This week, a dog tragically died on a United Airlines flight after his owners were told by a flight attendant to put him in the overhead compartment. According to reports, the dog was left without water or air during the 3.5-hour flight from Houston to New York City. It’s a terrible tragedy, especially considering more and more people have been flying with their pets in recent years. United has apologized and taken responsibility for the mistake, but it makes you wonder, what can you do to keep your pet safe while traveling on an airplane?
As Tracy Stewart, an air travel expert at deal site Airfarewatchdog, tells HelloGiggles, if you can get by with leaving your pet at home or with a trusted sitter, do it.
“Flying can still be really tough on pets,” he says. “Otherwise, if the trip is an absolute necessity, there are things you can do to keep your pet safe and comfortable.”
1Make sure your pet has a kennel that best suits its size
According to Stewart, airline rules generally state that a pet must be able to stand, turn around, and lie down inside its kennel. “Specifications will vary slightly between pets flying in cargo and those flying in the cabin,” he says.
For instance, United Airlines says the maximum dimensions for a hard-sided kennel in cabin are 17.5 inches long by 12 inches wide. Kennels must fit completely under the seat and in front of the passenger at all times. These rules vary from airline to airline, so be sure to check before purchasing a ticket.
2When checking your pet in for cargo travel, make sure they’re comfortable
You can do that by slipping something into their kennel that has a familiar smell of home, like a favorite toy or a hand towel. And of course, always include plenty of food and water. This will help keep your pet safe from dehydration during the flight.
3 Take a photo of your pet and tape it to their kennel
In another recent and completely unrelated report, United Airlines (again!) mistakenly shipped a German shepherd to Japan when it was meant to go to Kansas. It’s pretty unbelievable to think that can happen, but it did. According to Stewart, one way to prevent this type of mix-up is to tape a picture of your pet to the kennel, with their name and breed written in Sharpie below.
“Yes, the airline does stick the same info on the kennel label, but the photo provides yet another way to easily identify your pet,” he says.
4 Get a dog-appeasing pheromone collar, or DAP collar, if needed
Airlines will require vaccination records and sometimes even a letter from the vet stating that your pet is fit to fly. If anxiety is an issue, Stewart says, some veterinarians will prescribe a mild sedative like “pet Xanax.” That can work fine when you’re able to safely monitor your pet’s behavior in the cabin.
But when your dog is in cargo, there’s no one to intervene if they happen to react badly to the medication. So Stewart suggests getting a DAP collar. “It may be a safer alternative for calming stress-prone dogs,” he says. Read more about these types of collars here.
5Be sure to leave your contact info on your dog’s collar
As recent reports have shown us, the unexpected is always possible during air travel. So while Stewart says it’s unlikely that your pet will escape its kennel, plenty of stories throughout the years have shown otherwise. “If you don’t already have your pet chipped, at least include your contact information on their collar,” he says.
6 Know your rights as a passenger
“We trust flight attendants to look out for our safety and assume they know best, but there are bad apples,” Stewart says. “Under FAA regulation, disobeying instructions from your flight crew is seen as interference in crew member duties, which could land you in cuffs. If a flight attendant orders you to do something that seems unreasonable or potentially harmful to your pet, try to involve additional crew members. Demand to speak to the captain, who can hopefully defuse the situation before it goes off the rails.”
If that doesn’t work, it may be in your best interest to disembark and ask to be put on another flight. “Yes, it’s a huge inconvenience,” he says. “But there are worse outcomes, as we saw earlier this week.”
You should be able to travel with your dog if you want to. But as recent occurrences have shown us, airlines are far from perfect. It’s up to you to do what you can to keep your pet safe while traveling, and make sure he or she is comfortable during the flight.