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AOPA Online Members Only - Aviation Subject Report - Traveling With Children and Family: Flying With Pets

Traveling With Children and Family

Flying With Pets

By AOPA's Aviation Services Department
November 2000


Nearly one half of all households in the United States include one or more animals, many of these pet owners are also General Aviation pilots. When planning for a trip the question of what to do with your pet will inevitably come up. You don't want to cancel the trip but either the kennel's too expensive, or maybe you don't know anyone that has the time to watch him for you, or maybe you just can't stand the thought of leaving him home alone while you're off having fun ... ever thought of taking him with you?

Taking your pet with you on a trip in a General Aviation aircraft can be a fairly simple solution, but not always the best. Before hopping in the plane and taking off, there are many things that should be considered, for your pets safety and for the safety of those on board.

General Guidelines

Generally speaking, a good pet owner will know if their pet can handle the conditions of air travel but here are some things to consider.

The first thing to think about before making travel plans for your pet is whether or not they will be welcome at your destination. If you will be staying at a hotel be sure to call in advance to see if they allow pets. Policies on animals can change quickly so be sure to call back several times and speak to several different people. If you will be staying friends or family check to see if anyone has any allergies that may be aggravated by your pet. Will there be small children there? If so then you must consider if your pet is comfortable around children and how both your pet and the children will react. Finally you must make sure that there is somewhere for your pet to stay. If you have an indoor pet will your host allow your pet to stay inside their house. If you have an outdoor pet, is there adequate/safe space for your pet to remain outside.

The age of your pet is also something that should be taken into consideration before flying. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates air transportation of animals and requires that all pets be at least 8 weeks old and weaned at least 5 days prior to flying in order to be transported by air. Although the USDA regulates travel on airlines, the age requirements should still be taken into consideration for safety's sake when flying with your pet in a General Aviation aircraft. Also, older pets may not be able to handle the stress of air travel and are, in some cases, better off left at home.

The temperament of your pet is another factor to consider before taking your pet flying with you. Basic obedience training is must before flying your pet. Dominant animals will only add unnecessary stress and when piloting an aircraft that is the last thing you need. Your dog should know (and listen to) the basic "sit," "down," "stay," and "no" commands. Your pet should also be house broken, leash broken, and able to be left alone when you visit somewhere that animals are not allowed. Also skittish, nervous, ill, or pregnant animals, or animals recovering from surgery or expected to come into heat during travel are best left behind.

If after looking over all these factors you decide that you want to take your pet with you, then here are some tips to make the trip safer and more comfortable for everyone.


One of the most frequently asked questions that vets get from people that will be traveling with their pet is "Should we sedate them?" Although there are several differing opinions on this topic, the response from the majority of vets is no.

The strongest argument against sedating your pet for air travel is simply that the effects of sedation on your pet at higher altitudes are unpredictable. Increased altitude introduces the possibility of respiratory and cardiovascular problems for animals that are sedated. Another risk with sedating animals is that their ability to balance and maintain equilibrium will be effected and therefore when the plane moves they may not be able to brace themselves in order to prevent injury. One final thing to think about before sedating your pet is that sedated animals can lose bladder and bowel control, although this may not be particularly dangerous it can be very uncomfortable for everyone.

One case where mild sedation may be a good idea is if your pet is prone to motion sickness because it can only be expected to get worse in a plane. However before deciding on whether or not to sedate your pet be sure to consult your vet and also give your pet a test dose before the trip to get an idea of they will react to the medication.


Pets traveling on airlines must adhere to an entirely different set of rules than pets traveling in General Aviation aircraft. Airlines require that any animal on board be confined to an animal carrier at all times. Although there are no such requirements for General Aviation aircraft it is always better to err on the side of safety and keep them in a carrier. An animal in a pet carrier cannot run away if they become frightened, they cannot jump around inside the plane and distract the pilot, they also cannot relieve themselves or get sick on the upholstery or the floor of the aircraft.

When choosing a carrier for your pet it is important that you pick the right one. The first thing to consider when shopping for a carrier is the size. While you don't want to stuff your German Shepherd into a shoebox it could be just as dangerous and uncomfortable to place them in a carrier that is too large. The reason for this is that the carrier is the only thing that is protecting your pet from turbulence or a less than perfect landing. If the carrier is too large then your pet could get hurt from being bounced around inside. In general, the carrier should be no more than one and one-half times the length of the pet. When choosing a carrier for your pet you should also try to get one that is mostly plastic or fiberglass with a wire door and ventilation holes. These carriers are better for your pet than wire carriers for several reasons. The first reason is that the solid walls of the carrier will limit your pets vision and therefore they will be less likely to become spooked by seeing strange objects, feeling more secure. The solid walls will also provide a small degree of protection from extreme temperatures and will contain leaks should your pet have an accident.

Once you have the carrier and are ready for your trip it is important to prepare the carrier properly before taking off. You will want to cover the bottom of the carrier with something absorbent such as a towel or blanket. If your pet is a puppy then you will want to use something like newspaper because they will chew up and possibly swallow the cloth. Before placing your pet in the carrier it is important that you exercise them. A good workout may help them relax during the flight but more importantly it will give them a chance to use the bathroom before the flight. Just like humans, when the altitude increases their bladder and its contents will expand and they will feel like they need to use the bathroom so it is very important to allow them to go right before the flight.

