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How to fly with your dog without it becoming a total nightmare

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On a normal day, it can be a hassle just to get yourself on a plane and to your destination, what with the stresses of TSA security, delayed flights, and limited leg room. Add in a four-legged friend as your travel companion, and things can quickly get overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean flying with your dog is impossible. If you want to travel the skies with your pet, whether it’s a quick jaunt to a neighboring state or a cross-country haul, it’s absolutely doable — as long as you take some important steps before and during the flight to make things as smooth as possible for both you and your pup. Here's where to start.

Make sure flying is safe for your dog

“If your dog doesn’t have the temperament to be in an enclosed area for a long period of time, it might not be a good idea to travel with them,” Gina DiNardo, Executive Secretary for the American Kennel Club (AKC), tells Mic. She adds that it’s also important to consider your dog’s size and breed when deciding if they can handle a flight. For example, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), short-nosed breeds — like pugs, Shih tzus and bulldogs — are more prone to respiratory problems, making them more vulnerable to the poorer ventilation and extreme temperature changes in a plane’s cargo hold.

However, not all dogs have to go in cargo holds when traveling (it depends on their size and the airline's policy), and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) prohibits airlines from shipping live animals in cargo holds if they’ll be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit for more than four consecutive hours (though exceptions may be made if you have an acclimation certificate from a veterinarian stating your dog is acclimated to temperatures colder than 45 degrees). But if you think your pup might need to be kept in cargo during the flight, do some research first to see if they'll be OK in the conditions.

Book your dog’s spot early

Each airline makes its own rules relating to travel with pets, which dictate whether or not they allow dogs to fly in the cabin, the types of breeds allowed, and additional in-flight guidelines. Many airlines also limit the number of dogs or pets allowed on each flight — so before you buy your ticket, check to see if not only that you and your pup can abide by all of the airline’s rules, but also that your desired flight isn’t already at animal capacity. You can find many specific airlines’ policies on BringFido’s website, but it never hurts to call the airline directly.

If you’re traveling internationally, make sure to also research requirements and potential restrictions on bringing pets into whatever country you’ll be entering.

Fly direct whenever possible

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If you can, choose a non-stop flight to your destination. “Changing planes with your pet may cause undue stress...particularly if layover time is not adequate for a pet walk and bathroom break,” DiNardo explains. The AVMA also recommends booking early morning or late evening flights in warm weather, and mid-day flights in cold weather, to better accommodate your dog's habits and needs.

Buy a good carrier

“Selecting the right carrier for your pet is extremely important in making sure your dog is calm and comfortable,” DiNardo says. “Soft-sided carriers are more suitable for carry-on and tend to fit better under the seat. The proper size carrier should allow your pet to be able to lie down comfortably, stand up and turn around. Triple check that your pet is secure in the carrier and they can't escape.”

The AVMA also notes that if you put your dog in a crate, it should be ventilated on opposite sides without anything that blocks the airflow, be free of anything protruding on the inside, and have a leak-proof bottom with absorbent material. Label the crate with your name, address, phone number, destination contact information, a “Live Animals” sign, and arrows indicating which side is up. Pet Travel recommends attaching a photo of your pet to the top of the crate, along with veterinary instructions, just in case you and the dog get separated.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) adds if your airline allows a crate on-board, it will be considered carry-on baggage, so it needs to fit under the seat in front of you and be properly stowed before and during the flight. If the carrier is new, the AKC recommends you buy it well in advance of your flight (at least a week) and give your dog time to get accustomed to it. Pet Travel provides a handy guide for conditioning your dog to travel in a crate.

Get your paperwork in order

Most airlines and states require health certificates, or Certificates of Veterinary Inspection, for any animal you’re traveling with, and they need to be done by a licensed and accredited vet. Because the paperwork has to be issued no more than 10 days before your flight, make sure you schedule a vet appointment during that time. The certificates will show your dog is in good health and has received the required vaccinations. Depending on your destination, though, your dog may need additional vaccines; the AVMA recommends checking with the embassy (if you're flying to a foreign country) and your vet to figure out what’s necessary.

