There are a number of important factors to be aware of when considering transporting your companion animal (pet) by air, domestically or internationally. The following general principles can be applied to air transportation of companion animals.
Is air travel suitable for your particular companion animal?
Not all companion animals are suited to travel by air and owners should carefully consider whether their pet will be suitable for this type of transport. If not, owners should investigate other available modes of transport, preferably where the animal can be supervised directly throughout the transport process. In 2022, the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) updated its regulations for the carriage of animals on aircraft, allowing airlines to carry animals in cabins if they chose to. However, individual airlines may not allow animals in their plane cabins, so you will need to check with the airlines directly. Note that air travel may not be suitable for all animals, even if they are permitted to travel in the plane cabin.
Your companion animal’s health
Your pet should be fit and healthy and able to cope with being confined for an extended period. An airport is an unfamiliar and noisy environment that can cause some animals to become stressed and agitated.
It is recommended that owners or caregivers of companion animals should consult with their veterinarian at least one month before proposed air travel for an assessment of the animal’s suitability for travel and to give time to address any identified issues. Companion animals should then be examined by a veterinarian in the seven-day period immediately prior to departure to ensure they are fit for transport.
Air transport is not recommended for highly anxious or stressed animals and other vulnerable animals at high risk of welfare compromise (e.g., animals in their third trimester of pregnancy and those under 12 weeks of age, and animals with underlying health issues that are likely to be exacerbated by air travel, including most individuals of brachycephalic breeds). For these vulnerable animals, the need for travel should be carefully considered and, if deemed essential, other alternative safer modes of transport and where direct supervision throughout the transport process is possible, should be chosen instead.
Preparing your companion animal
Your pet should be used to and comfortable in the container in which they will be transported. The process of getting them used to and comfortable in their transport container needs to start at least a few weeks before travel. The aim is for your companion animal to associate the container with good things and become so comfortable with it that they may even choose to go into it and sleep.
Place the container somewhere your companion animal likes to relax in the house. Make it as inviting as possible by putting in your animal’s favourite comfortable bedding, toys, and treats. You can feed your companion animal treats and their meals inside the container also and give them lots of praise and cuddles when they go inside it. Keep doing this every day for at least a few weeks, slowly building up to closing the carrier door when your animal is inside, having them stay inside the carrier with the door closed (gradually building up to more and more time), moving the carrier with them in it, and so on, always making sure they are comfortable with the stage they are at before doing more. Keep doing this until the time of travel arrives, the more ‘normal’ it is for them to be in their carrier and experience the different elements of travel, the better.
Your companion animal will be confined in their container throughout the air travel process. When they are traveling in the plane hold, this will be from the time of lodgement until you collect them at the destination.
Before you place your companion animal in the container and lodge them, make sure they have had plenty of opportunities to go to the toilet and stretch and exercise.
You may offer your companion animal a light meal a few hours before travel if appropriate (check with your vet).
Containers should comply with the current IATA Live Animal Regulations.
The animal in the container must have enough space to turn about normally while standing, to stand and sit erect, and to lie in a natural position.
Choose a container that has a water container present within it, with outside access for filling. Food is usually not needed for domestic flights, for international flights check the IATA recommendations for food/food containers.
Containers must provide adequate ventilation. and adequate shelter and shade to provide protection from the weather and to allow the animal to feel protected and not exposed. Inadequate ventilation and higher temperatures can contribute to the development of dangerous heat stress in animals.
Containers made entirely of welded mesh or wire mesh are not suitable for air transport.
For more details see: www.iata.org/whatwedo/cargo/live-animals/pets/Pages/index.aspx
Companion animal owners should be aware of the serious dangers of heat stress and take steps to minimise the risk. Heat stress occurs when heat generation exceeds the body’s ability to lose heat and it can be fatal. Environmental predisposing factors include a warm/hot humid environment, lack of adequate shade, lack of adequate ventilation and lack of water.
To minimise the risk of heat stress during air transport, choose a container that complies with the IATA regulations and book flights that will take place when the temperature is cooler, for example, avoid flying when it is hot, and avoid flights during the hot parts of the day. If the temperature will be high that day, rescheduling the flight to another cooler day is recommended.
Any animal can be susceptible to heat stress but some animals may be at increased risk including overweight animals, brachycephalic breeds (e.g., pugs, French bulldogs, British bulldogs, Boston terriers), heavy coated breeds (such as Newfoundlands, Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, and Persian cats); animals with respiratory, cardiovascular and/or brain disease and animals travelling from a cooler climate to a warmer climate. Very young or very old animals may also be more susceptible. Please see the IATA regulations and individual airline information for age and breed restrictions and recommendations.
While any dog or cat can be susceptible to heat stress, brachycephalic (short-nose/flat-faced) breeds are generally at greater risk of heat stress when compared to dogs and cats with a normal muzzle length. The characteristic flat face of brachycephalic animals causes narrowing or obstruction of the passage of air and oxygen trying to get through the airways to the lungs, called Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). Animals with BOAS can’t breathe normally and this significantly compromises their ability to cope with stress and raised temperatures.
The ability of cats and dogs to maintain normal body temperature (thermoregulate) and get enough oxygen into their body (oxygenate) are closely related to the respiration process. Dogs, for example, use panting (evaporative cooling) as a means of expelling heat from their bodies. Dogs rely on normal air flow through their respiratory tract to do this effectively. Abnormal brachycephalic anatomy makes it difficult for these animals to adequately thermoregulate and oxygenate sometimes even under normal conditions. When placed under additional stressors such as being exercised, stressed/excited, or placed in an environment with a high ambient temperature or inadequate ventilation they may be unable to adequately compensate and this can result in over-heating, collapse and in some cases, death.
Any brachycephalic breed, including British bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, Pekingese and Himalayan and Persian cats, are at greater risk of heat stress.
Some airlines prohibit carriage of certain brachycephalic breeds. Risks to brachycephalic animals are significant and, therefore, air transportation of brachycephalic animals should be avoided for their own health, safety, and welfare. Owners should be aware of the increased risks associated with air transportation of these types of animals and other alternative safer modes of transport and where direct supervision throughout the transport process is possible, should be chosen instead.
Sedation is generally not recommended for companion animals travelling by air due to health and safety concerns. Please see the IATA regulations which include the statement ‘Sedation of animals, except under certain conditions and carried out under veterinary direction, is not recommended’. For further information, we recommend you discuss this with your veterinarian.
Access to drinking water
A water container should be present within the container with outside access for filling. The water holder should remain in an upright position at all times and water holders need to be firmly attached to the cage. To ensure containment of any spills the container should have a spill tray installed lined with safe absorbent material.
You may offer your companion animal a light meal a few hours prior to travel if appropriate (check with your vet).
Note that some types of animals are prohibited from air travel, some can only travel if a veterinary certificate is supplied certifying the animal is fit to travel, and for some companion animals travel is not recommended.
Talk to the airline/airline freight company and companion animal transport company (if you have decided to organise your companion animals travel through a pet transport agency) for more information.