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Travel tips for pets: what to know before you go

June 17, 2024

Summer is a popular time for travel, which may include your furry family members. Whether you plan to drive a few hours to a cottage or fly across the country, Dr. Matthew Richardson, owner of The Animal Clinic in Toronto, has helpful tips for travelling with your pets to keep them happy and safe during your trip.

What do you check for in a veterinary exam for a pet travelling internationally?

It depends on where the pet is travelling. If the pet is going to the U.S., we would generally check that their vaccines are up to date and that they appear healthy and free of communicable diseases. We would then discuss any potential health concerns in terms of where they are travelling (such as fleas, ticks and heartworm disease). Pet owners should also review and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated requirements dogs entering the U.S. 

If, on the other hand, they're travelling somewhere outside of North America, such as Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, there are a whole suite of vaccines and tests that must be done at prescribed intervals prior to departure to make sure the pet is free of specific diseases of concern in the country to which they are travelling. All of these tests must be done after confirming the pet is microchipped. Some of these requirements must happen up to six months prior to travel, so it’s important to discuss this with a veterinary professional well in advance.

Should pet owners bring their pets in for a checkup before a long car ride?

If the pet is young, healthy and views new experiences as a grand adventure, a checkup generally isn’t needed. However, if the pet is anxious in new situations, gets stressed during car rides or has health issues that might become a problem, such as renal disease or arthritis, having a checkup and conversation with your veterinarian to make sure the pet is otherwise healthy, and to discuss how to minimize those concerns is a great idea. The importance of such a visit also depends on the length of the car ride. If it’s a few hours to a cottage, that’s a much different trip than a cross-country drive where the pet will be in the car for multiple days and may be exposed to different health risks.

Do you recommend a checkup for pets prior to travel by car or plane?

Plane travel is different from car travel for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the pet may not be accessible to the owner during the flight, and even if they are travelling in the passenger compartment, access to help if something goes wrong is much more limited. I’ve never heard of a plane being diverted because of a pet in distress. Because of this, I think a checkup prior to air travel is a good idea. At the very least, it’s a chance to confirm that your pet is healthy and free of disease, is up to date on all their vaccines, and it gives you a chance to make sure there’s nothing preventive that you should be doing to avoid diseases at your destination. Airlines will also sometimes ask to see a health certificate stating that your pet is healthy, free of disease and considered safe to travel by airplane, and your vet can’t give you that certificate without an exam.

What’s the safest way to transport a pet by car?

If your pet is loose in your car and you get in an accident or must stop abruptly, they can be thrown around in the vehicle, which poses a risk to them and other occupants. For that reason, the safest way is to have your pet in a carrier or with a harness tethered to a seat belt system. For cats and smaller dogs, there are certain carriers that can be belted in using the car’s seat belt system. I also like the rear seat covers that extend from the front headrest to the rear headrest because not only do they prevent the pet from falling into the foot well and injuring themselves, but they also make it more difficult for the pet to move into the front seat and distract the driver. And they help keep the seats clean, too!

For anxious pets, is sedation recommended for a long car ride?

I recommend training and positive reinforcement as the best approach to enjoyable travel with your pet. However, some pets are extremely nervous about travel, and sedation is necessary in certain circumstances. In these instances, I typically recommend a few trial trips of a short distance to make sure the amount of sedation prescribed provides the desired level of sedation for the desired length of time. Waiting until the last minute can lead to doses that are either too low or too high.

What's the best way to calm a pet that’s nervous about travel? 

The best tip I have for travelling with a pet is to make sure that your pet is used to the idea prior to your trip. On the day of travel, there are many stressors, and pets are adept at picking up on our emotions, so preparation is important. If your pet is going to be travelling in a crate, make sure they are used to the crate. 

For cats I generally recommend that the carrier stays within the living space of your home with the door always open, so your cat can go in and out of the carrier. Putting treats or toys in the carrier, or even feeding your cat near the carrier, will encourage them to explore the carrier and view it as a normal part of the environment, rather than a foreign place that they get put into prior to unpleasant experiences like long travel. 

For dogs, I recommend getting them used to travel by taking them to fun places in the car, like the park, cottage or to visit other dogs. Offer them treats and rewards along the way and make it an adventure. Start with short trips and build up to longer travel. You also want to mimic the way they will eventually be travelling, so if your dog will be in a crate for the trip, you should practice with them in a crate in the car.

Is sedation recommended for dogs travelling in checked baggage?

It depends on the temperament of the dog. Certain dogs will be fine without sedation, while others will be very anxious if they are unmedicated and could work themselves up into a health crisis. When a pet is travelling as checked baggage, there’s the added concern that once they are loaded onto the plane, there will be nobody observing them until they are deplaned. So, if the level of sedation is insufficient or too much, there’s no way of knowing and no way of responding until after the flight. Making sure your pet is used to their carrier, has practiced travelling and that you and your veterinarian have determined the correct level of sedation for your pet is essential for safe and stress-free plane travel. 

To mimic a plane ride, try putting your pet in their carrier, covering the carrier with a blanket so they can’t see you and driving around with white noise playing. If your dog can calmly handle that situation, they are likely to do well on a plane. If they can’t, you should consider whether it’s necessary to travel with them, or if you can find someone to watch them while you travel.

Any other tips for travelling with your pet in the car?

Remember that dogs and cats will also need bathroom, water and snack breaks, just like we do. It’s also important that people consider where their pets are in the car with relation to the sun coming in through the windows and the ability of the climate control system to reach their area of the car. Remember that the sun shining in through the window can heat the car up very quickly, and many vehicles don’t have air conditioning vents in the back. Dogs and cats thermoregulate primarily by panting, so if you see your pet panting in the car, you should stop, let them have a break in the shade and then make sure they aren’t sitting in direct sunlight when they get back in the vehicle.

If you're doing a long road trip, especially in the summer, don’t leave your pets in the car when you get out for food or bathroom breaks. Not only will they also enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs, but the inside of a car on a hot summer day can reach life-threatening temperatures in minutes, even with the windows rolled down.

Any other tips for travelling with a dog or cat on a plane?

If your dog is going in the cargo hold of an airplane, I recommend filling the water tray for the carrier the night before and putting it in the freezer. Just before you depart the house, attach the water bowl to the door of the crate. The ice will melt slowly, which means it won’t spill during handling, and your dog will have a slow, steady supply of water during the plane trip. If they’re going on board with you, bring an empty bowl, so they can have a drink of water during the flight. Also, make sure that you can get their particular food at your destination, and travel with enough of their medications.Dogs and cats that travel in the cabin of a plane should be in a carrier. Don’t open the carrier mid-flight, especially if your pet is prone to trying to escape from the carrier.

Have you travelled with a pet?

I used to live in Seattle, and I would bring my two large breed dogs back to Ontario with me when I came to visit family. They handled the trip quite well and loved going to the cottage! On some flights, the flight attendants would let me know when my dogs had been loaded onto the plane, which then allowed me to relax, knowing they would be arriving at the destination with me. Sometimes they wouldn’t notify me, so I started letting them know when I boarded the plane that I was flying with two dogs in cargo, and if they could please let me know when the dogs were loaded on board, I would really appreciate it. After I started doing that, they notified me every time.