Shipping Your Dog Cargo While You Fly

Travel with your carry-on dog can be safe and easy if you are prepared; shipping your dog cargo is an entirely different matter.


-By Pat Miller

A client called me recently, seeking my advice. She is moving across the country, and wanted my recommendation on which airline to use to fly her Lab mix.

“I can’t give you one,” I told her. “I simply would not ship a dog by air, so I haven’t made any effort to keep track of which one might be safest.”

She wasn’t happy with my response. “But I have no choice,” she said, “I have to ship him.”

I told her that for me, flying a dog cargo was not a viable option, and that if I were in her position I would simply, somehow, find another way. I’m sure she was nettled by what she thought was my inappropriately stubborn refusal to give her the information she wanted.

The fact is, the information is almost impossible to come by. Unbelievably, neither the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) nor the airline industry keeps records of the number or percentage of animals that are lost, injured, or killed during air cargo transport. Any figures that do get reported are regarded as suspect by one or another player in the industry.

For example, the American Humane Association estimates that of the approximately two million animals who travel by air each year, some 5,000 are lost, injured, or killed. The Air Transport Association contests that number, but can’t deny that animals are sometimes harmed during transport. Because there is currently no disclosure of such incidents required by law, however, no one knows the true number.

We pet owners tend to hear about only the sensational cases that make it into the newspapers, such as the five German Shepherds, trained for law enforcement work, who died traveling on a Delta Airlines flight from Georgia to Ohio in May 2002, or the cat who disappeared somewhere between Canada and San Francisco while being shipped on an Air Canada flight in August 2002 (the cat’s heavily damaged carrier arrived, however).

We don’t hear about the less dramatic (but hardly less damaging) cases. Our dogs can’t tell us about their exposure to the elements – excessively hot or freezing cold temperatures they may experience in the cargo hold and on the tarmac. We don’t hear about pet carriers falling off luggage conveyor belts or being tossed around by careless or hurried baggage handlers. Nor do we hear about animal carriers that, just like other luggage, get loaded on the wrong flight and end up far from their intended destinations, with no one available to comfort or allow the distressed animals to relieve their full bladders or bowels. And when a puppy is shipped to us from a distant breeder, we never know for sure if his fearful personality is genetic, or stems primarily from the trauma of travel, especially if he was shipped during one of the several “fear periods” that can occur during the first year of a puppy’s life.

The airline industry doesn’t help its public image when it resists legislation and regulations intended to improve animal safety during air travel. New rules, ordered by Congress and proposed by the FAA, are supposed to go into effect by the end of this year, but are being met with vociferous objection from at least Delta, Northwest Airlines, and the Air Transport Association. The rules would, among other things, require closer observation of animals in flight and reporting of information regarding any incidents where animals are hurt, lost, or killed, so that consumers (ostensibly) would be able to choose an airline with the best safety record. (For more about this legislation, see sidebar below.)

First things to know
Personally, even if I had reliable information about the airline’s safety record, I doubt I would risk flying my dogs – unless I can fly them in the cabin with me, as I did with my Pomeranian last September, to attend the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ annual conference in Portland, Oregon. As I learned, there is a lot that a person should know before she carries a dog onto an airplane, too! Even though I anticipated many of Dusty’s training issues that the experience would test, and had spent a significant amount of time getting him used to staying in his new airline-approved, soft-sided carrying case, there were many other aspects of our journey that were, at least, an inconvenience and could have been a major problem for Dusty and me. The first thing I learned is that the airlines charge a fee – usually about $75, each way – for each carry-on pet. This, despite the fact that they will not be handling the dog’s carrier at all! (Imagine if you had to pay $75 for any other carry-on luggage!)

I also found out that all of the airlines have a limit on how many animals a single person can carry (usually, only one pet per person) and a limit on how many animals can be on each flight. Most airlines will accept no more than two or three pets on any given flight. If you are headed toward a large dog-related event, then, you need to make your dog’s reservations very early to ensure his place under your seat.

Next, I learned that I would need a certificate from a veterinarian, advising the airline that my dog was healthy and completely vaccinated. The airline I used required this certificate to be issued no more than 10 days before my trip. Because I was going to be away for a week and the 10-day rule applied to the trip home as well, I made the health exam appointment with my veterinarian for the day before I left home. Otherwise, I would have needed to find a veterinarian in Portland to examine Dusty and issue another certificate for the trip home. Most veterinarians charge between $25 and $50 for the health exam, and an extra $10 to $25 for the certificate.