In addition to the certificates, plan to carry updated copies of all of your dog’s medical records, as well as an acclimation certificate, if the latter is required by your airline. “Airlines make it clear that it is the owner’s responsibility to verify the dog’s health and ability to fly,” DiNardo says.

Get to know the airport layout

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By law, airports that serve more than 10,000 passengers per year are required to provide animal relief areas in each terminal for service animals accompanying passengers; and, as Cheap Flights notes, most airports allow other pets to use them as well.

But don’t wait until the clock is counting down to boarding time to actually find those areas. Check out the websites of both your departing and arriving airports so you know exactly where to go for a last-minute, pre-flight bathroom break or an urgent post-flight visit. And if you’re at a small airport without a relief area, “you can actually go out of the gate/security area and take your dog for a walk outside,” DiNardo says.

Familiarize yourself with airport protocol

Getting through the airport with a pet isn’t quite as simple as showing up, checking in, and passing through security. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to get from the street to your gate, but not too much time; according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, dogs and cats flying in the cargo hold can’t be checked in any earlier than four hours ahead of the flight.

When you arrive, “go to the special services line at the ticket counter of your airline, DiNardo says. ”Inform them that you are flying with a pet and they will print your tickets with the special pet notes.” As for security, she says to plan to take your dog out of the carrier at the last minute, send the carrier through the X-ray belt, and walk through holding your dog. “Hang tight right there until you get the nod to go ahead,” she says. “Put your dog back in the carrier, and off to your gate you go!”

Skip the sedatives

Although some pet owners think it's best to sedate anxious dogs when traveling, “avoid sedating or tranquilizing your dog without explicit approval from your vet, as this can cause serious health problems because of conditions inside the aircraft cabin,” DiNardo says.

According to the AVMA, some dog medications can increase the risk of heart and respiratory issues, and if something scary were to happen during the flight, a sedated dog might not be able to properly react. As Dr. Patricia Olsen with the American Humane Association said in a quote published by the AVMA, “an animal’s natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium is altered under sedation and when the kennel is moved, a sedated animal may not be able to brace and prevent injury.”

Pack all of the essentials

“Make sure you pack all of your dog’s creature comforts, from toys to snacks to a muzzling device, if need be,” DiNardo says. Add in any necessary medications, a collar and leash, poop bags, a bed or blankets for comfort and warmth, and food and water dishes. If your dog will be flying in the cabin with you, make sure the essentials are easily accessible in your carry-on bag. If your dog will be in the cargo hold instead, you’ll also need to attach the dishes to or leave them in the crate, along with written instructions in case the airline employees need to provide food or water. Pet Travel also recommends including something in the crate that carries your scent, like an unwashed T-shirt of yours or a familiar stuffed toy.

Pre-plan exercise, meal, and bathroom time

An excess amount of canine energy won’t be fun for you or your dog once you’re both stuck on an airplane, so plan for a long walk, run or play session shortly before you leave for the airport to tire them out. Similarly, schedule meal and bathroom times wisely, so you’re not stuck on a plane with a too-full (or too-hungry) dog, or one that desperately needs to go to the bathroom.

The AVMA suggests talking to your vet about an appropriate schedule, but notes on its website that it’s typically recommended for dogs to fly on an empty or near-empty stomach. Make sure your dog stays hydrated, though, and ask your vet about an appropriate amount of water to provide in the lead-up to your flight. To avoid accidents, take your dog outside (or to an airport relief area) to pee and poop as close to the flight as possible.

Flying with your dog doesn't have to be a nightmare, but that said, it's still far from easy, and not necessarily the right fit for every pup or trip. If flying seems like too much of a hassle, boarding your dog, finding someone to pet sit, or taking another mode of transportation (like car or train) may be a better choice.

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