Sunday, January 17, 2010

Flying With Pets

Quite a few folks have asked recently about taking Bailey to Alaska with us; how did he do on the flight, how was his recovery time, was it traumatic, etc.

Bailey has a lot of air miles under his belt. He has the doggie equivalent of platinum status, thanks to his forays up and down the West Coast. He's been up to Seattle (From SoCal) three times, back down to Santa Ana twice and to/from Anchorage once. All his trips were on Alaska Airlines and were all quite successful. They were also all relatively short, the longest being Seattle to Anchorage.

Bailey has a temperament that is ideally suited to flying: laid back and lazy, so we've never had to worry [too much] about how he'll cope with flying in cargo. He doesn't have any aversion to his crate and his recovery time [we give him light sedation] usually wears off later that same day. That said, getting both him and his equipment ready for flying takes a lot of preparation and organization.

Here is a bit of insight into that process:

Tips for Flying with Pets, Specifically Flying with Dogs in Cargo:

1. Make sure dog has plenty of room in his crate. Bailey can stand up fully, turn around, and lie down (lengthwise) in his crate. It's size XL, not surprisingly.

Make sure your dog is accustomed to his crate, before you fly. Bailey actually likes his crate so this isn't a big issue for us but I always haul it out a few weeks ahead of time, get the bed all fluffed up, and stick some treats in there. I'll even crawl in there a few times to show him that it's a fine place to hang out. I'll have him go in, leave the door open, and spend some times playing with his chew toys in there. He actually likes his crate, even after a long flight.

Give him a nice thick comfy blanket, one that can't get scrunched up in the back. This last time at the airport I watched some dude stick a pitifully thin blanket on the floor of the crate for his poor short-haired dog. Remember, cargo compartments are not as warm as the passenger area. Your dog only has a thin plastic crate floor between it and the aircraft floor. You don't want the cold to seep through. Make it thick. For our latest trip, Bailey had a square of pillow-top mattress (from an old water bed) and a very thick bathmat on top. Both were stiff enough so that they couldn't scrunch up in the back but I usually duct tape the whole thing down, anyway. Even with a good two inches of bedding, he could still stand upright in the crate.

2. Food and Water [before the flight]. I'm heartless when it comes to food. If we're flying in the morning, Bailey doesn't get any food for breakfast and minimal water. If flying in the afternoon, I give him a very early breakfast and a long walk. I'd rather be hungry on the flight than desperately have to use the bathroom (and be unable to). An empty belly is better than a bursting bladder. Our flights are never long enough that the lack of food would become an issue.

3. Food [during the flight]. I don't give Bailey any food in his crate for the flight. I did the fist time and he never touched it. I typically throw into the crate a few treats before he gets in (right before the TSA screening) so he can root around in there for them. It keeps him occupied for a while and takes his mind off the banging of the crate that occurs when they load the dogs into the aircraft.

4. Water [during the flight]. The night before we fly, I fill one of Bailey's water dishes (the kind that attach to the crate door) with water and stick it in the freezer. It's a solid block of ice when I attach it to his door the next morning. That's all he gets for the entire flight. No free floating water in the dish beforehand. Believe me when I say: That water, in liquid form, will never make it onto the airplane in the bowl. Guaranteed. It will be spilled on the floor of the crate, on the blanket, on your pet. There are just too many bumps and bangs for that water to make it to the plane in the bowl. And you really don't want your pet to lay on a soggy blanket the entire flight.

When we flew from Anchorage this last time, our TSA guy was absolutely delighted that we 'knew about the ice trick'. The ice will gradually melt in the cargo compartment, and, provided that you don't have too much turbulence, will stay in the bowl, allowing your pet to occasionally alleviate his thirst.

I checked Bailey's bowl when we arrived in Seattle a few weeks ago: he had about an inch of water left, and both the crate and the blanket were dry, most likely indicating that he had drunk the water throughout the flight.

5. Paperwork. Before flying, you'll have to take your pet to the vet to get a Certificate of Health. Then the vet will charge you about $60. Ouch. A few things: The certificate typically has to be issued within 30 days of flying (for your RETURN flight too, natch). I like to go a week in advance (in case there are problems) but I also make sure that I have at least a week of time on our return trip before it expires. Heaven forbid something prevents you from leaving on your original day and you have to fly out a few days later, you don't want an expired health certificate to compound your problems.

The vet will put your dog's latest rabies vaccine information on the certificate. I also request that he place Bailey's microchip number in the remarks section and check the box that says the animal is acclimated to cold air temperatures. The certificate, along with his rabies vaccine, goes into a clear file folder taped to his crate and presented to the check-in dude at the counter. I also keep spare copies in my carry-on.

6. Departure procedures. Take your dog for a long walk before you leave for the airport. Make sure he pees and poos. He will be much happier later. After your arrive at the airport, put your dog on a short leash and carry (or, in my case, drag) his crate up to the check in desk. You cannot check your dog in online. Besides, they'll want to charge you for transporting your dog, typically $100, one way. They'll ask for your pet paperwork, take your bags, and direct you the TSA kiosk. Walk your dog over there, with the crate. They'll inspect both the crate and your dog.

The TSA procedures occasionally differ, depending on the airport. In Seattle and Anchorage, they'll inspect the crate, you put your dog in the crate, and they'll lift the crate onto a cart and wheel him off to his flight. In Santa Ana (SNA), they inspect the crate, put it on the baggage conveyor belt and then you'll walk, with your dog and a TSA person, into the bowels of the airport, where you'll meet the crate and place your dog inside. That was the procedure as of Nov 2009, at any rate.

7. Arrival procedures. Your pet will typically arrive at the oversize luggage door near the baggage carousal. I can usually beat them to the pickup location; it's nice to be waiting when your pup arrives as the unloading operation is likely stressful. We whisk him out of his crate (carry the leash in your purse) and straight through the terminal so he can go to the bathroom. I always look up the pet areas online before I arrive.

Our first time flying we had a rather unfortunate event in which Bailey defecated on the curb in the outdoor arrivals area. Another good reason to carry a plastic bag in your purse along with the leash, treats, paperwork, and water. And why you should take your dog on a good long walk before flying. After his post-flight bathroom walk, we stick him back in the crate while we collect luggage and flag down the car. Hopefully it will be you and buddy. Carrying the crate, your luggage, and having your dog on a leash, walking through the airport is too much for one person to handle.

When we reach our destination, I feed him lots of water and make up for any missed meals. He's usually back to his lovely, non-medicated self in a few hours.

8. Sedation. Talk to your vet about this one. My understanding is that these days they typically avoid sedating animals on flights, mostly because, like any medication, there are risks associated with it. Additionally, the airlines do not recommend it.

Back in 2005, our vet prescribed a sedative the first time Bailey flew. The recommend dose was way too strong, and Bailey spent the next two days in a drugged state. We were not happy. On the flight back down, we gave him a third of the recommended dose and he spent the next eight hours in a blissful, sleepy, loopy state. When we fly, we stick with that procedure, only because it's been field tested, we know how he'll react to the medication, and we hope that it relieves a bit of the anxiety that naturally accompanies a flight in the cargo compartment.

So, there you have it. Tips for traveling with your best friend. Good luck and happy travels.