clean up thoroughly.
10. The nervous traveler
What can you do to make traveling easier for an anxious dog? Exercise is important: Make sure that your dog gets a walk just before you leave for the airport, and make it a long one. Include in her carrier her favorite toy, and a tee-shirt that you’ve worn, so your scent is close at hand. Consider wiping the inside of the carrier with Comfort Zone with DAP, a synthetic pheromone produced by nursing dogs (the TSA-friendly wipes are available on-line, and I’ve recently tried a D.A.P.-infused collar on Chloe, with some success). Some owners swear by spritz of calming lavender spray, or you could tuck a lavender sachet under the carrier’s padding (so your dog isn’t tempted to chew it). Others swear by Rescue Remedy Pet, a distillation of floral essences. A drop or two on your pet’s tongue, nose or paw may have a calming effect.
Turn to sedatives as a last resort, and only with your veterinarian’s approval and prescription. In some cases, they may be necessary and appropriate, but sedatives in general are not recommended even for pets traveling in-cabin, since they tend to affect your dog’s balance and impair her breathing.
There’s a lot to keep in mind the first time you and your small dog take to the skies, but I promise that these steps become second-nature in time. And the effort is worth it — you and your dog will be happy to be together, and your dog will love the new smells of your destination!