Holiday travel with pets

We are approaching the busiest travel day of the year, and many people travel by air to visit family. Would you take your dog with you? Traveling by air with a dog can be finicky. Reggie could never travel by plane because of his epilepsy. Being boarded and separated from me in such an unusual environment would likely prove too stressful for his system. Compounding that, if he started having cluster seizures I would never know it until I landed and got back a seizing, crated dog, in an unfamiliar city where time is of the essence and I would need to find an emergency vet.

Prompted by an article sent to me from my mom and this opportune time of year, what actually happens when you fly with your dog? Where does your dog go? Is there any guarantee of safety?


If you have a small dog you can bring your dog in the cabin of most airlines provided it is in an approved carrier and under 20 pounds. Most airlines also require a health certificate and charge anywhere from $100-$150 for bringing an animal. Airlines also vary in the number allowed, some airlines only allow one cabin pet per flight, some allow up to seven. Make reservations early!

If you have a larger dog, you will have to crate your dog and check them. They are considered checked baggage at this point. The fees are the same, and most airlines have breed and weight restrictions. You will be restricted to a combined weight (kennel + dog) of 100 pounds and no brachycephalic breeds (the smush face dogs).

The Process

The in cabin travel is obviously much more comfortable and nicer for dog and human, so I am going to concentrate on the checked baggage part. Where does your dog go? Most airlines keep your pet in a kind of warehouse area after they have been checked in until time of boarding. Then they are transported to the plane and put in cargo. Now the cargo area is not accessible from the plane, i.e. where you are. In older planes this cargo area used to be the same as the regular baggage area. In the newer jets, there is a walled off cargo area separate from the regular baggage that is specific to pets that is pressurized, heated, and cooled for pet transport. What does that mean? It’s not as cozy as your living room but it meets minimum standards- between 45 degrees and 85 degrees. Upon landing, your dog is deplaned and transported to a quarantine area where you can pick them up. Different airlines have different requirements for different destinations, and international travel has different requirements yet.


The US southwest has had some unbelievable heat waves the past couple summers. If I had say, a husky breed, I wouldn’t fly them from Houston to Phoenix in July. There is no guarantee that the warehouse holding area is air conditioned or that the baggage handlers will treat your pet well (you of course hope they will) or recognize signs of distress. Another important note: if your plane is delayed, if you are waiting on the tarmac, the heating/cooling systems are not functioning in the pet cargo area in order to conserve fuel. This means that the husky breed I am transporting from Houston to Phoenix in July that is now sitting on the tarmac for three hours because of delays and backups is gradually getting heatstroke in that pet cargo area. A dog’s normal body temperature is 100-102 degrees. Danger zone is 104 degrees, with organ failure (the liver and kidneys first) starting at 105 degrees. It doesn’t actually take much heat to stress a dog’s body. Similarly the Chihuahua going from Bismarck to Minneapolis in January can suffer the opposite, but similar, fate. It is noted that many airlines do have temperature restrictions and will not fly pets when outdoor temperatures are above or below a certain point.

United Airlines offers a PetSafe program wherein they guarantee that your pet is kept and transported in a heated/cooled area for their entire travel. However, they cannot guarantee against employee abuse, mechanical failure, or plane delays. You can search various user experiences, both good and bad, about this program.


If you have to transport your dog because you are moving, or your dog is a restricted breed or over 100 pounds, or like Reggie they are medically restricted, there are other options. There are airline charter companies that allow several passengers and dogs with a safety harness, a seat belt if you will, to sit right next to you and fly. This is not a cheap option. As a rough example, if I was moving with Reggie from San Francisco to Phoenix (one way obviously) it could cost $2,000.

There are also dog shuttles. For a range of fees, service companies will transport your dog across the country making appropriate stops to potty, eat, exercise, etc. and meet you at your destination.

There are also international alternatives. Some travel cruise ships will transport you and your dog to limited destinations.

The bottom line is that you have to mitigate the risk for your pet, particularly a larger dog. Unless you are moving permanently or leaving for an extended amount of time, a plane ride with Fido does not seem worth the hassle, effort, and ultimately risk. Try to celebrate another way with your pup!

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