14 min read

How To Fly With Your Pet (If You Have To)

It's different for every airline — and every pet.

Whenever we're heading home for the holidays, the question always comes up: Should I take my pet with me, or leave her behind?

Parting with our pets can definitely be emotional, even though sometimes it's the best option. But if you have no other choice and absolutely need to bring your pet on your flight home with you, here are some tips and tricks to help everything go as smoothly as possible.

What to bring with you

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All pets traveling with their owners are required to have their own carrier, which will count as one of your carry-on bags. That means less room for books and snacks to entertain us along the way, but these are the sacrifices we make for our fur babies. Each airline has different measurements and specifications regarding carriers, so make sure to look them up and measure your pet's carrier before you head to the airport.

Worried about your pet needing an ID or passport? The tag on his collar should do! Pets don't typically need paperwork for domestic flights, but make sure you check your airline's specific requirements beforehand, just in case. It's always smart, in any situation, for your pet to be wearing tags or be microchipped (or both) in case something goes wrong and he gets away from you.

"Make sure that tags are clearly visible because people are more likely to catch pets if they can return them to the owner," Dr. Cathy Meeks of BluePearl Veterinary Partners told The Dodo. "Getting your pet a microchip for identification is an important step, too."

When going through security, agents will ask you to take your pet out of his carrier and walk him through security in your arms. It's a good idea to make sure your pet is wearing a harness so you’ll always have a firm hold on him in case he tries to bolt. After all, the last thing anyone wants is a scared cat running loose through a busy airport, and that’s definitely the last thing your cat wants, too.

Place your pet's favorite toy in his carrier with him so that he has something familiar and comfortable to hang out with while he flies. Treats are great too, but it's not a great idea to feed your pet a heavy meal right before the trip, in case he gets sick on the flight. Your vet can prescribe anti-nausea medication for your dog or cat if need be. (Always talk to your vet before giving your pet any kind of medication before flying.)

What you need to know about airlines

There are limits to how many pets can fly in the cabin of a plane on any given flight, so it's important to plan ahead and research the airline you're using beforehand. Not every airline will be the same when it comes to pets, and different companies may have different rules.

If your pet is on the bigger side, United has a program called PetSafe that specializes in flying pets who are too big to fly in the cabin with their owners. All pets must be at least 8 weeks old in order to fly. United also allows rabbits and small birds (yes, really) to fly in the cabin.

Delta requires all pets be at least 10 weeks old in order to fly. Delta allows pets to fly in the cargo hold, but that can't be booked until 14 days before your flight. Household birds are also allowed in the cabin.

JetBlue does not fly pets in the cargo hold, but it does have a program called JetPaws, which offers everything you need to fly with your pet.

Southwest does not allow pets on any international flights. All pets must be checked in at the airport ticket counter prior to their flight, and they must be at least 8 weeks old in order to fly. Southwest does not fly pets in the cargo hold under the plane.

American Airlines requires that all pets be at least 8 weeks old in order to fly. Pets are allowed to fly in-cabin to most destinations, but certain destinations have special restrictions, which are listed on American's website.

You will have to pay a fee to have your pet travel with you, and those range from $95 to $125 each way, sometimes more (for in-cabin travel). Pets are never allowed to travel with unaccompanied minors. Your pet needs to be small enough to fit comfortably in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you.

Approved service animals are, of course, exceptions to every rule.

Never be afraid to ask for help

Caitlin Jill Anders

You could do all of your homework and be the most prepared person in the world, and there are still some things you won't know until you get to the airport and start going through the motions. When you get to the airport, ask a staff member if there are special animal relief areas in your terminal, or which security lines are pet friendly. Being proactive instead of just hoping you find the answer on your own is one of the best things you can do when flying with your pet.

Be prepared

Pets are unpredictable, so it's good to be ready for absolutely anything with them, especially when flying. Do your homework, bring absolutely anything you can think of that will make them more comfortable and don't leave anything to chance.

"Over-planning is really the best thing you can do when traveling with your pets," Meeks said. "If in doubt, always err on the side of caution."

When I flew with my cat for the first time, I lined her carrier with bed liners (used for little kids who wet the bed), just in case she got scared and peed during takeoff or landing. I made sure to have a sweatshirt with me that I could throw over her carrier in case all the sights and sounds started to stress her out too much. It's the little things you do that will make all the difference and ensure that your pet has the best experience they possibly can.

I was prepared for the worst when I flew with my very high-maintenance cat, and she ended up having a grand ole time on our flight. She hated the airport, but she seemed to love the airplane, and even tried to make friends, which is very weird for her. Murphy's law, right?

To fly or not to fly?

Finally, consider whether or not your pet really needs to fly home with you. Even though leaving your cat or dog behind might be stressful for you, flying on an airplane might be even more stressful for them.

Pets can get super stressed by something as simple as moving the furniture in your apartment around — so taking them with you to an annoyingly crowded place and then expecting them to sit still for hours in the sky might be a little more than they’re built for.

"Flying is stressful for us, and our biggest concern is only having 6 inches of legroom," Dr. Sonja Olson, a senior clinician at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, told The Dodo. "Imagine how stressful it is for your pet, who may be put into a totally foreign environment."

If your pet is more than 7 years old and has never flown before, Olson recommends leaving him at home with a reliable sitter instead (or taking a car).

If you absolutely have to fly with your pet, the best advice in the world is to just be as calm and prepared as possible. Your pet most likely isn’t going to enjoy being in the middle of a loud, stranger-filled airport, so the easier you can make things for them, the better.

In most cases though, leaving your pet behind in a safe, secure situation is probably the best option for them. They may be a little pissed at you at first, but don’t feel too guilty — they’ll forget why they were mad as soon as you come home again.