At first, the plan was for KC Theisen to stay behind with the pets. That’s when it looked like her husband would be gone just a year—transferred to Germany through his job with the military. When they learned he’d be there longer, they decided she’d join him.
That meant moving with the pets. And that, in turn, meant flying with the pets. “It was super nerve-wracking,” says Theisen, former director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States. “I had heard lots of stories of how traveling with pets can go wrong—mistakes that are made, accidents that happen. So I was very apprehensive about the process and decided to really commit to doing everything I could to make sure it worked out for my pets.”
The potential pitfalls of flying with pets earned national headlines in March, when a flight attendant insisted that a passenger store her 10-month-old French bulldog in an overhead baggage compartment. The dog died. And a day later, due to a mix-up, another family dog was flown to Japan instead of Kansas City. These incidents remain rare, but they serve as reminders to take the process seriously.
“When you look at the overall scale of things, it’s like 2 million animals fly in a given year, and you’ve got under a couple dozen deaths,” says Katie Lisnik, director of companion animal public policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “So the scale is small, but those couple dozen deaths are really important. Those are family members who shouldn’t have died.”
If you are planning to fly with your pets, here are some tips. (Please note: These apply mainly to family pets. The rules for service animals can be different.)
Look for another option
Do you have to fly with your pets? Both Lisnik and Theisen recommend considering alternatives, if possible—whether it’s traveling by car or, for shorter trips, finding a good sitter or boarding kennel.
The most common mistake is thinking the baggage holding area is just like being one level down from the passenger cabin, Theisen says. “A baggage hold is dark, it’s allowed to get colder than the main cabin, and it’s allowed to have different pressurization than the main cabin. And it is noisy; they’re by the engines. So people should not take on flying with a pet lightly.”
Do your homework
In preparation for flying to Germany with her 7-year-old cat Grisele and two large dogs, Guinness and Tully, Theisen went online to research airline policies. She also checked airline travel consumer reports (which include incidents involving the loss, injury or death of an animal) through the Department of Transportation.
Among the questions you’ll want to research: Where will your animals be stored? Is there a temperature-controlled area? What are the policies for sending food and water with the carrier? What are the specific size requirements for the carrier? What kind of paperwork will you need?
“Are they able to fly in the cabin with you? That’s really recommended,” Lisnik says. “If they can’t, due to size or some other issue, can you go with an airline that really puts an emphasis on pet care, that has really good data, that hasn’t lost an animal in the past couple of years, that you really feel comfortable with and is answering your questions?”
The website pettravel.com provides a helpful checklist to prepare. And you’ll want to watch the weather: Many airlines won’t accept pets in the cargo hold if the forecasted temperature will be above 84 degrees at any airport along the way. There can be restrictions due to cold temperatures as well.
Visit your vet
Most airlines require a health certificate for animals, typically is-sued within 10 days before travel. This is also a good time to ensure your pets are up for the trip, that their vaccinations are up to date and that they aren’t battling any illnesses that could be exacerbated by heat or stress.
Some pets have specific breathing issues that make travel more risky. That’s why some airlines have placed restrictions on flying with brachycephalic (flatfaced) animals such as pugs, bulldogs and Persian cats.
“You know your animal best,” Lisnik says. “And if they really get stressed out when they’re in a crate, if they really hate being confined in small spaces for more than a little while, they may not be a good risk for flying.”
Practice, practice, practice
In the months before her flight, Theisen began to train her cat to get comfortable with her carrier. She moved it to the main part of the house, then started giving her treats for going in or staying in for increasing amounts of time. The goal is to reduce stress on the big day. When her pets got to the airport, she says, “they’d already experienced as much as possible of what they were going to go through that day.”
Confirm, confirm, confirm
“Pets need a reservation, as carry-on baggage or in the hold, so the plane isn’t overloaded with animals,” Theisen says. She advises calling the airline regularly to confirm your space. “Fees aren’t paid until you check in,” she says, “so these reservations get lost more easily.”
Another tip: Flying during off-peak times reduces the risk that your pet will get bumped to a later flight should storage get full.
Navigate the airport
Theisen was able to ride with her cat in the cabin, but that brought a few challenges of its own— namely, getting through security. She had to take Grisele out in the middle of the airport so that her carrier could go through the X-ray machine.
She notes that travelers can request a private screening behind closed doors if they’re worried about how their animal may react to a bustling airport. She also had Grisele wear a harness, just in case. If your pets aren’t traveling with you in the cabin, you should still find a way to keep tabs on them—particularly in the event of delays or transfers. Check on their status with a gate agent or airline employee.
Don't overlook the destination
If you’re flying internationally, or even to Hawaii, your pets may need to be quarantined upon arrival. They may also require import forms. Familiarize yourself with the requirements, where they’ll be quarantined and for how long.
Make sure your pets are wearing collars and identification, that their microchip information is up to date, and that you have current photos, just in case they go missing.
After Theisen landed in Germany, her husband joked she wasn’t excited about being in Europe, she just cared about getting to her dogs. “It was the longest plane ride,” she says. “I kept listening for them, to see if they were barking or howling in the hold. And they didn’t, thankfully. But I was so ready to see them again.”
The couple headed straight to the luggage desk. From there, they were escorted to a side door, where Guinness and Tully were already waiting. “We just grabbed their leashes out of our carry-on bag,” she says, “and cut the zip ties off their crates, and got them out, and had a big ol’ lovefest right there in the airport.”
Michael Sharp is a former senior editor for All Animals magazine.