Having been in the business of serving traveling pet owners with transporting their pets for over 15 years, I have read a lot of articles about the risks of pets traveling in the cargo hold of an airplane. Although I do not intend to argue against those opinions here, I would take this opportunity to mention that there is risk in taking ourselves and loved ones, including our pets, out of our environment no matter how we decide to do it (drive or fly). The core of the issue is not the decision; it is thought and preparation that goes behind it.
Because your children can communicate with you, it is easy to explain to them what you are doing, what is going to happen, and why. However, our pets, and particularly dogs, look to us for communication and will never understand what is happening to them when traveling in an airline cargo hold unless they are prepared for it. As a pet owner faced with a relocation or long vacation involving great distance and necessitating traveling in an airplane where you cannot be with them, what can be done to help your pet understand what is going on and be confident enough to withstand the separation from you?
First of all, you need to evaluate your pet’s health and personality. Take your pet to your vet if your pet has health issues and discuss them. Will these issues pose a challenge to your pet, mentally or physically over a prolonged separation? If so, you need to adjust your travel so that you can attend to those needs. Plan a layover along the way; just know that you will need to accommodate the import requirements of that country.
You know your pet’s personality better than anyone else. If your pet is very dependent on you, then it will take longer to prepare them for the separation involved in travel. Is your pet shy and timid? That will also require lots of advance preparation. Is your pet protective, territorial, and possibly aggressive? This is a difficult personality to deal with when traveling and this personality may require special crates to contain them when they are being held and loaded on the airplane.
Preparing for a trip involving the cargo hold of an airline is not an easy thing. Pets that are exposed to this type of travel before reaching adulthood will be better travelers, but don’t we all learn better when we are young? If you are faced with prolonged pet travel and your pet has never traveled before, plan to start very early. Get the crate months in advance and bond your pet to it, whatever it takes. Replace your pet’s bed with it (unless your pet sleeps with you), put your unlaundered clothing in it, lie down next to it and encourage your pet to use it, again and again. Reward your pet generously. This crate will protect your pet both physically and mentally, so you can understand how important this step is.
The second step is to get your pet out of its environment while in the crate. Take them to the dog park, to a friend’s or relative’s house or somewhere else fun. Or just drive around; anything to remove them from their environment. Get them around other animals or people and observe their behavior if this is possible. The more peoples they are exposed to, the better they will adjust to being around strangers without you.
The third step is to separate yourself from your pet. This is the hardest part, but will help your pet the most. Leave them with a friend or relative for a day, then come back to get them. Leave them at the groomers for longer than necessary, then come back to get them. Take them to doggy day care, then come back to get them. Always have a joyous reunion and give them lots of love and hugs when you come back to get them. By doing this, they will know you will always come back to get them, no matter where they are. And they will function better without you for periods of time. This is exactly what you want them to be able to do when you travel.
This all may sound hard to do, but it is not impossible and certainly worth doing. And yes, there are more things you will need to do such as check your destination country’s import requirements, look up local vets and pet hospitals, accumulate your pet’s medicines, take toys and grooming tools, and don’t forget a good leash. Just remember that you must prepare your pet mentally in order to have a successful trip. And, instead of feeling guilty, do what you can to prepare your pet. It will pay off in the long run.