When placing the carrier in the plane you should keep it in the cabin area with the passengers rather than with the baggage if room permits. It is also important to make sure that the carrier is secured in the aircraft. You can do this by running the seatbelt through the handle or for larger carriers by removing a seat.

For those pet owners that decide they do not want to keep their pet in a carrier then another safe alternative is to harness them and then attach the harness to a seatbelt. It is important to make sure that the harness is very fitted and escape-proof just in case the animal becomes scared.

Although there are many pilots that fly with their pets loose in the cabin with no problems, this is still not the safest choice. Your pets behavior will be completely unpredictable when they are first introduced to flying and at the very least they should be restrained until they become accustomed to it.

Food and Water

For your pet's comfort and the comfort of your passengers it is a good idea to withhold solid food from your pet for 6 to 12 hours before the flight. Water may be offered to your pet as close to two hours before the flight and even a small amount while you walk them before the flight. The exception to this is older pets, they should never have water withheld.

During the trip do not leave food and water dishes inside the carrier with the pet. Instead offer it to the pet at set intervals during the flight. It is also a good idea to bring the food your pet is used to in order to avoid upsetting their stomach by a change in their diet.

Motion Sickness

If your pet experiences motion sickness in the car then chances are it will be worse in a plane. Even if your pet doesn't get sick in a car, it can still be affected from flying, especially if you own a dog. Cats very rarely show signs of motion sickness, dogs often do.

Even if your pet is affected by motion sickness that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is destined for a very uncomfortable flight. There are ways to help. There are some human drugs that can be given to your pet to help with motion sickness. The most common of these is Dramamine. You can get your pet to take this pill by putting it in meat and they usually won't know the difference. Be sure to speak with your vet before giving your pet any medication, especially if they are on other medications. Your vet will also be able to tell you the proper dosage.


Many pilots are concerned about bringing their pet with them because they are concerned about whether or not they need to administer oxygen to their pet and how they would do it if they decide to fly at higher altitudes. Although many general aviation pilots do not fly at an altitude where supplemental oxygen is necessary, if you choose to do so then you can create your own animal air mask. There are several ways of doing this and you should talk with your vet for ideas or see the Additional Resources page.

If your pet is old then it is probably best to avoid high-altitude flight all together because their hearts may not be able to withstand the hypoxia produced at altitudes above 5,000 feet. Your vet would be able to determine your pets individual risk. Any animals that have naturally labored breathing should also avoid high altitude flying because the thin air could make it even more difficult to breathe. Certain breeds that fall under this category are Lhaso Apso, Chow Chow, Pug, Boston Terrier, Bull Dog, Boxer, Pekinese, and Shih Tzu dogs, as well as Himalayan and Persian cats.


There are some concerns about protecting the animal's hearing from the loudness of flying. Although most pilots fly with pets without any sort of protection there have been some suggestions on what could be done if this concerns you.

Some pilots have inquired about putting cotton in their pets ears to keep out some of the noise. While this would serve its purpose, some of the cotton could also possibly get stuck in the wax of the ears and cause problems. The better option is to use pillow foam instead of cotton. Pillow foam is similar to what earplugs are made out of and is not as likely to get stuck in the ears.

Another concern pilots have is what effect will ascents and descents have on their pets ears. Animal's ears work the same as ours, so it is a good idea to ascend and descend gradually and to offer them a treat, such as a doggie biscuit, every 500 feet of altitude change. The chewing motion will help their ears pop.

Outside the U.S.

For those pilots that want to bring their pet with them outside of the U.S. there are a few special requirements that must be met. If you will be traveling outside of the U.S. it is important to contact the foreign embassy of the country you will be traveling to and inquire about any special health requirements such as quarantine or vaccinations. Be sure to call several times and as close to your departure date as possible because regulations may be subject to change without notice. Information on custom requirements for international travel can be found in International Operations in the members-only section of our Web site at or by calling at 800/USA-AOPA.


Bringing your pet with you on a trip can be relatively easy and fun for everyone as long as common sense is used and some simple guidelines are followed. Also remember to have your pet checked out by vet and listen to their recommendations before making any decisions. As much as you may hate to leave your pet and as much as they don't want to be left, it is important to consider the safety and well-being of everyone involved before coming to a decision.

Additional Resources

Flying With Pets

Austin, Linda. "Traveling Abroad Doggy Style." Article. 1997. Great Outdoor Recreation Pages. 18 October 2000.

Barton, Florence. "Man's Best Friend Can Become Cockpit Canine With Planning, Caution." AERO. June 1983: 28-31

Fried, Howard. Beyond the Checkride. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997

Hampton, Robert. "Doggie Bag." Flying. August 1985: 103

"Pet Travel Guides: By Air." Advertisement. 1999. Takeyourpet. 18 October 2000.

Solveig. "Hearing Protection for Flying." Phil Ingersoll. Ask the Audiologist. Column. 31 August 1998. The Hearing & Speech Center. 18 October 2000.

"Taking Your Pet Along." Safety Tips. 1999. The AVMA Network. 18 October 2000.

Weeghman, Dick. "Dog Days for Airborne Pets." The Aviation Consumer June 1993: 11+

Updated Thursday, June 17, 2004 8:29:02 PM