I love visiting and exploring new places. Unfortunately, I do not like to fly. When I plan my vacations, I try to ignore thinking about flying and concentrate only on where and what I will be doing once my plane safely lands. When I’m on the plane, I watch movies to distract myself. If turbulence occurs, I remind myself that the chance of me dying in a plane crash today is about one in 11 million. I remind myself that the up, down, and sideway movements of the plane are they same movements I feel while driving my car on a bumpy road. All these thoughts help calm me down – these are my self-soothing tools!
Now, imagine if you were a cat or a dog on an airplane. They have no idea what is happening to them. They do not foresee the pleasant adventure ahead. They may not like the darkness, solitude, or the loud noises in the cargo section of the plane. They may feel anxious and stressed. I imagine most pets are like me and don’t like to fly.
Last week, the death of a large pet rabbit, named Simon, on an international flight to Chicago unfortunately reminded us of the hazards of flying with pets. Simon’s exact cause of death was not made public.
Since 2005, the Department of Transportation requires all United State’s airlines to file monthly reports on the number of pets that have died, been lost or injured during their flight. In the year of 2016, 523,743 pets were flown in United States. During this same period, 26 pets died, 22 pets were injured, and zero pets were lost while flying. The good news is that it is extraordinarily unlikely (less than 0.005% chance) that your healthy pet will die on a flight. Unfortunately, emotional stress is neither assessed nor reportable by the airlines.
Together, let’s try to make your pet’s next flight as safe and uneventful as possible by following these suggestions:
1. Contact the airlines in advance of your pet’s flight to discuss:
a. Health certificate requirements
b. Dimensions and construction of your pet’s transport carrier.
c. Let them know the breed and the weight of your pet. Many airlines restrict brachycephalic breeds (short nose and flat faced dogs -like Boxers, Bulldogs, Pugs and Boston Terrier) from traveling in the cargo section of planes. If your pet weighs less than 20 pounds, try to arrange for them to sit beneath your airplane seat. This site is definitely less stressful for most pets when compared to sitting in cargo. I also recommend sitting next to the window so not to obstruct the movement of your fellow travelers in your row.
d. Don’t forget to ask your airlines if an acclimation certificate from your veterinarian is required for their flight. Outside air temperatures at certain destinations may exceed the animal welfare regulations of what they believe are safe to travel with your pet. If your veterinarian approves an acclimation certificate, it will allow your pet to travel during colder or warmer weather.
2. For all flight travel please schedule an appointment with your veterinarian within 10 days of your flight for a health certificate. Your veterinarian will examine your pet from head to tail to make sure they are free of any infectious diseases, healthy for flight, and current on their rabies vaccinations. A health certificate signed by your veterinarian will be given to you at the conclusion of this appointment. A copy of this document should be attached to your pet’s traveling carrier and the original certificate should be kept with you during your travels.
3. For travel outside the United States, contact both the airlines for their international flight requirements for pets and the embassy of destination for their pet entry requirements. Some countries, like France and Japan have stringent pet requirements that may take up to 3 months for you to fulfill. Please bring this information to your veterinary appointment.
A USDA veterinarian must also endorse the international health certificate. Ask your veterinarian for this contact information and how to schedule this additional appointment.
4. If appropriate, talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication. I recommend anti-anxiety medication for pets that are easily frightened by loud noises, anxious in unfamiliar places, and have separation anxiety.
Trazodone, alprazolam, and diazepam are all anti-anxiety medications that work within hours of administration and have the potential to have a nice calming effect on your pet. For pets with very mild anxiety, I may consider Solliquin or Zylkene, two non-prescription nutritional supplements, to relax your pet. Ask your veterinarian which is the right product for your pet.
If your pet is prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, please try it in advance of the flight to make sure the medication is effective. If one drug is ineffective, don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for another option. The goal of anti-anxiolytic drugs is to make your pet more relaxed and less reactive to unpleasant activity, NOT sedate your pet. For best results, I always recommend giving the anti-anxiolytic drug to the pet the night before and the morning of the trip.
I do not recommend sedating your pet for flights. Sedation may compromise how your pet breathes, maintains blood pressure, and its ability to react to sudden movements. In particular, they may unknowingly place their nose and mouth against the side of the carrier and obstruct their breathing. They may vomit and aspirate their food. In times of turbulence, they may not be able to right themselves properly and an injury may occur.
5. Try to choose a flight that is non-stop. Remember, a direct flight may involve a stop. Boarding and take offs are the most stressful times for your pet. The potential for a problem to occur with your pet is exponentially greater on the tarmac then in the cargo. During flight, the temperature and oxygen pressure in the cargo is the same as in the cabin. A pet sitting in a carrier on the tarmac has the potential to be exposed to dangerous environmental temperatures. If outside air temperature is 80 degrees, the temperature inside the carrier in 10 minutes can rise to 99 degrees, and in 20 minutes it can rise to 109 degrees.
6. Acclimate your pet to its carrier starting 1-2 weeks prior to flight. Don’t wait for the day of the flight to expose your pet to it. Leave the carrier out in your living room and let your pet walk freely in and out. Place treats in the carrier to encourage investigation. On day of flight, place your worn T-shirt in carrier to provide a sense of comfort.
7. Acclimate your pet to movement. Take your pet for car rides in its new carrier. Does your pet enjoy the car ride or do you think your pet may have motion sickness?
Nausea from motion sickness can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from anxiety. A nauseous pet usually drools, vomits and appears depressed. There are a number of effective drugs, like maropitant and meclizine, which can reduce your pet’s motion sickness. If applicable, discuss motion sickness medication with your veterinarian.
8. Make sure your pet is wearing an identification tag with your cell phone number and address on it. Additionally, make sure your pet’s carrier is properly marked with your pet’s name and your contact information on it. Not only required by law for all pets traveling outside the country, I recommend all pets be microchipped. If your pet does not have a microchip, ask your veterinarian to place it at the time of their health certificate appointment. In the unlikely event your pet escapes from its carrier and is found by a stranger, it can be scanned at any veterinary clinic and be reunited with you quickly.
If your pet has a microchip already, please have your veterinarian scan your pet at the time of his examination to make sure it is working properly and located between shoulder blades.
9. In case of an in-flight elimination accident, I recommend placing an absorbent potty pad or towel in the carrier. If your pet shreds paper or towels, consider trimming a yoga mat to fit inside the carrier.
10. If the flight is greater than a few hours, consider freezing a dish of water and placing it in your pet’s carrier. I usually do not encourage owners to put food in the crate unless indicated for health reasons, like a diabetic patient.
11. If your pet has a medical issue, please talk to your veterinarian about ways to make their flight as safe and uneventful as possible. For example, if your cat has kidney disease, maybe the morning of the flight administer subcutaneous fluids to keep it well hydrated.
12. If your travel plans are less than 2 weeks in length, really think about what is in the best interest of your pet and not yourself. If loud noises and change in environment easily distress your pet, it might be better to have them stay at home rather than travel.
I wish you and your pet safe travels. Bon Vonage!
Dr. Donna Solomon is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center of Chicago and invites you to email her your questions or future topic ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.