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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/26/2007 9:23:09 AM ET 2007-07-26T13:23:09

We’re officially into the dog days of summer and, not coincidentally, the time of year when pets and their people head out on the road in record numbers. And while plenty of vacationing pets happily ride along on car trips each year, many lucky dogs, cats, and an occasional hamster get to travel as carry-on companions in airplane cabins.

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In the old days, Spot and Fluffy had a much easier time getting on board. When I was a teenager, I had no trouble smuggling my new kitten onto a cross-country flight by tucking her into my coat pocket. And I once watched a guy with a chatty parrot on his shoulder entertain a group of kids in a gate holding area.

These days, neither the pocket-kitten nor the parrot would get past the security checkpoint. And along with all the other post-9/11 restrictions, there are now strict rules for taking pets on planes. For openers, every pet must now have a reservation, its own special travel case and a ticket, which can cost anywhere from $50 on up.

Traveling these days is stressful enough. Why make things worse by putting you and your jet-setting pet in a situation where you may get barked at by airline crew members or pulled aside and pawed at by TSA staff? Avoid all the ruffled fur by taking a few moments to bone up on the rules and regulations that apply to high-flying pets.

Tracey Thompson, whose Web site, petfriendlytravel.com, is full of helpful tips and links to airline pet policies, says the first step is to check and see if your airline even allows pets onboard. She says that although most U.S. airlines will transport a limited number of pets as cargo or in the cabin on each flight, each airline sets its own pet-travel rules based on variables such as a pet’s age, weight, health and, in some cases, breed or species.

Southwest Airlines, for example, will not take any pets as cargo or in the cabin and Frontier Airlines prohibits in-cabin pets but will transport them as checked baggage. (This is good to know if you’re someone who’s allergic to pet dander, although service dogs are usually exempt.)

On a quick tour of airline Web sites, I discovered that, in general, cats, dogs and small birds, such as canaries, parakeets and finches, are welcome on-board but that only a few airlines welcome rabbits. Delta Airlines accepts “dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs” in the cabin, but its Web site makes clear that “monkeys, pot-bellied pigs, reptiles, frogs, mice, rats, sugar gliders, and spiders are not permitted.” (Sugar gliders? I had to look that up: they’re small, possum-like marsupials usually found in the forests of Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea, and on the islands of Indonesia.)

A few airlines even have special programs for pets. Midwest Airlines’ Premier Pet Program, for example, allows pets to earn free travel and lets human passengers exchange their Midwest Miles for plane tickets for their pets. But right now Midwest only accepts small dogs, not cats, in the cabin.

Once you’ve studied the rules and are confident that you and your pet can obey, you can focus on being well-mannered travelers at the airport and on the airplane. That’s important, says Tracy Thompson of petfriendlytravel.com, because “even though you love your pet, it doesn’t mean everyone else does ... so it’s important that every traveler make sure to keep their pet inside a carrier at all times. If you do that most people won’t even know your pet is there.”

Gayle Martz agrees, saying, “the best pet on board is one that no one knows is there.” Martz is the founder of Sherpa's Pet Trading Co.and the person who pioneered the soft-sided pet travel carriers that most airlines now recommend. Martz says she came up with the idea for the in-cabin pet carrier after being told by one airline that she’d have to put Sherpa, her Lhasa Apso, in cargo. “I told them ‘I don’t check my jewelry and Sherpa is my most precious jewel.’”

Martz offered these tips for folks planning to travel with their own “precious jewels:”

Familiarize your pet with its carrier before you take that airplane trip. Martz suggests leaving the carrier open at home and/or at work with some of your pet’s favorite toys inside and taking a “practice” trips to get your pet accustomed to traveling in a case.

Pack for your pet. In addition to taking along some of your pet’s favorite toys and treats, be sure to bring your pet’s ticket and medications as well as a current health certificate from your veterinarian. Martz also suggests that you bring along a photo of ID for your pet and include your contact information on your pet’s collar.

At security, have your boarding pass and your pet’s ticket ready for inspection. And don’t send your pet through the X-ray machine in its carrier. “Let the TSA folks know you have a pet; take it out of its carrier and carry your pet through the metal detector.”

In the gate area and on the airplane, keep your pet inside its carrier and don’t let children or other passengers play with your pet. “If you have a photo of your pet you can show the photo and just say that your pet is trying to sleep.”

Make sure there’s an absorbent liner in your pet carrier and always carry a few extra pads. If your pet makes a “mistake” in its carrier, you can take the pet and its carrier into the bathroom and clean it up. “It’s like traveling with a baby,” says Martz, “You need to be prepared.”

And what about sedating a pet to insure that it is well-mannered in flight? “Absolutely not,” says Martz, “It’s not good for your pet and, besides, it’s usually the person that needs the tranquilizer — not the pet.”

But when it comes time to head to the airport, how do you know if your pet even wants to go on that trip with you? “Don’t worry about that,” petfriendlytravel.com's Thompson says. While she can’t speak for the travel preferences of cats, “Everyone who knows dogs says dogs would always rather be with you than without you. And they don’t care where they’re going as long as they can stay with you.”

Of course, once your dog, cat, bird, ferret or hamster gets off the plane, they might need some tips on how to be well-mannered at hotels and restaurants and the homes and attractions you’ll be visiting. So in coming weeks, we’ll chew over those topics.

If you and your pet have tips to share, please send them along.

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