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How to Travel with Your Pet

Apricot had never been to Hawaii.

But like anyone, man or beast, who has ever visited the islands, the poodle sensed there was something very special about the place the moment his plane landed.

In this case, that special something was that he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Turns out the airline messed up and Apricot was never loaded onto a nonstop flight from Miami to New York’s JFK Airport, where his anguished owner, writer and lifetime traveler Lea Lane watched the luggage carousel lazily spin without her dog. Hours passed until a 3 a.m. phone call alerted her that the poodle was back in New York after the Hawaii detour. Once home, Apricot stared blankly and wouldn’t respond for hours. Lane never put him on a plane again.

This horror story took place about 25 years ago, and while airlines are more accountable today for the handling and tracking of pets checked as baggage or cargo, stuff still happens, and there’s a lot you can do to ensure your pet has a safer and happier experience if you decide to travel together.

“LoJack” Lassie

Back in Apricot’s day the notion of implanting a pet with a homing device was practically science fiction. Today it’s a simple procedure performed during a veterinary office visit. A microchip “only the size of a grain of rice is injected under the [pet’s] skin” without fuss or discomfort, says certified animal behavior consultant and author Darlene Arden. You must also register the chip with the manufacturer's database, says Susan Smith, president of pettravel.com, so that animal control agencies can track it if your pet disappears. As always, your pet should be wearing an ID tag with his or her name and your cell number. And it's smart to carry a recent photo of Fido with you should he disappear.

Arden suggests writing a letter from your pet to the pilot, something along the lines of “Hi my name is Rex. I’m flying with you in the cargo hold and my mom who’s in seat 23A is really worried about me, so can you make sure the cargo is pressurized and let my mom know that I’m safely on board?” Have a flight attendant deliver the note. Arden says that uniformly this trick has been effective for her and her clients because “the flight crew has gotten involved – a lot of them have pets – and they’ll come assure you that your pet is fine.” Also attach a photo of your pet to the letter and have two letters prepared if you’re changing planes, she says.

Coach or cargo?

If you’re flying with a cat or small dog, stowing it in its carrier under the seat in front of you is the most desirable option. Fido needs to stay put throughout the flight, so ensure the carrier “conforms to the shape of the seat without collapsing” or turning over, Arden says. You’ll need to make your pet a reservation – most commercial airlines limit the number of in-cabin pets to about seven per flight – as well as pay a fee upwards of $100, which the airlines charge, frankly, because they can.

You may also fly your pet as either checked baggage or cargo. The only difference between the two methods is how your pet is processed, Smith says, as all of them end up in the same pressurized, temperature-controlled storage space under the plane. Pets checked as baggage fly free and will be disgorged onto the luggage carousel at your destination. Cargo pets are usually charged by weight and sometimes also by the size of the animal carrier, and are dropped off and picked up at a special facility at your departing and arriving airports.

Some airlines don’t permit cabin pets and many will mandate you fly your pet as cargo if it’s anything other than a dog or cat, or if your pet or its carrier exceed a certain size. All pets must fly by cargo if they’re traveling without you. Consult your airline about its guidelines when you book.

Checked pets must be in ventilated International Air Transport Association (IATA) compliant carriers. Attach all your travel information to the crate, and provide ample food and water and some favorite toys. For dogs, line the carrier with a towel or newspaper in the event of accidents. Include a disposable litter box for cats. And while it used to be the norm, do not sedate your pet. Arden and Smith say tranquilizers slow an animal's breathing, which can be particularly dangerous for airborne pug-nosed dogs.

Pack your papers

Have a vet examine your pet within ten days of your trip and issue you a health certificate. The airlines will ask to see it, especially if you’re transporting Fido by air cargo. Many hotels will also want to eyeball the document to verify Fido is flea, tick and disease free. All European Union countries and many other overseas destinations will require the certificate to bear a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stamp, which you can obtain for a $45 fee at your local USDA office. Bone up on country requirements and leash laws, too, Smith says, because if you’re unprepared for “entry requirements in the country you’re visiting they will [potentially] quarantine your pet, send it back, or destroy it.”

Ask your vet what kind of preventative measures for fleas, ticks, heartworm, or mosquitoes might be appropriate for your destination. Arden suggests bringing sunscreen and aloe, especially for sun-sensitive hairless pets. Get referrals for vets in your destination and consider asking your vet where you might take a pet first aid class.

Treat your terrier like a toddler

If you’re hitting the highway, contain your pet as you would for air cargo, stowing it in the back of the car. Take bathroom breaks every two hours if motoring with a dog.

Perhaps the most important road rule, suggests frequent traveler Angela Berardino, who takes long road trips with her boxer, Ollie, is having your dog on its leash and having a firm grip on it before opening the car door.

“Even well-behaved pets can take off quicker than you realize. Traffic at rest stops can be confusing, or there may be other animals around you don't immediately see. You should never be wrestling with attaching a leash in a parking lot,” she says.

Know what makes a hotel pet friendly.

Thousands of hotels nationwide welcome pets, says Smith. For years selected luxury hotels have pampered pets with amenities ranging from pet concierges and masseuses to specially-prepared meals and pet gift baskets.

But if you’re looking for a basic pet-friendly hotel, “ask if they accept pets in all their rooms or if there are only specific rooms” set aside for pet owners, Smith says, as many hoteliers will try to shove guests with pets into smoking rooms. Ask when you book what the safety deposit is (to cover potential damage and cleaning costs) and whether or not it’s refundable.

And inquire, Arden suggests, about whether you’re permitted to have you pet in the lobby, elevators, and other indoor and outdoor public areas.

Get Fido in the mood to travel

Conditioning your pet to travel before your trip is critical. If Spot or Felix don’t get out much at home, Smith says to “test your pet’s sociability, taking it “places like dog parks and [elsewhere] out of its environment and see how it reacts.” Take short car rides, perhaps initially with a friend in back, “to reassure [your pet] that the traveling by car is safe,” Berardino says.

Start keeping your pet in its carrier at your feet, recommend Lane and Arden, so that over time the carrier “becomes a fun place to be,” Arden says, and your pet doesn’t just associate the carrier or travel with going to the vet or groomer.

“No pet of any size should be relegated to simply that,” Arden says.

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