Nakishka Skriker | Daily Maverick

If your pet is joining you on your next flight, there are a few tips and guidelines to consider before you hop on a plane and start your journey.

Arranging travel can be a little daunting, especially in our post-pandemic world. For pet owners, travelling might lead to extra stress and pressure when trying to find what to do with their animals. Pet sitters? It might be costly. Pet hotels? There might not be one anywhere close to you. And what if you’re permanently relocating or want to travel with your pet? 

But you don’t need to be up in the air about it — here is what you need to know before you hop on a plane.  

Local airlines and pets

“Each airline will have different requirements and restrictions when transporting pets, so it is essential that you check with the specific airline that you plan on using to find out their requirements. For example, brachycephalic breeds (short-nosed, flat-faced) are at a higher risk of complications due to their anatomy, and may have difficulty breathing when agitated, so the airline may have different safety restrictions for these breeds,” explains Dr Vanessa McClure, a senior lecturer in small animal medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Pretoria University. 

Indeed, most local South African airlines, such as FlySafair and South African Airways (SAA), still only allow pets to be transported as manifested cargo — which means your pet would travel on its own flight booking, often at the bottom of the plane (not in the main cabin with you) where temperature and pressure are still controlled; this is different from “excess luggage” where your pet would be added to your own booking.

There are exceptions though: SAA allows guide dogs (one per passenger) in the cabin free of charge for the person in need. Passengers leaving or heading to the US are also permitted to have a service dog for emotional or mental support. 

Relative newcomer low-cost airline LIFT admits small dogs in the main cabin; they will be allowed to fly with you although there are only a limited number of seats (window only) allocated to small dogs per flight, and provided they are in a pet-friendly carrier bag. At the time of publishing, should you want to travel with your dog on LIFT, you’ll need to fill out a Dog-in-cabin Request Form; the cost of the dog-friendly blocked-off seat will be the same as for a normal adult. 

If you are travelling long distance, McClure advises people to book a non-stop flight, when possible, to minimise stress on the pet. 

Pet travel agencies

Similar to standard travel agencies, an animal travel agency can help arrange anything from transportation to containers and comfortable blankets and travel mats, to make your pet’s journey as seamless as possible. 

This might not be a futile service as each airline has specific requirements, ranging from the container your pet must travel in, to vaccines they must have before they reach their destination, along with other regulations particular to each country. You’ll also be alerted about extra costs — your pet will not be included in your free baggage claim, and it is usual to pay an excess of about R300 (less tax), regardless of class. 

Plan before you travel

According to Dr Kevin Solberg, a vet at The Animal Hospital and Vetshop in Durbanville who is responsible for pet emigrations, one of the most important things to do before travelling with a pet is to prepare well in advance. 

“Planning ahead is crucial for all travel with pets, but even more so for international travel. Different countries have different regulations, and the timespan needed for pets before leaving varies, but one should allocate at least three to six months, or even eight, to the process. Start early and work through a travel agency and vet, as they know all the ins and outs. They can also help with the stresses of trying to manage everything, including a move,” Solberg says.

“Be in contact with your pet travel agency and veterinarian to know what the requirements are, because arriving at your vet or travel agency at the last minute is not going to work. We (vets) can’t bend the travel rules and these rules are set in stone. If people are not prepared, we cannot change the situation as it is out of our hands and the animal might need to travel later. If things are not carried out in the right order it might also cause people to delay their flight or they may need to spend time in quarantine or additional time in quarantine, depending on which country they are going to,” he adds.

The first thing to do is make sure your pet has been microchipped, Solberg explains. Authorities will match up all vaccinations or treatments to the microchip identification, so if the pet has received a vaccine before a microchip, it might not be accepted. 

“Even if you are travelling in South Africa, it is wise to microchip your pet, because your pet might get lost while you are away, and the pet will then have permanent identification on them.”

Talking about vaccines, it is recommended that you find out far in advance which pet health requirements your airline and chosen destination require. In the US, for example, the law says your pet must be vaccinated against rabies 21 days before its arrival. Similarly, LIFT reminds passengers that by law South African dogs must be vaccinated against rabies. The airline also bars pregnant dogs from travelling, and requires dogs to be in good health for the flight. Your airline and destination may also require breeding documentation, since breeds like pit bulls are not allowed in several countries.

If travelling with a pet, it is important to arrive at the airport fairly early. SAA asks passengers to arrive the usual 90 minutes before the flight, while LIFT requests that you arrive two hours before. 

Prepping your pet

Once your pet is ready to travel, you might be tempted to give them calming pills or a sedative before the flight. However, Fly-A-Pet explains that pets should not be sedated, but remain alert. 

“Sedating or tranquillising a pet during travel is not permitted for air travel, and not advised for regular travel either, for safety reasons. Sedating a pet can cause breathing and blood pressure problems, or problems regulating their body temperature. Rather get your pet used to travelling by acclimatising them to their crates,” advises McClure.

Solberg says that, in his experience, people often only get a crate for their pet a few days before a long flight, which can put their pets under a lot of stress. However, he assures pet owners that if proper preparation is done to get pets used to their crates, they will see the carrier as a  “happy place rather than a stressful place”.

To get the pet ready to travel in a crate, begin training them weeks in advance. You can do this by feeding them inside the crates and putting their blanket in the crate along with an item of clothing from the owner.

Fly-A-Pet also suggests putting a familiar item in your pet’s travel cage, such as a blanket, towel or item of clothing, to help them settle. However, avoid bulky items that could obstruct ventilation. There are also regulations that have to be followed regarding what type of crate to buy, so it is important to check that your carrier is IATA-approved. 

In addition to acclimatising pets to their carriers, owners can explore alternatives such as calming collars for dogs and calming gel for cats.

“One can also, depending on the airline and flight, use a calming pheromone collar that might help with the stress of the pet. I often recommend — even if the pet is not allowed to wear it on the flight — to get the pet to start wearing the collar about two weeks before departure and then for two weeks after arrival. These collars are long-working and will help the pet with the adaptation,” adds Solberg.

It is also important to make sure your pet is well hydrated throughout its journey. If you have time, it may also be helpful to take them for a walk before the flight, so that they’re less restless on the plane. 

Arriving at your destination

When the trip is complete, pets also need to adjust to their new environment. 

Solberg recommends continuing to use items that are familiar to the animal, such as food, bowls and cat litter, since they have familiar scents and can destress the pet. 

McClure also advises owners to book pet-friendly accommodation where they can prepare a safe space for their animals. 

“Place everything they need in this area (food, water, litter tray, etc) and bring beds, blankets and toys from home so they will have something familiar. Stick to your regular feeding times and do not change the food,” she says.

This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick: What you should know before you bring your pet on the plane

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