How do dogs get shipped on planes? Whole Process Explained

On this blog, we’ve discussed pet air travel numerous times, usually contrasting it against ground transportation. But for the most part, it’s been in abstract summary — we’ve rarely delved into the particulars of the process. How much time do dogs have to wait on the tarmac? What’s the condition in the cargo hold that they’re loaded into? Exactly how do dogs get shipped on planes, when you really get down to it? 

To answer these questions and more, here’s an overview of a typical airline’s dog shipping procedure. We hope you’ll find it informative, but still ask you to keep in mind that industry standards shift over time. To get the final word on what kind of pet transport an airline is offering, you’ll need to contact them directly.

Criteria for dogs boarding a plane

First off, you and your dog must jump through a couple of hoops before being allowed to board. The following criteria apply for most airlines, except where noted otherwise.

Age: In the US, a puppy must be at least 8 weeks old to fly. For international flights, airlines sometimes raise this limit to 15 weeks. The reason behind this requirement is the stress that flying can put on an animal’s underdeveloped pulmonary system.

Health: For a dog to be declared fit to travel, it must go through a veterinary examination. This is rarely anything more extensive than a regular check-up at your local vet clinic. Licensed veterinarians can issue a CVI (certificate of veterinary inspection), usually valid for up to 30 days. You must present this document, along with relevant vaccination records, before boarding a plane.

Training: Most airlines retain the right to refuse to fly an animal they deem to be aggressive. If your dog isn’t travel-trained and/or exhibits aggression around strangers, you run the risk of being denied entry.

Exceptions: The only dogs not classified as pets are support and service animals. The DOT requires all airlines to allow these dogs on flights, irrespective of health certificates. For info on whether or not your dog might qualify, see the ADATA site.

Shipping dogs in the cargo hold

Once you’re cleared for take-off, the fun really begins. Assuming the airline allows you to check your dog in as baggage, you’ll need to be at the airport 2-4 hours before boarding. Their staff will check if the approved container is properly secured, then load it into the cargo hold.

The hold of an aircraft is typically pressurized and climatized, though not as comfortably as passenger cabins are. Airlines that ship live animals do aim to maintain temperature and pressure within acceptable parameters. The area in which dog crates are kept is usually quiet and well-ventilated, which assures safe transportation in the vast majority of cases.

Problems can arise when environmental parameters go out of bounds. For example, sedated dogs are known to be susceptible to even slight drops in air pressure, which results in breathing difficulties. This is one of the reasons why most airlines strictly prohibit sedating animals before transport.

Similarly, extreme environmental conditions can make conditions in the cargo hold uncomfortable or even hazardous. Airlines typically keep animals off flights if temperatures rise above 85 °F or drop below 45 °F.

Lastly, most airlines outright refuse to fly snub-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs. Experience has taught them that these breeds easily develop cardiovascular or respiratory issues in the air. Protecting animal health (and avoiding litigation), they ban these high-risk pets from flying in the cargo hold. Speaking of which… 

Shipping dogs in the cabin

As mentioned above, the answer to the question “how do dogs get shipped on planes” is twofold. You’ve heard it said that some animals are more equal than others? Well, here’s why!

While shipping a pet in the cargo hold isn’t exactly cheap, there’s another option for a select few. Some dogs (and most cats) can also be brought into the passenger cabin as carry-on luggage. The fees for this type of transport range from $75 to $125 on domestic flights. 

Here’s a list of basic requirements for transporting a dog this way:

  • The dog must be safely contained inside an airline-approved carrier/crate (see below).
  • This container must be small enough to fit under the seat (typically weighing 15-20 lbs.) 
  • The container must not block access to the main plane’s aisle.
  • The dog must be travel-trained enough not to cause disruption to other passengers.

Airlines will only allow a certain number of “carry-on pets” inside a cabin on any given flight. So, check your reservations to make sure you haven’t been accidentally bumped off.

As to the conditions in the cabin, your dog should be as comfortable flying there as you are. Some airlines won’t fly snub-nosed breeds this way either, and sedation is still not recommended. Also, flight attendants may have additional instructions and requirements regarding your dog’s behavior. You’ll be expected to comply to the best of your abilities.

Approved pet carriers

Whether transporting a dog in the hold or in the cabin, it’ll need to be inside a container of some kind. Every airline has its own requirements for the container types they approve, but IATA standards usually apply:

  • The carrier must contain no more than one adult dog or two puppies (8 weeks to 6 months, fully weaned).
  • The carrier must be spacious enough to let the dog stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably.
  • The carrier must have sufficient ventilation, including air channels on three different sides.
  • The carrier must be made of rigid, non-collapsible materials such as plastic or plywood.
  • The carrier must be secured by metal nuts and bolts, each at least half-inch in thickness.
  • The carrier must feature attachable food and water bowls, with written notes on feeding procedures.
  • The carrier must feature leak-proof flooring and absorbent lining.
  • The carrier must be rest steady on the supporting surface (no wheels allowed).
  • The carrier must have grips on the outside, allowing for safe handling.
  • Attached to the carrier must be the animal owner’s contact info, including home address and phone number.

Ready for take-off?

It’s a lot of information to take in, we know. Once you’ve processed it, we hope you’ll have a clear picture of what kind of transportation is right for your dog. If looking for even more info on how dogs get shipped on planes or otherwise, check out the other articles on our blog. And if looking to hire a professional transporter to handle your pup’s trip, CitizenShipper’s online marketplace is at your disposal.

Fly safe, and happy shipping!

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