Also, those dog owners who use a reduced vaccination protocol should discuss the vaccination-reporting portion of the health certificate with their holistic veterinarian long before they plan to bring their dog on a plane. The certificate is a legal document that requires the veterinarian to swear (with his or her medical license at stake) that the dog is fully and currently vaccinated. As we’ve discussed in numerous articles, many holistic veterinarians suggest a reduced vaccination schedule for most dogs, using vaccine antibody titer tests to confirm that the dogs possess adequate antibody levels to convey protection from disease (see “Take the Titer Test,” WDJ December 2002, and “Current Thoughts on Shots,” August and September 1999).

And, of course, vaccinating the dog right before a potentially stressful trip is ill-advised.

First things to practice
Weeks (if not months) before you head to the airport with your carry-on dog, you need to invest in an appropriate airline-approved carrier (we have a strong recommendation for one; see the sidebar below). Then, you need to spend lots of time having your dog practice getting in and out of it, and spending significant amounts of time in it. This is to ensure that she will be physically and emotionally comfortable in the carrier for extended periods of time.

Introduce your dog to the carrier slowly; don’t ever force him in and zip it up quickly, which would be enough to convince many dogs to dread the carrier forevermore. Leave the carrier open, with a few treats sprinkled inside it, in your living room for a day or two so he can approach and smell it all on his own. Then, while you are reading or watching television one evening, toss treats onto the floor near the carrier, and then inside it, so your dog has to enter it, at least partway, to get the treat.

You can speed this process along by using a reward marker (such as the Click! of a clicker or the word “Yes!”) every time your dog goes even a little way into the carrier, followed by a yummy treat. Reward him for going farther and farther inside, and for increasingly long visits to the carrier before you close him in – and make those first “captures” very brief.

When your dog is comfortable staying in the closed carrier for a minute or so, give him a Kong toy stuffed with delicious treats; you can freeze the food-filled Kong to make it last even longer.

Monitor your dog closely while he’s in the carrier so you can let him out before he starts whining or exhibiting any anxiety about being closed in. If you free him immediately after any sort of outburst, you may set yourself up for further displays of whining, barking, or scratching to get out.

When he’s comfortable spending significant periods in the carrier, practice carrying him in it. Even a brief practice session may influence your selection of other carry-on items; even little dogs get heavy!

Cabin fever
I felt well-prepared but nervous before my first flight with a dog. Dusty, in all his fluffy 8 pounds and 13 years, had never been on a plane. We had driven to the APDT conference in upstate New York the year before and earned two of the three Rally legs we needed to get his title. I really wanted us to get that last Rally leg while Dusty was still capable of doing it. Besides, I had enjoyed having dogs with me at the conference the previous year and was really looking forward to his company.

Two days before we were scheduled to leave, just to be sure, I decided to call the airline to check on Dusty’s reservations, which I had made weeks before. To my dismay, the airline reservations person told me they had no record of the reservations! Fortunately, there was still an opening on my flight, but it confirmed my opinion that “you can’t be too prepared.”

The morning of our departure finally arrived. I carefully packed Dusty’s health certificate, treats, and water for the trip, as well as a stuffed Kong with extra stuffing materials in case he decided to switch into “demand barker” mode. I loaded my luggage into the car, then Dusty’s carrier, and finally, Dusty. He would be in that carrier for several hours – I didn’t want to shut him in until the last possible moment.

I parked in long-term parking at the Chattanooga airport; fortunately, the airport in our town is small enough that even long-term parking is just a brief walk from the ticket counter. I checked one suitcase through, and then we were on our way, Dusty prancing happily by my side through the airport.

At the security check, Dusty had to go into his carrier. The security officer reminded me several times that “the dog” could not come out of his carrier past this point, until we reached our destination. Dusty’s ears flattened a little at my cue to “go to bed,” but he hopped in for a treat, and I zipped him up, leaving the nylon cover rolled up on one side so he could see out. Taking a deep breath, I hoisted his bag over my left shoulder, picked up my purse with my left hand, grabbed my laptop case with my right, and headed for the gate.

