Planning a big vacation is fun — and a little stressful. What do you pack? Should you check a bag? How much time should you allow for getting through airport security? (Answer: who knows?) And if you’re traveling with dogs or cats to the big family reunion, things get even more complicated.
To help your flights with Max or Luna go super smoothly, we went ahead and consulted top pet resources and experts. We came away with this advice above all: plan ahead. A smart first step is to go over the US government’s pet travel guidelines to check the latest restrictions on flying with pets to different states and countries. Then, book your ticket and the reservation for your pet early, since airlines allow only a set number of animals on each flight.
Airlines offer two options for transporting a pet: in the passenger cabin or below in the cargo hold. You can bring a cat or a small dog — generally weighing less than 25 pounds — in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. (That measurement can be found on your airline’s website.) If you have a bigger dog, your only choice is to fly them in a crate in the cargo hold. Separating from your pet during travel inherently involves some risk, but consulting veterinarian for Healthy Paws Pet Insurance Dr. Zac Pilossoph says, “Most pets will be OK flying cargo — except for brachycephalic ones.” Those are the smush-faced breeds, including mastiffs, boxers and bulldogs. “Those breeds usually have some sort of breathing issues, which higher altitudes exacerbate,” he says.
Whether flying in cargo or in the cabin with you, the unfamiliar environment and sounds of air travel is anxiety-provoking in most pets. Dr. Karin Sullivan, medical director for the Arizona Animal Welfare League, has a tip. “Place the carrier, with some blankets inside, in their environment at home for about a week before your trip,” she advises. “If your pet gets accustomed to the carrier, they will be less anxious on the day of travel.” Also, right before you leave, trim your pal’s nails so they don’t get caught in the carrier, and ensure they’re properly groomed so they don’t overheat, adds Pilossoph.
Finally, to help your pet remain as calm as possible during the trip, you may want to talk with your vet about whether an anti-anxiety medication might be a good idea. “It’s ideal to experiment with these medications at home before you travel to have an idea of how your pet will be affected. They don’t all respond the same,” advises Mark D. Freeman, assistant professor, community practice at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Also, be sure to pack your pet’s rabies vaccine certificate, he adds.
As you can tell, it’s extremely important to plan ahead — perhaps even with a stay at a pet-friendly hotel when you get to your destination. With that in mind, we’ve zeroed in on 17 products — some recommended right from the vets we talked to — that can help make flying with pets as easy as possible.
Mr. Peanuts Soft-Sided Pet Carrier ($59; amazon.com)
“Here’s a good example of a carrier that could be used for a small dog or a cat,” notes Erin Askeland, Camp Bow Wow’s animal health and behavior consultant. It fits cats and dogs up to 15 pounds and “has multiple mesh windows for breathability, and a sturdy base for support when lifted.”
Roverlund Carrier and Travel Bag ($159; amazon.com)
“Carriers should be well ventilated, sturdy and easy to hold,” notes Askeland. This Roverlund model is for pets up to 20 pounds and has a flexible rear frame that can compress to conform to seat requirements on most smaller aircraft. It also has storage pockets and a removable fleece-lined bed. (Askeland says it’s never a bad idea to line a carrier, whether for dog or cat, with puppy pads.)
Vceoa Soft-Sided Cat Carrier ($19.99; amazon.com)
“I usually recommend a soft carrier as the most appropriate if your pet will be in the cabin with you, as the areas you’re trying to fit it into aren’t always going to be boxy,” notes Pilossoph. If you’re wondering how to travel with a cat, this carrier is perfect for cats up to 16 pounds and checks all the boxes without being boxy: mesh windows for ventilation, locking zippers, two entry options and a vacation budget-friendly price.
Kurgo Pet Backpack Carrier ($144.95; amazon.com)
“I also recommend considering an airline-approved backpack carrier,” says Pilossoph. If the idea of toting a kitty or your Chihuahua on your back is appealing, you might consider this airline- and TSA-approved option. It holds cats or dogs up to 25 pounds and has a waterproof bottom (whew), and a tether inside to latch onto your pet’s harness to keep them extra secure.
Diggs Revol Dog Crate ($475; amazon.com)
If you’re wondering how to travel with a dog in the cargo hold, a super-sturdy, hard-sided crate will be required. This solid model is for dogs up to 50 pounds and is made of steel, aluminum and reinforced plastic and has three doors. A carrier that opens several different ways will be easiest to access while traveling, says Sullivan. This one also has two really convenient features: a bottom tray that pulls out for cleaning and a handle-wheel design that lets you pull it behind you with ease.
