Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Dogs Fly: Traveling With Your Pet

Exactly one week after I found Skipper in a shelter and adopted her last summer, JM and I were scheduled to take our vacation to my parents' lake house. It was unfortunate timing, but I was sure that Skip was "the one" for us (I was right!) and didn't feel good about leaving her in the shelter for one more minute than we had to. I also didn't feel right about putting her in a kennel or leaving her with  a dog-sitter the week after we got her. So, it seemed my choices were to cancel our vacation or to take her with us.
However, when I went online to search out the whole taking-a-dog-on-an-airplane process, I searched high and low (I'm pretty sure I went to the End of the Internet), and was amazed at how little good information there is out there on the topic. For our first flight with her, I basically winged it (get it?), and happily all went well. Skip has now flown and driven all over the country with us, and is a very happy seasoned traveler.  So I decided to write a post to clear the whole process up, once and for all. Here is everything you need to know about traveling with a dog, hoping that it will make the experience just a little less... ruff.

Dog-Friendly Destinations
The first question you need to ask yourself is whether the place you are traveling to is appropriate for dogs. Skip loves our parents' backyards in California and Boston, and the woods and lake Up North, and she is always welcomed warmly in our families' homes. However, when we travel to big unfamiliar cities, or anywhere for a wedding that will keep us busy all weekend, we always leave her home with a sitter. Sure, there are plenty of hotels that would let us bring her (click here for a list), but how miserable will she be locked up in a hotel room all day? Your dog isn't a toy- make sure you consider her comfort and happiness before you book a trip with her.

Cabin Pressure
If you are planning to fly with your dog, exact rules vary from airline to airline, but the basics are roughly the same. Dogs may fly within the continental U.S., with more strict rules and restrictions for flights to Hawaii or internationally. Some airlines require vet records, as well, so check with the airline before you book. Dogs that are 20 lbs or under and can fit comfortably in a bag 12" X 12" x 19" or smaller (Skip has this one) are allowed to travel in the cabin with you and be placed under the seat in front of you. Larger or heavier dogs must be put in a hard carrier and shipped in the baggage hold. Being sent in the baggage hold can be a pretty intense and traumatic experience for your pup (it can be very dark, loud, and cold or hot down there), so I would suggest only doing it when absolutely necessary, like a cross-country move. Otherwise, I would leave your big dog with a trusted friend, or drive wherever you're going, instead.
Comparatively, traveling inside the cabin with you is quite comfortable for your pup. Just make sure you acquaint your dog with her carrier well before the trip (to do so, put treats and favorite toys in there, and leave it open on the ground until she climbs in herself). Skip loves her bag, and sleeps contentedly through most flights. However, there is a catch to this- you will be charged to bring your dog on board ($50-150 each way) and your dog carrier counts as a carry-on, so you will likely also have to check baggage. Also, airlines limit the number of animals on each flight, so be sure to reserve Spot's spot well ahead of time.

In the Airport
Be sure to allow your dog to go to the bathroom before you enter the airport (some terminals even have designated pet areas, but most will at least have a patch of grass outside). Once inside the airport, your dog will need to be contained in her carrier- you don't want her distracting the bomb sniffing dogs, do you? When you go through security, her carrier will need to go through the x-ray machine, without her in it (unlike the fool smuggler who put a dog through the machine in the photo above). Right before you go through the metal detector, take your dog out of her carrier (removing her collar and leash) and carry her through with you. On the other side, return her to her bag (it's not a bad idea to keep some treats in your pocket to coax her back in).  Never drug your dog before a flight- drugs make your dog unable to maintain her own equilibrium, making her more likely to be injured or become motion sick in transit. If your dog is an anxious flier, you probably shouldn't be forcing her to fly.

On the Road
Most dogs love a road trip (think Travels with Charley), what with all the new sights and smells, and all that time to hang their heads out the window and let their ears flap in the wind. If you decide to take a trip with your dog, though, make sure to stop every few hours at a rest stop to let her stretch her legs, pee and drink a little water. Plan your meal breaks to be short, so you don't leave your dog waiting in a hot car for too long (be sure to roll down the window a bit), and research your hotels ahead of time to make sure they will allow your buddy in the room with you. And if your doggy is the carsick type, don't force the issue.

On A Train or Bus
Technically, dogs (other than service animals) are not allowed on Greyhound or Amtrak. However, I have seen plenty of pups board the Acela, without so much as a second glance by the conductor. Smaller, regional train lines (like the LIRR or MetroNorth) often allow well-behaved dogs on board, so check their policies ahead of time. Never try to smuggle your dog in somewhere she isn't wanted- it can only end badly for both of you.

If All Else Fails...
Some dogs just aren't meant to be jet setters- your motion-sickness-suffering Great Dane, for instance. In that case, make sure you have a wonderful dog-sitter you can count on when you have to leave her. Whether it's a dog-loving friend or a professional, you should feel confident that your dog is in good hands.   If you don't know where to look, ask your vet, trainer, or groomer for recommendations- who knows? One of these people your dog already knows may even be willing to board your little buddy with them.

Happy Travels!

photo credit: Daily Mail UK


Chantal said...

Thanks for the great advice! Unfortunately, we live in Hawaii, so when we move off-island, we'll be forced to fly both our cat and our dog - both under cabin. I hate the thought of it!

Mister Sharaf said...

i read it.. it was interesting

Peps said...

Thanks so much for this - perfect timing! My hubby and I have found a shih tzu in our local shelter that we have fallen for but are scared that adopting him into the family will tie us to the house. Knowing we can still travel around the country is a huge relief.
Would you mind giving me a ball park figure of how much a dog sitter costs in case we were to go abroad?

Anonymous said...

Too funny, how did you get a beagle into a medium Sherpa bag? We have a 18 lb chihuahua mix and there was no way...even the large was tiny for her. I'm looking at the Sturdi-bag...I found a website about pet travels, for any of your readers who'd like more information. Awesome blog, I always enjoy reading it :)

Christine said...

What a great post! Luckily our shaggy is a great car traveler but I wouldn't dare throw her underneath a plane unless aboslutely necessary! My childhood dog (a big mutt) was lost for 6 HOURS at JFK after our family moved from TX to CT. It was a nightmare and scarred me at the young age of 3 1/2.

Anonymous said...

How big is Skip? My 12lb 5 month old beagle can barely fit into the Sherpa Delta bag. And she chewed a hole in it... We would love to fly with her but we're afraid she'll be to big.

Lily said...

Skip is about 18 lbs (very small for a beagle), and she travels in the Large Sherpa bag. She can stand up and turn around in it, but a huge part of it is that she likes being in there and just mellows out. I am frequently jealous of her stretched out at napping in plush comfort while I am crammed in a middle seat between two elbowy people.