Dusty wasn’t very happy and I didn’t blame him. Although I had acclimated him to the carrier, I had neglected to practice carrying it with him inside. I wasn’t very happy either; I had not realized how heavy the darn thing was once it was packed with one small dog and his various accessories. The carrier bounced and shifted as I walked, and I could feel my little friend trembling in the carrier at the same time I felt the crate strap biting into my shoulder. Other travelers, not aware of my precious cargo, came precariously close to bumping into him, which stressed us both even more.

Since I had allowed myself lots of extra time, I was able to experiment with my bags until I found a more comfortable way to carry everything. Let this be a warning: Try out all equipment in full dress rehearsal prior to actually using it.

We made it onto the plane without any new stress, and his carrier fit (just barely!) snugly under the seat in front of me. I had carefully measured it ahead of time to be sure it met the airline size limit of 17 inches long, 16 inches wide, and 10.5 inches high.

Dusty rested quietly without a peep throughout the first leg of the trip. None of the engine noises or plane vibrations seemed to bother him a bit. Seems there are some advantages to being almost totally deaf!

When flying with a carry-on dog, it is best to get a direct flight if at all possible. Of course, one of the disadvantages of a small friendly airport like Chattanooga is that you can’t get most places from here. We changed planes in Cincinnati, and had a long hike from one gate to the other. My shoulder became more and more sore.

The remainder of the trip was quiet. As soon as we exited the Portland airport I rescued Dusty from his crate and he gratefully lifted his leg for several minutes on a bush.

Not over until it’s over
The conference was enjoyable for both of us. Dusty loved sitting on my lap through workshops, and enjoyed treats and pets from other conference-goers who had left their canine companions at home and needed a “dog-fix.” He even enjoyed his first-ever professional dog massage! Halfway through the conference his shoulder popped out of place and he was walking on three legs. His chances for earning that last Rally leg were fading, until a five-minute massage miraculously fixed the problem.

When the week was over, Dusty had indeed won his Rally title, as well as an award at one of the three trials for Highest Scoring Dog Adopted From a Shelter, and High Scoring Senior Dog. He was retiring from the Rally ring with honors, and I was looking forward to getting us both back home.

Seasoned travelers now, we had far fewer anxieties about the trip. We made it home almost hitch-free.

Knowing that Dusty would travel well, I packed only the bare necessities in his travel carrier, which lightened the load on my shoulder. I had perfected my technique for holding the carrier, which also reduced the wear and tear on both of us. The Portland to Cincinnati jaunt was trouble-free, and with one leg of the journey left to go, I confidently climbed onto the small plane that would bring us home, walked to my seat and set the carrier down to slide it into its space.

Uh-oh. It didn’t fit. I pushed on it, flattening it as much as I could without infringing on Dusty’s space. It wouldn’t go, and stuck out about six inches. The flight attendant came by doing her last minute check.

“It has to go all the way under the seat,” she said.

“It won’t fit,” said I.

“We have a closet up front I can put it in,” she said.

“Not unless I can fit in the closet with him,” I answered, calmly but firmly.

“Then he’ll have to go in cargo,” she said.

“Not unless I go in cargo with him,” I answered, calmly but firmly.

“I’ll have to go get someone else,” she said, looking distinctly worried.

She brought back a male flight attendant, who went through the same litany of options for where Dusty’s carrier could go if it couldn’t fit under the seat. I gave him the same calm, firm answers. I finally reached down and managed to smoosh the carrier under the seat another two inches so it was sticking out only four inches, and he agreed that Dusty could stay there. Good thing, because I wasn’t looking forward to spending the flight in the cargo hold or in a closet!

I have to admit, while it was nice having Dusty with me at the conference, I would think long and hard before flying again with him or another small dog. It was stressful on both of us – especially when I thought I might have to change planes to prevent the airline from whisking Dusty into the cargo hold because the carrier wouldn’t fit under my seat.

People who travel more frequently than I may be more relaxed about the entire ordeal. But that doesn’t mean they can be any less vigilant about protecting their dogs from unexpected developments en route.

Pat Miller, WDJ?s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and published her first book, The Power of Positive Dog Training, in 2002.