Cat Harness and Leash ($6.99, originally $9.99; amazon.com)
“You’ll be asked to remove your cat from the carrier and carry him through security,” observes Sullivan. “It’s wise to have your cat in a harness with a leash attached so that they can’t slip away from your arms and become lost in the airport.” Believe it or not, cats have disappeared into the bowels of airports, sometimes not found for days, in just that way. Made of cooling mesh, this harness has a buckle that is double fixed to make it incredibly difficult for a feline to escape.
Wolfgang Man & Beast Collar (starting at $19.95; amazon.com)
Dogs should be in well-fitted collars with an ID tag, insists Askeland. This one not only looks great but will last forever. It’s stain-resistant and cut in a special way so that it won’t fray. Plus, it’s pull tested to 800 pounds and has a heavy-duty steel D-ring to hold an ID tag. The Daydream print is shown, but there are many other designs available. You can also get a coordinating leash.
Petmate Ultra Vari Kennel ($256.14; amazon.com)
If you’re traveling with a big buddy like a retriever or husky, a kennel outfitted for cargo holds is a must. This top-flight model is made for dogs up to 90 pounds and meets the requirements of most airlines, featuring a raised floor for your dog’s comfort and special holes for crew to secure the tie-down straps.
SportPet Cat Carrier ($35.81; amazon.com)
Cats, by and large, freak out when being pushed headfirst into a carrier. This one, built for cats up to 25 pounds, has a smart design where the whole side opens up, which your feline will surely feel much more comfortable with. It includes a machine-washable and dryable bed insert and folds for storage.
GoDog Checkers Chew Toy ($6.50, originally $12.60; amazon.com)
You know how chewing gum helps you when your ears pop on planes? “Bring a good chew toy for a distraction, and for during takeoff and landing especially,” says Askeland. “Dogs’ ears may have trouble adjusting just like ours.” These have a special chew-resistant lining and reinforced seams. These are actually designed to meet the same safety standards as children’s toys. We show the Fat Rooster; also available as Skinny Rooster, Elephant and Flying Pig.
American Kennel Club Calming Shirt for Dogs (starting at $29.99; amazon.com)
If offering your pet an anti-anxiety medication doesn’t seem like the ideal option to your vet or to you, Askeland suggests considering a calming shirt. Available in versions for dogs and cats, they’re essentially little jackets that apply gentle, continuous pressure, which is calming. This one from the AKC is made of a comfy stretch fabric that resists fur sticking to it. It also comes in blue and gray.
ThunderShirt for Cats ($39.95; amazon.com)
This patented design applies gentle, constant pressure to calm the most skittish of kitties. (It gets its name from the abject terror virtually all cats experience during thunderstorms.) The fabric will stay snug despite being soft and machine-washable. That goes for the doggie version too.
Feliway Cat Calming Travel Spray ($13.99, originally $20.59; amazon.com)
Pheromone sprays can be helpful in naturally limiting anxiety in cats, says Sullivan. “This is the product I typically recommend.” Cats rub their face against things when they feel relaxed and in control of their environment. This mimics the natural pheromones cats use to mark their territory in that way.
Smelly Proof Bags ($9.99; amazon.com)
Freeman urges pet parents to travel with something obvious yet so easily forgotten: “plastic trash bags in case of an unexpected elimination.” Even perfectly trained pups and cats can have accidents when stressed. These bags are more than up to the job; they’re liquid- and puncture-resistant, and come in different sizes.
Vapur Foldable Pet Water Bottle ($19.99; amazon.com)
While it’s best to restrict food and treats while flying to avoid an upset stomach, you should offer occasional sips of water, says Askeland. This clever, spillproof water server stands when full and rolls up compactly when empty.
Qalo Tile ID Tag ($29.95; amazon.com)
Your seat mates will appreciate that your dog is wearing a silicone tag rather than the usual metal: no jingling all the way there. These can be personalized with 12 characters on the front and 16 on the back, and with lots of colors and designs.
Comsmart Pet Blankets ($28.99; amazon.com)
A fleece blankie is a must to comfort a pet and keep them cozy in cool aircraft temperatures, says Askeland. Each of these soft blankets — you get a set of six in different colorful prints — is just the right size and heft to slip into a carrier without taking up too much space.
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