Summer Vacation: Traveling With Your Pet
By Sarah Liu
April showers have brought those May flowers, and vacation season is upon us! Adventure awaits, but pet parents have special considerations before packing up and heading out.
Staying or Going?
When deciding whether Fido or Fluffy is joining you on the road, consider the comfort and safety of your pet. When it comes to travel, cats and dogs are different. Cats thrive on stability and relish the comfort of their home and routines. They don’t respond well to stress, get motion sickness easily, and really like their own stuff. By contrast, most dogs love a good adventure. They feel best interacting with their “pack” and adapt well when sharing new experiences.
Planes, Trains, or Automobiles?
However you travel, your safety and your pet’s take priority. In cars, pets should ride in the back seat for minimal distraction to the driver. Neither cats nor dogs should be allowed to roam free. While crating is safest, many dogs can be trained to sit or lie in the back seat. For uncrated dogs, obedience is critical. Invest in training, and practice commands. Don’t travel with your uncrated dog until he or she recognizes your leadership and can remain calm and seated.
Unlike dogs, most cats don’t respond well to verbal commands. They should always travel in carriers. Choose a good-quality model with proper ventilation and comfortable padding. Prevent jostling by securing the carrier with seatbelts and additional cushions. Remember: cats get stressed easily. Don’t play loud music, and avoid road rage. Cover the carrier with breathable fabric to minimize stressful sights and bright lights.
Take your dog for leashed walks to stretch the legs and reduce hyperactivity. Cats will benefit from contact and reassurance from petting or grooming. Some cats can be trained to walking harnesses, but most will prefer to remain in their carriers with occasional emotional support through soothing interaction. Ask your veterinarian for more tips, including information about sedative medications to reduce stress and motion sickness.
NEVER leave your pet alone in a car.
Not up to driving Fifi to Florida? Most U.S. airlines allow cats and small dogs to accompany their humans in the cabin on domestic flights. Fees typically are $100–$150, with certified service animals traveling free. Destinations outside the continental U.S. mean additional fees and arrangements. No matter where you travel, contact an airline representative early to eliminate last-minute stress.
Whether cabin carried, checked, or cargo, pet reservations are required. Most airlines limit the number of pet carriers on a single flight—typically 6–8. For cabin passage, big airlines like American, Delta, and Southwest require pets to be at least 8–10 weeks old and fit in a carrier small enough to be stowed under the seat. The pet must have room to stand up and turn around. At security, the pet’s guardian will be asked to hold the animal while the carrier is X rayed. During flight, pets must be secured at all times and are not permitted on a passenger’s lap. Laying over? Most airports have pet relief areas.
Depending on the airline, larger non-service dogs may have the option of crated travel as “checked baggage” or transport in a pressurized cargo hold. Fees generally exceed cabin passage (typically $200–$500 by weight), and availability depends on flight length and ground temperatures. American will not allow pets to travel as checked baggage where forecasted temperatures exceed 85°F or fall below 45°F. United has a dedicated PetSafe program for animals ineligible for in-cabin travel. PetSafe offers a 24-hour desk, tracks your pet from departure to destination, and even offers frequent-flier miles for shipment. Likewise, Delta Airlines promises to “address the special needs of all warm-blooded animals” traveling without owners, but requires a separate booking and cannot guarantee the pet is shipped on the same flight as the passenger.
Sounds easy, right? But hold on—ever heard of breed restrictions? Most airlines exercise these for checked and cargo cats and dogs. Neither Delta nor American accept reservations for checked or cargo “snub-nosed” cats or dogs, including pugs, bulldogs, Persians, and Himalayans. And they aren’t just being jerks: those cute smooshed-in faces have brachycephalic syndrome, with shorter nasal passages and increased vulnerability to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke. Check with your airline before your travel plans hinge on flying. Talk with your vet, and consider United’s PetSafe program, which allows checked and cargo passage for brachycephalic pets under special enhanced requirements.
If you’re considering sedation, the American Veterinary Association counsels against tranquilizing pets during flight due to increased risk of heart and respiratory problems. Consult your veterinarian, and give detailed information about your itinerary and your pet’s transportation. Contact the airline directly about any required documentation; many carriers will require additional paperwork about type of medication, dosage, and administration.
Amtrak allows cats and dogs up to 20 pounds on trips up to 7 hours on special pet-friendly coach routes nationwide. The fee is only $25.00, but reservations are required and sell out quickly. Pets must be at least 8 weeks old, travel in carriers, and cannot accompany unsupervised minors. Amtrak does not ship pets as checked or cargo baggage. Service animals are not considered pets and can travel in any area passengers are allowed. Call 1-800-USA-RAIL or visit a station for detailed information.
It’s All in the Planning
Whatever your decision, advanced planning will relieve the stress and guilt you face making travel arrangements for your pets. Consult your veterinarian. Discuss and review your itinerary, get copies of necessary paperwork, update vaccinations, and seek objective advice on the pros and cons of pet travel versus petsitting.
Sarah Liu is a volunteer at King Street Cats in Old Town Alexandria. Originally from Indiana, Sarah enjoys travel, The Walking Dead, and sushi. She works so her cat can have a better life.
American Veterinary Medicine Association