Air travel is stressful enough for human travelers. Adding a pet into the mix makes it all the more anxiety-inducing, especially as we have all read recent stories of pet-related horrible accidents while flying. Luckily, these incidents are rare and there are careful ways you can help create a safer experience for your companion.

Types of Travel

A few options exist for animal travelers.

  • Cabin- Small animals that can easily remain in a pet carrier or your lap are allowed inside the cabin with many airlines. Check with your airline before purchasing tickets to confirm their policies and weight or breed restrictions. If your airline does not allow pets of any size to fly with you, you may need to explore baggage or cargo options.
  • Baggage- Stowing your pet inside of a carrier as checked baggage is a cheap and seemingly easy option. While most travelers experience few to no issues, this type of travel is the most stressful and more commonly results in accidents. This is because the luggage area of an aircraft may not have a regulated temperature of pressure.
  • Cargo- This option is similar to baggage because pets are stored in the same area of the airplane. The main difference is that they enter the baggage area from a separate entrance and are handled by more experienced employees. Travelers may feel more secure knowing that their pet is being stored with potentially more care.

Required Documents for Animal Travelers

All airports, airlines, and other transportation companies have policies regarding what you need to bring in order to travel with your pet. A commonly requested item is proof of vaccination. Airlines want to be sure that no one that comes in contact with your pet will contract an avoidable disease or even risk spreading something to your pet.

Most airlines require a certificate of health from your vet, or a USDA health certificate, showing that your pet is in good enough health to fly. It will also certify that your pet does not require any special care that you will be unable to provide while flying.

Because of recent incidents, you should always call your airline to see if they are requiring additional documentation prior to purchasing your ticket. Some airlines do not allow pets even in the cargo area.

Tips for Easier Travel

Regardless of how you choose to travel with your pet, there are a few ways to make the process easier.

  • Keep your pet in a secure carrier or kennel. Most pets get anxious when traveling, so a solid, dark carrier is optimal to help them feel safer. Make sure they have plenty of room to be comfortable for an extended period. The plastic of metal crates is safer than soft carriers.
  • Talk to your vet about what you can do to help your pet remain calm and comfortable. Most veterinarians understand that air travel is extremely stressful on animals and may offer to prescribe a sedative or tranquilizer for use during the flight.
  • If you are traveling with a service animal or emotional support animal (ESA), call the airline and let them know. There have been many recent issues with false ESA’s, leading to stricter policies including that they do not receive special treatment. Do not falsify ESA claims or documents, as it harms those that have legitimate needs.
  • Arrive early. Allow yourself extra time to check-in, get to your gate, and comfort your pet.
  • Do not forget food and water. Even for a short flight, your pet especially needs water to help with any temperature changes and anxious panting. It can also be a small comfort for them to have a familiar water dish.

Animal Types and Common Restrictions

As mentioned briefly above, there are a few different classifications for animal travelers. Every airline differs slightly in terms of company policy for pets, but some general guidelines can be helpful.


Most animal companions are classified as pets. They are your family, but are offered no special treatments and must follow the terms set forth by the airline. For example, a 15 to 20-pound weight limit for pets traveling in the cabin is standard. This may vary slightly by company.

Airlines typically allow canine and feline pets but may have additional restrictions for other types of animals.

Emotional Support Animals

ESAs are not officially offered any special allowances. Historically, they have been treated somewhat similarly to service animals in terms of being allowed in the cabin over the set weight limits. Because ESAs aid with anxiety, depression, and other conditions, airlines do their best to respect them and their owners.

However, increasing incidents of unusual ESAs, like birds or serpents, have made it difficult to continue this tradition of tolerance. Abuse by people with no documented need for an ESA has led to stricter regulations. If you have an ESA, call your airline and ask about their policies.

Service Animals

Service animals are protected by law because they are necessary for the well-being of disabled people. Passengers continue to require the use of a service animal on a flight for their health. They are not bound by the same restrictions as typical pets or ESAs.

Airlines must abide by local and federal law allowing passengers to have their service animal accompanying them at all times. Special accommodations may be necessary and airlines are required to abide by such accommodations within their power.