Flying with Big Dogs: What You Need to Know

Flying Dog

Dogs and humans have much in common, but one shared characteristic universal to all people and pups is this: we weren’t made to fly. Without wings, we rely on artificial contrivances to hurl our bodies through the air at startling velocities. Because the act of flying is altogether incongruous with our biology, we’re susceptible to discomforts both mental and physical. For humans, these are typically manageable. We can put our apprehensions in check by citing statistics (you’re more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash, etc.). We know to yawn when we want to pop our ears. We can run to the bathroom if we feel sick.

Dogs, however, are another animal entirely. Perhaps this is too presumptuous, but dogs probably don’t understand the act of flying. They probably don’t comprehend they are soaring 500mph, 7 miles off the ground. They may not understand the flying process is only temporary and they are not, in fact, damned to an eternity aboard a 747. They don’t know where they’re going or why they’re going there. In fact, they don’t know they’re “going” at all. Flying from a dog’s perspective is undoubtedly terrifying. Shoved into a little box and left unattended in a dark cargo hold, they spend hours on end listening the roar of the engines and getting tossed about by turbulence.

Here at NerdWallet, we care about dogs. We love ‘em! And we want to make sure yours has a safe and non-traumatizing journey. This article relates specifically to big dogs, the guys who can’t fit in a box below your seat and are thus not permitted to ride in the cabin. Here’s a list of tips for preparing your pup for flight.

1. Make sure your dog is up for the trip

Like humans, dogs are most vulnerable at very young and very old ages. The USDA requires pets to be at least 8 weeks old and fully weaned before flying. A dog in the prime of his life will be better able to handle the bumpy ride.

Before you fly, visit your vet. Get an expert opinion on whether flying is viable option for your dog. You’ll also need to acquire an Airline Veterinary Health Certificate. Most airlines prefer you obtain it no longer than 7-10 days prior to your flight.

2. Book nonstop, direct flights

Yes, it’s more expensive. But do it for your dog. A continuous 3-hour journey will be much more tolerable than a 2 shorter flights with layover time in-between. Remember, for the duration of your trip, your dog will be treated as little more than luggage. Less time and handling will reduce the probability of an incident.

3. Talk to the airline

Larger dogs will likely need to fly as checked baggage or in cargo. Check to see which airlines offer these services and how much the airline pet fees are. Call the airline before booking your flight – airlines typically have a limit on how many pets they can permit per flight. Some airlines will waive the phone reservation fee if you are also paying pet fees. However, if the airline does not waive the phone fee, book your flight online and then immediately call the airline back to reserve a spot for your dog and pay the fees. A day or two before you fly out, call them again to confirm everything is in order and ask for specific instructions upon arrival. Make sure to ask a lot of questions. Make sure you know how much you’re paying, what documentation you’ll need to bring, etc.

4.  Prepare the proper carrier

According the the IATA, a proper sized crate will provide your pet with enough room to lie, sit and stand in a natural position as well as turn around while standing. Add padding to increase comfort and protection while maintaining the aforementioned space requirements. On the exterior of the crate, clearly mark your name, address and destination. You may also want to display the words “LIVE ANIMAL” in large letters across each side and add arrows indicating the top of the crate.

If your dog isn’t accustomed to being in a crate, we advise you to get him acclimated before the journey. Take a few weeks to ease him into carrier. Set the carrier in a comfortable place in the house. Put your dog’s favorite blanket, toy and/or treats inside and leave the gate open. Let him enter the carrier on his own free will. The carrier should be eventually become a comfort zone so that he will want to be in the carrier when it is time for traveling.

5. Be careful with sedatives

Some dogs are tightly wound. We don’t love them less because of it, but they exude energy and maybe worry a little too much. You may be tempted to mellow out your pet by use of sedatives. BE CAREFUL. It’s hard to say how your pet will react to sedatives at a high altitude. Do not making any such decisions on your own. Talk to your vet. Drugs can be extremely dangerous, and you’ll want to be certain you won’t do any harm to your friend.

6. Know when and how much to feed

Animals are prone to motion sickness just like humans. You can help stabilize your pet’s tummy by decreasing the amount of food you give him the day before (don’t decrease the  amount of water). The law then requires you to provide a light meal 2 hours before checking in. Don’t overfeed. A full belly will spell disaster.

7. Walk your dog

It is recommended you walk your dog twice the day of departure–once before you leave the house and once right before check-in. Wear him down a little. Give him incentive to relax on the voyage.

8. Watch “Airplane” the night before

Put your dog in a good mood. Let him know flying can be fun.