Flying with a Dog: Complete Guide for Safe and Hassle-Free Travel

Patrick MacFarland Patrick MacFarland · Updated May 1, 2023

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A dog is sitting inside a suitcase while flying.

There are numerous reasons to fly with your dog. Maybe you’re moving to another state or vacationing in Europe for three months. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided to fly with your dog, but you need to learn more about the logistics that go along with the process.

Flying with a dog comes down to three different options. Small dogs can be flying in the main cabin, other airlines allow you to check a pet as luggage while others provide cargo service. The availability of each option varies depending on the airline you book with. Before you can take to the skies with your furry friend, there are some planning and logistics you need to take care of.

Tips for Flying Your Dog in the Cargo Hold

For many dog breeds, flying in the cabin isn’t possible. Usually this is because they’re too large — however, aggressive or poorly-behaved dogs can also be banished from the cabin. Because your dog won’t be right next to you or an air nanny, there’s some additional prep work required when your dog flies in the cargo area.

  • Consider the time of year — if the temperature is under 45°F or over 85°F, airlines will cancel pet tickets if. Whenever possible, avoid summer or winter flights.
  • Take direct flights — layovers may increase your dog’s stress levels, especially if they’re in the cargo hold.
  • Freeze water in a large crate bow — frozen water won’t spill, so your dog will stay dry and have enough water for the entire flight.
  • Carry paperwork in a secure and easy-to-reach location — this includes veterinary certificates and other paperwork required by the airline and the destination location.
  • Label your crate — Include all contact information on the crate and your dog’s collar.
  • Arrive early, but not too soon — around two hours before the flight. However, you won’t be able to check in more than four hours before your flight.
  • Don’t give your dog sedatives — it can be dangerous for your pet’s health. In fact, most airlines won’t allow your dog on the plane if they suspect he’s been sedated.

Choose the Right Airline

Selecting the right airline is another important consideration when you’re flying with a dog. If you have a small dog, the sky’s the limit on choosing an airline for your travels. Just about every major airline allows dogs weighing less than 20 pounds in the cabin area and whose carrier fits under the seat.

If you have a larger breed that cannot fly in the cabin, your options are much more limited. As of 2023, there are only three airlines that allow dogs in the cargo hold — Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines.

Understand the Pet Policy of Your Preferred Airline

Many people have this notion that all airlines do in fact allow pets and dogs in the cargo hold. For domestic flights, that notion is not true. When it comes to international flights, most airlines allow dogs to be checked into the cargo hold of the airplane.

For airlines that don’t allow dogs in the cargo hold, there are exceptions for members of the military or State Department employees.

These are the airlines that don’t allow pets in the cargo hold for domestic flights:

But there’s good news on the horizon. There are three airlines that offer domestic cargo hold options.

Hawaiian Airlines Pet Policy

Hawaiian Airlines allows dogs, cats and household birds inside the cabin. The airline also allows select pets in the cargo hold.

Alaska Airlines Pet Policy

Alaska Airlines allows dogs, cats, household birds and rabbits to travel with you in the cabin. Furthermore, Alaska Airlines allows a more diverse selection of pets in the cargo hold, which include dogs, cats, household birds, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, non-poisonous reptiles, tropical fish and even pot-bellied pigs.

American Airlines Pet Policy

American Airlines allows dogs and cats inside the cabin. American Airlines Cargo is the airline’s program for flying a dog or other pets in cargo.

Please note that snub-nosed breeds like boxers and pugs cannot fly in cargo. This is to protect the animal — these breeds are more likely to experience breathing problems during the flight.

Get a Comfortable and Sturdy Pet Carrier

Having the right carrier will mean the world to your beloved Fido — the carrier can be a source of comfort during the unknowns of air travel. Here are a few tips to heed in order to purchase an airline-approved carrier that keeps your dog comfortable during the flight:

  • The crate should be roomy enough for your dog to stand up and turn around. They cannot be able to touch the top of the crate when standing.
  • It should have secure locks all around. The pins must extend past the extrusions above and below the door.
  • The crate should be ventilated on all sides.
  • Your dog’s name and your contact information should be located in a highly visible area of the carrier.
  • Attach a water and food bowl to the door, which must be accessible from outside the crate.
  • The crate needs to be secure with hardware instead of plastic fasteners.

Prepare Your Dog for the Flight

Before the flight, it’s important to prepare your dog for the flight. Proper preparation can reduce the level of stress your dog experiences during the flight.

Familiarize Your Dog With The Carrier

This is an important step towards ensuring a more comfortable flight for your dog. If possible, begin familiarizing your dog with its carrier weeks or even months ahead of the travel date. When a dog is used to their carrier and feels safe inside of it, they’ll be more comfortable during the trip.

Start slowly — the first time you introduce your dog to the carrier don’t force them into it. Instead, allow your dog to sniff around the carrier and just spend time with it in their presence. It’s important for your dog to associate the carrier with comfort, not being forced into an uncomfortable situation.

If you’re having a hard time getting your dog to voluntarily enter the carrier, consider using treats. Throw a treat into the carrier so your dog can retrieve it from inside. Don’t close the door just yet.

  • After a day or so of this activity, you may be able to get your dog to enter the carrier and have the door closed.
  • Start slow — keep them inside the carrier with the door closed for just a few minutes.
  • Gradually increase the time you leave your dog in the carrier, and once they tolerate the space, consider leaving the room for short periods of time.
  • Incrementally increase the amount of time you leave the dog alone in the carrier.

Clearly Label the Carrier

The carrier should be labeled just in case the worst happens and you get separated from your dog after pickup. With your contact information clearly labeled on the carrier, it will be easier for airline personnel to contact you about your dog’s whereabouts.

