Expert Advice

A Vet's Top Tips for Traveling with Pets

by Dr. Justine Lee
Travel Photo by Egor Gordeev / Unsplash.

You may be contemplating a longer trip than usual — relocating for a few months to work from home in a better place perhaps? — or you may be moving into a new quarantine pod for the holidays. If you want to bring your pets, make sure you do it right. We got top tips for plane and care travel from by Dr. Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT, and veterinary expert for Pumpkin Pet Insurance.

It can be difficult to decide if you should take your pets with you when you travel. Will they be happier at home, or do they prefer to be with you? As a veterinarian and pet owner, my general guidelines are these: If your trip or vacation is less than two weeks, leave pets at home with a house sitter or pet sitter. If that’s not an option, a doggy daycare or kennel can be a good fit, but make sure to research the companies first to find the best one. If you’re leaving for more than a few weeks or moving to a new location — these key tips will ensure happy, safe, and healthy travels for owners and their pets.

Tips for Plane Travel

Don’t fly with a pet unless absolutely necessary.
Ideally, pets should not fly unless an owner is moving permanently or taking a long trip (two to four weeks minimum). If an animal is not used to flying, the trip could be extremely stressful and potentially dangerous, which is not a risk to take for a few days, especially if the pet has a health condition. If a pet has to fly, then it’s critical to start planning weeks (or even better, months) in advance to ensure you have time to schedule a vet appointment to get a health certificate or find the right type of carrier case. This is assuming the animal is used to traveling and can fit in the cabin — in other words, they weigh less than 10-15 pounds. Otherwise, driving or finding a house sitter is better to eliminate potential stress.

Talk to a veterinarian about medication.
It may be in your best interest to find the right sedatives/anti-anxiety medication (e.g., trazodone, gabapentin) or perhaps even anti-nausea medication (e.g., Cerenia) to give your pet before they travel. This is very important, as cats and dogs are not used to the noise and the stress of a plane or the airport. If a pet is being sedated prior to flying, it’s important for owners to be aware of how well the medications work, which means testing the medication and its effects at least two to four days before the trip. This way, pet parents you can make sure the animal is affected by the drug appropriately, and you’ll have time to work with your veterinarian on adjusting the dosage.

Know when plane travel is too risky for a pet.
Pet owners should seriously consider the risks of travel. If your dog has an underlying heart murmur, a seizure disorder, a respiratory problem, an airway problem, diabetes, snoring, is obese, or has any other serious health condition, they are at higher risk of having issues while traveling, even if they are in the cabin with you. This is especially critical for dogs who have to travel in cargo. If you don’t know whether your pet has a medical problem, a physical examination from the veterinarian is a must before flying.

Do as much advance planning as possible.
You can take simple steps to reduce stress on an animal that has to fly in cargo, such as booking a nonstop flight and avoiding flights during the hottest time of the day. Booking a plane ticket as far in advance as possible — along with the pet’s ticket — is important too, as some airlines limit the number of pets permitted in the cabin. When booking a ticket, it’s best to fly first thing in the morning when it’s cooler. Owners should call the airline in advance to make sure all criteria are met, such as confirming they bought the right type of crate, or that they purchased the right ticket for cargo.

Dr. Lee and a happy cat. Photo courtesy Dr. Justine Lee.

Understand pet quarantines before traveling abroad.
Pet quarantine regulations vary by country, and islands like Hawaii, the United Kingdom, and Australia have especially strict quarantines. This is one more reason why it's important to thoroughly think through the travel plans. Unless owners are okay with their cat or dog being quarantined for two to four weeks alone, leave them home. Before traveling to another country with a pet, an accredited veterinarian will need to fill out an extensive USDA APHIS certificate before the animal can fly. Not all veterinarians can issue this, so check with your veterinarian first. If they can’t provide one, they may be able to refer someone who can. Before the trip, make sure to do extensive research on travel requirements for the airline and the destination to ensure you understand all the rules and made any necessary arrangements well in advance. Don’t expect your veterinarian to know every country’s regulations. Do your research. Additionally, countries with strict quarantines often require a rabies blood test, which can require several weeks of advanced planning.

Do not abuse the fake service dog or cat criteria.
Vets are very against this abuse of the system, as there have been many cases of people getting bitten by dogs who appear to be service animals.

Tips for Car Travel

Secure animals before starting the engine.
It can be extremely dangerous for a cat or dog to run around loose in the car. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the rare and devastating car accident when the owner couldn’t step on the brakes because their pet ran under the pedal or interfered with the driver. Keep animals in a carrier case or buckled into their harness to ensure they remain secured throughout the trip. In some states, like New Jersey, it’s illegal to have pets roaming freely around the car.

Acclimate animals to their carriers.
Cats especially don’t like sudden changes — which is why I prefer to leave my cat at home unless absolutely necessary — but both cats and dogs may experience anxiety during road trips. To ease their fear, it’s important to familiarize animals with their carriers in advance. Place a comfortable blanket inside and consider purchasing a calming spray — Feliway for cats or Adaptil for dogs — to use in the carrier. If you leave treats, toys, and food in the carrier, your pet can develop a positive relationship with the space. These measures can help ease an animal’s anxiety about being in a mobile enclosed environment.

When in doubt, turn to meds.
If an animal experiences severe stress, it’s okay to use holistic supplements or prescription medications to alleviate their anxiety. Just always consult with a veterinarian. Never administer human medications to a pet, as some types can be very harmful. Veterinarians will work with owners to find very safe medications that can be instrumental in keeping a pet calm, happy, and healthy on the road.

Be prepared for emergencies.
Accidents happen, so be prepared. Have important medical records, a copy of the rabies certificate, and key phone numbers — primary veterinarian, ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (+1-888-426-4435), and an emergency local veterinarian — readily available when traveling. Also, make sure to bring a few extra days’ worth of any medication, treats, food, and a travel water bowl in case plans change.