So, your human’s all ready to go on holiday - they’ve packed their bags, printed out their boarding pass, and now it’s time to head off to the airport.
But this time, something's different. This time, you're coming along too. Yep, you’re about to become one of the 2 million pets that will get to fly on a plane this year.
"This time, I'm coming along too!"
Your human might be a frequent flyer who knows the ins and outs of flying with pets (especially if they’ve read our how-to guide). But, as a first-time animal flyer, you might be wondering - what’s waiting for you at the airport? Is it safe? Will you be on the plane with your owner, or will you get separated?
Read on to find out, and don’t worry - just this once, curiosity won’t kill the cat.
Cabin, hold, or cargo - where will you fit?
Unless you’re lucky enough to have wings, you’ll have no idea what flying is like - and let’s be honest, a plane is a lot different anyway.
To understand what’s going to happen when you arrive at the airport, you’ll first have to figure out whether you’ll be travelling in the cabin, the hold, or if you’ll be going as cargo.
Yep, you're definitely going as cargo.
Being in the cabin means that you’ll travel with your human onboard the aircraft, in the same section where all the other people are. You’d typically be going there if you’re a small animal and can fit into a kennel under an airplane seat (ugh, we know).
This means you have close contact with your treat-giver all throughout the flight, and if you ask us, this feels like the nicest option - it’s a shame that not all airlines allow this just yet.
The lion’s share of animals will be going in the hold, however. This includes bigger dogs and cats, and some of the more unusual pets, like snakes and piglets as well.
This is also where the small ‘uns go if the airline doesn’t permit them to go in the cabin. But hey, at least you’ll be with your animal pals.
Finally, there’s the cargo. This is normally the only option if you’re a fun-sized kind of animal, such as a horse or a whale - if you’re wondering how that works, just think of that scene from Free Willy.
Travelling as cargo also means you'll have a completely different experience than your friends in the cabin or hold, but we'll get into that later on.
Travelling in the Cabin
Just because you're travelling doesn't mean you can't do it in style.
First things first, you’ll have to go through a security check, just like your two-legged pal.
This may seem daunting at first, especially since it involves being taken out of the kennel or container you arrived in.
A good owner should hold you and shield you from all the lights and noise - it can be stressful, and airports can be more than enough to drive you barking mad.
Despite the added stress, there’s something important to remember - do not allow your owner to give you tranquillizers. Your owner might think it’s harmless, but really, it just opens up a whole other can of worms.
For one thing, airlines often won’t allow it in case you get injured during turbulence - you need to be able to balance yourself.
For another, tranquillizers affect your breathing, and this could put you at risk, especially in a closed environment where air circulation isn’t the best.
Now that you’ve made it through security, your human’s going to have to put you back in your temporary home, and it’s off to the gate!
"I'm a strong independent cat that don't need no human."
Depending on how early you arrive at your airport (it’s better to be an early bird if pets are flying), you might have to wait a looong time before it’s time to board.
This leaves us with the elephant in the room - what if you need to use the bathroom?
Don’t worry - modern airports are designed with you in mind. In fact, it’s a legal requirement in the US to have a so-called ‘pet relief’ area for airports handling more than 10,000 passengers a year.
JFK is a good example. They’ve got these areas called ‘Wooftops’ - managed by the Dept. of Barks & Recreation - that function as a little pet park for you to play around in.
It’s a similar story with airports in Europe. Some even take it further, with Frankfurt hosting their famous ‘Animal Lounge’, where special employees look after you and provide vet care if necessary.
Once You're Onboard
Now that you’ve got your ducks in a row, it’s time to board.
We can’t lie - a lot of the flight experience will involve staring at your owner’s shoes (they look so chewable, don’t they?), but at least you’ll be together.
Once you’re up in the air, it’s alright to feel like a fish out of water - you are 20,000 feet above ground after all!
Luckily, your pal will be on hand to help if you get stressed. That can mean anything from feeding you tasty treats to holding your kennel still if there’s any turbulence throughout the flight.
"We're sorry Mr. Babe, but we're all out of apple slices."
Many airlines will actually allow your owner to put you on their lap, letting you look out as long as you’re contained and put back during turbulence or landing.
Once the journey’s over, and you’re at your destination, the first point of business should be to visit a pet relief area so that you can… well, do your business.
And voilà! The hard part is over - you’ve made it.
‘Hold’ Your Horses
Travelling in the hold is a different story altogether.
There’s a bit more red tape involved, so arrive at the airport 3 hours before your flight - this gives the humans enough time to check your paperwork and get you onboard.
You’re going to spend the entire time during your travels (outside of check-in) away from your owner.
That can be pretty stressful, so make sure to prepare so that you don’t get butterflies in your stomach when the big day comes.
One thing your owner can do is to practice inviting you inside your travel box and keeping it closed for the same amount of time as a short-haul flight plus check-in time.
A handy trick is putting treats inside - if there’s food, it’s got to be a safe place, right?
"Disturb me at your own peril."
Your owner may also want to line it with water absorbing textiles - for one thing, it will be more comfortable for you, for another, it’ll help if you have any ‘accidents’ while in the hold.
Slapping on a tag with your name and address on the side doesn’t hurt either - it’s good practice for if you get lost during transit, as it prevents your owner from having to go on a wild goose chase.
As a side note - if you do get lost, there are procedures to get you back home again. Ideally, you should be properly looked after by staff at the airport until they find a way to reconnect you with your partner in crime.