Paperwork and Designated Pickup Locations

Flying your dog requires paperwork. The airline needs this paperwork to confirm your dog is healthy enough to fly and doesn’t carry any infectious disease. Other paperwork may vary by airline.

Pet Travel Paperwork

Your pet travel paperwork is the number one thing to have ready when flying with a dog. First, make an appointment to visit a veterinarian that’s accredited by the USDA.

Veterinarians will provide you with a CVI (Certificate of Veterinary Inspection). The health certificate must be completed with the veterinarian 10 days before travel in order for them to be up-to-date. You will be asked at the gate for this health certificate and the immunization paperwork. All dogs need the required vaccinations to be allowed to travel to another state.

Here’s a list of vaccines your pet should be immunized with no more than 21 days before travel:

Vaccinations for dogs

The list of required vaccinations for dogs:

  • Canine parvovirus
  • Distemper
  • Canine hepatitis
  • Rabies

Most states require a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection and current list of vaccines, but sometimes there may be states that require more paperwork. You can find a list of states’ Department of Agriculture pages on the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture website. You can also find a list of requirements for animal transportation from each state on the USDA’s page for interstate pet travel.

Designated Pickup Locations

Before you make any arrangements for flying with a dog in cargo or as checked luggage, contact the airline to confirm the proper pickup location. This of course isn’t necessary if you’re bringing a small pooch as a carry-on.

At the pickup location, your dog will be waiting for you with a handler. Bring extra food and water in case your pup is hungry or thirsty — like humans, canines also get dehydrated on airplanes. And don’t forget to bring your own paperwork to prove you’re the dog’s owner.

Health Considerations for Dogs When Flying

Flying with your dog can be stressful, but also it can alter your dog’s health. Follow these points so that your dog has an easier time with the flight.

Health Certificate

As stated above, you need a health certificate issued by a veterinarian that is registered by the USDA. In that certificate, it will state your dog is fit for flying with a list of vaccinations they’ve received.

Food and Water

Having food and water for your doggo is important and essential. You need to have the bowls in the carrier accessible from the outside, as well. You should also freeze some water so that your dog has enough water for the entire flight.

Consult with Your Vet

The vet checkup is an important step — its where you get that health certificate issued and to ask them questions you may have about flying with your dog. Make a list beforehand so you don’t forget to ask any important questions.

Reduce Anxiety Levels

It’s really important to reduce your dog’s anxiety during the flight. It’s always best to have chew toys, a security blanket, food and water so your dog can feel more comfortable.

In-Flight Care

If your dog is in the main cabin, it’s easier to provide them with care. Have food and water bowls ready for use. If you see your dog looking or feeling uncomfortable, attend to them quickly.

In-Cabin vs Checked Baggage: Which is Best for Your Dog?

If you have a small dog, you should travel with them in the main cabin. Call ahead to make that reservation as airlines only allow one or two pets in the cabin. If you have a big dog, it’ll have to go in the cargo hold.

The cabin is always much better than the cargo hold for various reasons. Your dog will feel more at ease with you there next to them to take care of them if they need your touch. Being in the cargo hold has its health risks, as well as emotional risks.

Risks of Flying your Dog in a Cargo Hold

There are several risks of flying a dog in the cargo hold. However, it’s important to note that the vast majority of pet trips in the cargo hold go off without a hitch. These risks are relatively slim, but it’s important to be aware of them and take any preventative measures.

  • Some animals may panic in the cargo area and try to get out of their cage. If they have the proper cage, the chance of escape is slim to none. However, it could lead to the dog injuring themselves.
  • While you might be picturing your dog in a cage surrounded by all the other suitcases and cargo, that’s not the case. Pets have a separate, pressurized area where they fly. However, the dramatic changes in air pressure, temperature and potentially oxygen levels can be distressing to a dog’s health. That’s why it’s important to get a CVI to ensure your dog is healthy enough for flight.

Besides the risks to your dog’s physical health, the flight can cause your dog to experience extreme stress or trauma. This can have long-lasting effects on their emotional and physical well-being.

If you’re concerned about the risks of flying with your dog, consider alternative pet transportation methods. The most popular route is hiring a ground transportation company to drive your dog across the country.

Here are some reasons why ground transportation is a better option than flying.

  1. Flying can stress your pet, especially if they’re in the cargo hold.
  2. Ground transportation is more reliable — airlines will cancel flights due to weather and lately, due to understaffing and overbooking.
  3. Ground travel logistics are easier and can offer door-to-door delivery.

A Better Alternative

A good alternative to flying and traditional pet transport companies is using a pet transportation marketplace like CitizenShipper. These marketplaces offer the same level of service and safety traditional transportation companies with the unique ability to save you money.

What’s different about CitizenShipper and other two-way marketplaces is that drivers compete for your business. This allows you to save as much as 70% compared with traditional transporters. First, enter the details of your dog and its trip — you’ll receive quotes within a few minutes, be able to chat with drivers that bid on your trip and read reviews from previous customers.

We truly work hard to ensure your peace and tranquility throughout the entire process. CitizenShipper also provides added benefits for you so you’re even calmer — up to $1,000 Pet Protection, Booking Assurance Guarantee, a messaging system where you can communicate directly with the driver and 24/7 TeleVet access through our partner FirstVet.

As the #1 pet transportation marketplace in the nation, CitizenShipper ensures you will save money, time and hassle. The drivers on our network are dedicated to you and could even save the day! Don’t hesitate, post your pet’s transport to get free quotes now!