With many airlines, accommodations, and establishments catering to pooches nowadays, traveling with your small dog has never been easier. As long as you make its health, comfort, and safety a priority, you can have the most amazing wanderlust experience together.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), more than 23 million American households (nearly one in five nationwide) adopted a pet during the pandemic. And approximately 37% of pet owners travel with their pets, compared to just 19% a decade ago. The US Department of Transportation estimates that over two million pets travel by air each year.
Even if your dog lands safely at the destination, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the flight wasn’t a stressful or traumatic experience for it.
Unless you have a service animal, in-cabin air travel is usually a small dog’s game. Those that are too big to fly in-cabin (often capped at 16-20 lbs., depending on the airline) must travel in the cargo hold as checked baggage or shipping cargo. Due to extreme hot or cold temperatures, poor ventilation, rough handling, and lack of monitoring, animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society and PETA generally advise against flying your dog in the cargo hold. So flying in-cabin is always the safer choice.
Not investing enough time into carrier training
Carrier training is the most important step in flying with your small dog.
The objective is to help your pet feel comfortable and safe inside the carrier before a flight. This step must not be overlooked, as it takes patience, time, and lots of treats. You should invest at least two to three months doing daily carrier training before your pet’s first long-haul international flight, and a month minimum before a domestic flight. Otherwise, the trip can be a nerve-racking experience for the animal.
Daily repetition is crucial for success.
Increase the training time every day with the intent of creating a safe haven inside the carrier. Depending on the length of the flight, you’ll want to train your pet to feel comfortable there for at least 1-3 hours before travel day. The more at ease your dog feels inside the carrier, the better it will cope with the flight.
Not researching the return flight requirements
Most people who plan on traveling internationally with their dogs focus on conducting one-way research, e.g. how to get their pooch to Paris or Rome. They do minimal research for their return flight until it’s almost time to go home.
Unless you’re moving permanently, you must make sure you meet the requirements for your dog to return to the US, which may differ based on where you’ve traveled with it. Your state of arrival may also have additional requirements.
For instance, dogs imported into New York State from outside the US must have a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) issued 30 days or less before entry by a veterinarian. The certificate should have a one-year or three-year rabies vaccination record.
It’s crucial to understand that return to the US ultimately depends on where your dog has been.
For re-entry to the US from a country NOT considered high-risk for rabies (e.g., France, Belgium, Italy, UK, etc.), your dog can enter at any port with a six-month travel history statement and healthy appearance. It must also be at least six months old and microchipped, and have a CDC Import Dog Permit or valid US-issued rabies vaccination certificate.
If you’re traveling throughout Europe with your dog, you should note that some countries are considered “high-risk” for rabies by the EU (for instance, Montenegro). This means your pet will need a titer test before returning to a “rabies-controlled” country in the EU.
To find out exactly what requirements you need to meet, you can get more information on USDA APHIS.
Besides rabies regulations, there are also specific requirements if you’re returning to the US from countries where screwworm is known to exist or not declared free of foot-and-mouth disease.
Making your dog’s first flight an international one
Long-haul flights are difficult for everyone, and your little furry traveler is no exception. No matter how confident you feel about your small dog’s world-traveling capabilities, its very first flight experience should never be a long-haul international flight. For your pooch’s sake, it’s best to ease its way in by hopping on at least one domestic flight before traveling overseas.
Unlike humans, dogs have no idea where they’re going and how long they must remain on the plane. So the more exposure to flight you can provide your small dog, the better it will fare on the big (long) travel day.
And, it’s not just the act of flying that your pet should be familiar with, but also the overall airport environment.
If multiple layovers are impossible to avoid, you should give your pet some much-needed rest by spending a few days to a week at the layover destination before hopping on another flight.
Before any flight, it’s imperative to exercise your pet to exhaust its energy. As the old saying goes, a tired dog is a happy dog! Make it a routine to walk it before every flight to ensure an effortless, relaxing journey. The key here is not to force your dog into intense physical activity but to just add an extra 15-20 minutes of exercise and playtime to help it sleep through the flight. The longer it can sleep on the plane, the smoother the ride will be.
However, please keep your dog’s overall health and weather conditions in mind before extending the time: of course, it shouldn’t endure an extra 15 minutes out in the extreme heat or cold.
In the world of air travel, people tend to have an extremely low tolerance for “misbehaving” dogs, especially when it comes to accidents. No one wants to sit next to a dog (regardless of how tiny) who just wet the floor (the same goes for barking). Therefore, prevent accidents by strategizing feeding times and water and food portions, before and during the flight, in addition to potty breaks. Never fly your small dog on a full or empty stomach; the ideal feeding time should be roughly around two hours before heading to the airport, so as to allow time for digestion and relief.
As mentioned earlier, “misbehaving” dogs are frowned upon, and the last thing you want to do is scramble to find supplies to clean up after your pet. No matter how potty-trained your small dog is, accidents can still happen in a new environment, especially a stressful one.
Even with months invested in carrier training, accidents may still occur, since confined dogs are merely trying their best to “hold it” for as long as possible to avoid soiling their beds. Whether you’re walking your pooch inside the terminal or flying in-cabin 35,000 feet in the air, you should have poop bags, pee pads, dog wipes, and hand wipes handy, so you can quickly clean up after your dog without commotion. Pack these essential items inside your personal item or carry-on, where you can easily access them.
Remember to be empathetic if you catch your dog in action, because it has either held it in for a long time or feels anxious in the unfamiliar environment. Don’t make a scene or scream at it — just swiftly clean it up and move on (plus, dogs learn best through positive reinforcement anyway).
While you’ll meet many dog-loving travelers, you’ll also find others who are indifferent, scared, or even disgusted by your mini four-legged traveler. Although it may be disheartening to accept, you should never assume everyone likes dogs or feels comfortable with them. Respect the people who may fear or dislike them, feel uneasy around them, or suffer from allergies.
Always keep a low profile unless you’ve scanned the room. Don’t flaunt your small dog; you don’t want a disgruntled passenger making a petty complaint about your pet’s behavior or presence. The less attention, the better.
When walking inside the airport, keep your pet leashed or inside the carrier, and maintain distance from other people. Even at Los Angeles International Airport, we once encountered a young family of a culturally different background, with kids who were screaming and running away as we walked by.
Although you may feel relieved once your pet makes it on the plane, the real journey has just begun. A number of things can still go wrong up in the air, from restlessness to ventilation issues to accidents.
Even if your little pooch is snoring on its back with four paws in the air, you shouldn’t zone out completely, in case of an emergency. Keep the volume low on your earphones, and check on your dog consistently throughout the flight.