Inside The Hold
To understand what flying in the hold looks like, you’ll have to learn a little something about how planes work.
You see, most planes have two cargo sections - a forward section and an aft section.
You'll be going in the 'FWD Cargo' section.
The forward section is the only one that's both temperature and pressure controlled, so that's where you and your furry friends are going. Animals typically get loaded first - think of it as priority boarding.
While there, pilots will adjust the temperature just for you - they’ll have you listed on their pawsenger manifest and will do their best to give you the conditions you need.
The same goes for the air you’ll be breathing, as it’s actually the same air that’s circulating above you in the cabin. If it’s good enough for your human, it’s good enough for you!
As for the actual experience - we can’t lie, it’s not pleasant. It’s loud in there, and dark too - although some emergency LED-type lights may be on.
At least you won’t have any rogue suitcases falling on top of you, since the luggage will be secure in the opposite part of the hold.
One more clever tip for making you a bit more comfortable is having your owner put a t-shirt with their scent on it inside the kennel with you. Home is where the heart is, after all.
The Cool Cats in Cargo
With any luck, you’ll probably be able to skip out on travelling in the cargo hold.
The big exception is for all you fun-sized animals out there, from horses to hippos.
The main difference here versus flying in the hold is that you won’t be with your human on the same plane - instead, you will be flying on a special charter plane that is designed to handle live animals and oversize cargo.
"Alright fellas - no horsin' around."
Yes, it might get a little bit lonely to be without your human pal, but trust us - a plane designed to accommodate you makes a lot more sense than trying to stuff you into an ordinary hold. It’s like getting your own bougie private jet!
In other respects, though, the experience will be the same as flying in the hold. Just keep your eyes out for extra airline requirements - you’ll often face stricter restrictions when it comes to your age and ability to function independently of your owner for extended periods of time.
Pet Specific Tips & Risks
So far, we’ve covered what to expect while flying.
But you might still be wondering - every pet is different, so how can your owner make sure they're managing the risks as well as possible?
Dogs - For most dogs, flying is a walk in the park. But there are some things to think about, especially if you’re snub-nosed (also known as brachycephalic). In that case, you may want to rethink travel entirely.
Many airlines have stopped taking these breeds because of the increased risk of fatalities - after all, even if the air is recycled and pressurised, adding respiratory problems into the mix isn’t helpful.
"I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing."
If it's absolutely necessary and your owner is aware of the risks, there are a few things they can do to make you safer onboard.
Flying in the cabin is one, using a bigger crate than normal is another. Also, try not to fly during heatwaves - airlines might even deny you boarding if it’s a hot afternoon!
Being stuck in a crate for a long time is no fun, and we all know what it’s like when you catch a case of the zoomies. One thing you should get your owner to do is to play with you just before flying - chances are you’ll be tired during the flight and just sleep through it.
Come to think of it, that’s good advice for humans as well!
Cats - You feisty felines out there face a few challenges as well. Just like with canines, if you’re a snub-nosed cat (like a Persian), you might have difficulty securing a booking.
Cats also tend to react a little worse than dogs to the stresses of air travel - if you often get scared around new people, your owner might want to use a calming product like Feliway to make your experience as purrfect as possible.
Adding blankets is a surefire way to make you feel more comfortable.
Another tip is for your sidekick to put your favourite blankies all over the crate. They’re soft and cuddly, and can really help to settle the nerves of some of you more skittish kitty-cats out there.
Snakes - Sssssay no more - you have special needs, and besides, snakes and planes don’t always go well together.
Not to worry - travelling doesn’t have to be risky if your owner knows what’s up. The main thing is to get your travel crate right - it doesn’t have to be big, actually. The smaller the better, as you’ll feel a lot cosier.
Lining the inside of the crate with pads and blankets is a good idea, and not just because it feels comfortable, but because it also keeps you warm.
Now, as we mentioned above, pilots do have temperature control over the hold and should make adjustments for you, but there’s no reason to not be proactive.
Try using microwaveable hot packs or hand warmers to keep you nice and safe. Enjoy your travelssss.
Birds - Before you go off about the absurdity of birds needing to fly inside a larger, metal bird, there are a couple of tips to think about to make your flight experience as smooth as possible.
The good news is that some airlines will actually allow you to travel with your owner in the cabin. You can even get fed fruity snacks during the flight - sounds like luxury to us.
These lucky guys got a special plane chartered just for them!
Bigger birds will have to fly in the hold. This can be quite stressful, so one thing owners should do is throw a blanket over the cage - what you can’t see can’t bother you, after all.
Another thing - make sure that your perch is no more than 1 inch from the bottom of the cage. That way, if you encounter turbulence and fall off, there is no chance of you getting stuck in there and getting hurt.
When The Cows Go Home
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, hopefully most of your concerns have been allayed.
The chief takeaway is that flying doesn’t have to be stressful if you and your owner know what you’re doing.
That mainly involves preparation - make sure you know your own size, the dimensions of the crate, and most importantly, the airline regulations.
A really good website to use as a resource is PetTravel.com - use the drop-down list to select your destination and find out what you need to do.
Also keep in mind the other tips we’ve outlined above - the more you know about what flying is going to look like, the less you have to worry about.
You’ve heard it straight from the horse’s mouth - all that’s left now is for you to go on yet another adventure with your bipedal buddy. Hurrah!