The American Veterinary Medical Association provides thorough recommendations for air travel with pets; these apply to travel both inside and out of the US. Their recommendations include having a complete, physical examination before departure to determine whether your pet has any medical conditions that might make air travel dangerous, such as a heart condition that might not respond well to the changes in temperature or pressure that can occur on airplanes.
Pet owners should also contact their airline well in advance to check regulations and services. Most airlines that accept animals will have information on their web page about animal transportation, including travel tips. Many animal welfare organizations have similar information on their web sites.
US federal regulations require that pets be at least 8 weeks old and weaned for at least 5 days before flying. Federal Animal Welfare Act Regulations prohibit airlines from accepting dogs and cats for shipment if the airline cannot prevent exposure of the animal to temperatures less than 45°F (7°C) for more than 45 minutes while transferring the dog or cat between the terminal and the plane. This prohibition may be waived if a veterinarian provides an acclimation certificate stating that the dog or cat can be exposed to lower temperatures. However, a veterinarian cannot give a certificate allowing exposures to temperatures above 85°F (29°C) for more than 45 minutes. Some airlines will allow small dogs or cats to be transported in the passenger section if the carrier can fit under the seat and if the animal is able to sit quietly during the flight.
In order to minimize the chances of a pet getting lost or misdirected in transit, pet owners should try to book a direct flight or one with a minimal number of stops. Midweek flights tend to be less crowded and less stressful, providing favorable conditions for both owners and pets. The ages and size of pets; the time, length, and distance of the flight; and pet feeding routines must be considered. During warm months, the risk of overheating pets (in the cargo hold) can be reduced by selecting early morning or late evening flights. Some airlines will not ship animals when the temperatures are too hot or too cold to ensure safe travel in the cargo hold.
Travelers should arrive at the airport early, exercise the leashed pet lightly before the flight, and place the pet in a secure carrier or crate that is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The words “live animal” should appear on the crate in lettering at least 1 inch high, and the crate should be labeled with the owner's home and destination contact information. In general, tranquilizing pets is not recommended prior to flights. Consult your veterinarian regarding his or her specific recommendation for your pet.
Absorbent bedding or a comfortable pad should be placed in the carrier, and a favorite soft toy may be added. An item that has your scent (for example, an old shirt that you have worn overnight during sleep) can be placed in the carrier to help reassure your pet during travel. Pets should be familiarized with the crate well before the flight. This can be done by encouraging them to sleep, eat, and drink while in the crate.
Pets should be fed a light meal no less than 6 hours before departure. A handy way to provide your pet with water during the flight itself is to freeze water in its bowl prior to the trip and place the frozen bowl in its crate immediately prior to departure. This works best if the bowl can be affixed to the wire crate door. For trips lasting longer than 24 hours, provide some dry food in a durable plastic bag, contained in a cloth or mesh bag, attached to the outside of the crate. This can be fed by flight personnel should the need arise.
Pets should always be picked up promptly upon arrival at the destination. However, pets should not be let out of the carrier until you are in a quiet and secure area where there is no chance of escape.
When entering a country with a different language or dialect, it is wise to translate information (for example, the “live animal” notice and owner contact information) into the appropriate language so that local workers and baggage handlers will comprehend the importance of the contents of the pet carrier. A manila envelope containing copies of the pet's medical records should be taped to the outside of the carrier. Travelers should also carry a copy of these records with them at all times, together with contact information for the animal's veterinarian, color photographs of the pet, both with and without the owner (as a safeguard if pets are accidentally released or stolen during transit), and any pet medications.
Microchips implanted under the skin have recently become popular for identification of pets, and in some cases are required for travel. However, not all foreign countries have microchip scanning capabilities. Also, most of the microchips used in the United States operate on different frequencies that may not be picked up by scanners in other countries. Tattooing may still be beneficial in some foreign locales. Social security numbers should never be tattooed on animals as these numbers can be used to gain access to confidential personal information. Tattooing an email address is more suitable. In addition to a standard identification tag (which should be labeled with your name, home address, and phone number), the pet's collar should include a travel tag with information detailing where you are staying while away from home. Should your pet become lost, this will allow you to be contacted at your destination.
A number of companies specialize in air transport of horses and some have international experience. These companies may include door to door service and handling of much of the appropriate paperwork. Their fees will include the costs of the attendant required to travel with the horse.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Charles M. Hendrix, DVM, PhD