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How to keep your pet safe on a flight

If you're travelling with your pet, these expert safety tips will ensure you both arrive safely.
Image: Dog in carry-on container
Air travel can be particularly dangerous for animals with ‘pushed in’ (or, brachycephalic) faces as their short nasal passages leave them vulnerable to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke.Robert Mooney / Getty Images

Travelling is stressful: tying up loose ends at work, making sure you pack everything you need in one suitcase (that doesn’t surpass the weight limit) and sprinting to your gate after standing in an hour-long security line. Throw a pet into the mix and now a whole new set of concerns are on the table.

Earlier this month, the tragic death of Kokito, a dog that died after a flight attendant placed him in an overhead bin, drew the ire of pet owners everywhere — as did follow-up stories of pets crossing the globe in flight mix-ups. As such, pet owners are eager to get informed about all the measures they can take to travel safely with their pets.

If you plan to bring your pet along for the ride, Dr. Camille DeClementi, Vice President of the ASPCA Animal Hospital, and Katie Lisnik, Director of Public Policy, Companion Animals from The Humane Society shared some very handy safety tips with NBC News BETTER. After all, knowledge and preparation are key in making travelling with your pet seamless, and keeping them safe from harm in the process.

Ask your vet if your pet is high-risk

DeClementi says your vet can determine travel variables by breed, and whether or not they might need anti-nausea meds or sedatives before traveling. And Lisnik warns: “Air travel can be particularly dangerous for animals with ‘pushed in’ (or, brachycephalic) faces, such as bulldogs, pugs and Persian cats. Their short nasal passages leave them especially vulnerable to oxygen deprivation and heat stroke.” She adds that senior dogs and very young dogs are more susceptible to stress-related illnesses and communicable diseases, making them better candidates for road trips than air travel.

Talk to your airline ahead of time

The cargo area should be a last resort as there are definite risks with temperature and ventilation.

Airlines can impose restrictions on pet carrier size, how many pets are allowed on the plane per flight and where they be stored (NOT the overhead bin!), so get familiar with those rules before buying a ticket, or carrier, says DeClementi. She also advises booking a direct flight to minimize travel time, and warns against giving sedatives to pets flying in cargo. Lisnik says keeping your pet close to you in the cabin is preferable, if possible. “The cargo area should be considered a last resort as there are definite risks with temperature and ventilation,” she says.

Prep your carrier

Carrier prep is essential to pet travel, be it by car or plane. Tossing in a few toys and a blanket they love will make it feel more like home. Don’t forget to label it with your name, permanent address and telephone number, as well as the location of your final destination, and where you or a contact person can be reached as soon as the flight arrives, Lisnik says. If you’re traveling by air, make sure to also bring a pet harness, so you can safely contain them while their carrier is x-rayed, or, request a special secondary screening that won't require you to take them out of their carrier.

Assemble a “pet kit”

No matter how you travel, DeClementi says you should carry a “pet kit” with proof of vaccinations, food, water, bowls, waste bags and any medication your pet needs. “Additional documentation, such as a health certificate signed by a veterinarian, may be required depending on the specific travel,” she adds.

Consider your collar

Fit your pet with a collar that can’t get caught in carrier doors, and affix a permanent ID with your name, home address and telephone number, and a temporary travel ID with the address and telephone number where you or a contact person can be reached. “We also strongly recommend microchipping your pet,” says Lisnik. “A GPS tracking collar may also be a good option for some families.”

The night before your flight

Follow this checklist to make sure everything is in order for your trip.

  • Don’t feed your pet 4-6 hours before the flight.
  • Bring ice chips in a cooler to give as water (ice is permitted in carry-on bags and will be allowed through security if it is 100 percent frozen)
  • Travel with wet wipes and cleaning supplies, to clean any carrier mess.
  • Wear your pet out with enough exercise, so they can crash during the trip.
  • Make sure that your pet's nails have been clipped to protect against them getting hooked in the carrier's door, holes and other crevices, says Lisnik.
  • Carry a current photograph and detailed information of your pet, including proof of vaccination for rabies. If your pet is lost during the trip, a photograph will make it much easier for airline employees to search effectively.

Road tripping with cats and dogs

Car trips come with their own challenges. Follow these expert tips for keeping your pet comfortable:

  • Get your pet used to the feeling of being in a car with a few dry runs.
  • Make sure your cat carrier has some extra room so they can roam and maybe even allow for a small litter box.
  • Freeze a block of ice and use it instead of water to keep your pet hydrated.
  • Anchor your dog’s crate or cat carrier using a seatbelt or use a dog seat belt to hold them secure. No sticking heads out of windows!
  • Though dogs like cars, cats usually don’t, so do what you can to minimize the amount of time the cat has to be in the car.
  • If traveling with a dog, take frequent rest stops so they can do their business and take a walk to burn off some energy. Try and stick to their regular bathroom schedule.
  • Don’t take the cat out of the carrier in the car.
  • Bring along leashes, cleaning supplies, a travel litter box, food, water, toys and a blanket with reassuring smells of home.
  • Share the driving and pet caretaking duties with a friend or family member so you can hit rest stops knowing that someone you trust is keeping a close eye on your pets.
  • Never, ever leave your pets alone in a hot or cold car.

Finally, by all means, don’t be afraid to speak up if you see your pet handled in appropriately. And if you don’t like what you hear in return, speak up again. At the end of the day, you are your pets voice and need to advocate for them to ensure they are being treated properly and kept safe and healthy.

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