Jet Lag or Tail Wag: Traveling with Your Pet

Capitol Hill is filled with world travelers. Whether you are headed home to see the family down South or you are moving to Africa for a two year stint for work, this area is filled with people who roam around the planet. What better travel companion than your pet? The thought of having your furry friend with you at your destination is an appealing one, and one that has made pet travel a big business. 

I’m often asked if traveling with your pet is safe, or if flying is inhumane. The truth is that there are risks with all forms of travel and transporting your dog or cat isn’t the best idea in many situations. If an animal is sick, suffers from severe anxiety or hasn’t done well with trips in the past, then embarking on a long journey should be reconsidered. Bringing Fido along on the trip purely for your benefit should be weighed heavily with leaving him behind at a reputable boarding facility, dog sitter or reliable friend. 

This time of year AtlasVet is bombarded with phone calls from clients who request a sedative or tranquilizer for their pets. Often times pets don’t need anything for travel and giving a drug for the first time before driving to the airport can be a bad idea. Pet owners are reasonable to think that giving an animal something to take the edge off is a good idea, but many airlines prohibit such sedatives because the difference between a sick pet that shouldn’t travel and a pet that has been sedated is impossible for the airline staff to differentiate. If an animal looks too sleepy they might get booted from the flight. While rare, any medication can cause adverse reactions, so all drugs should be given in a controlled environment well before the actual trip to see if the sedative is well tolerated. I always recommend trying to avoid giving anything if possible and will typically recommend giving diphenhydramine (Benadryl) as a safe, inexpensive option to help cause mild sedation. Contact your veterinarian to see what options are best for your little guy and prior to trying any new medication.

Traveling by plane strikes fear into the hearts of many, but in some cases can be the fastest and safest way to get your cat or dog to the destination. First things first... Contact the airline.  If you are traveling within the United States, most (if not all) airlines require a national health certificate that states your pet has been seen by a veterinarian recently and is healthy. This is common source of frustration for pet owners as each airline has different requirements, time frames and many times does not enforce their requirements. It is a good idea to make sure you know exactly what the airline requires and I always recommend traveling with something in writing either from the website, or from an email from the airline staff that clearly shows what was asked of you as a pet owner and traveler. Take note, almost all vets will charge for a national health certificate.  This is because it does require an appointment. The doctor must examine the animal and put their name on a document that now makes them liable for that pet’s health status. 
When flying aim for direct flights during the more mild part of the day to avoid extreme temperatures depending on the season. Make sure you know the size of your pet and if they are small enough to qualify for accompanying the owner in the cabin, or if they are too large and must be kept below. Either way, a specific carrier will be needed that ensures your cat or dog has enough room during the flight and just as importantly, that it meets the airlines specs to board the flight. An inappropriately sized pet carrier is a quick way to get rejected from boarding.

When you are headed just a few hours away or you aren’t up for flying, the American road trip is one of my favorite ways to go somewhere special. Many dogs fit the stereotypical image of Rover with his head out the window and tongue flapping in the wind (not recommended for safety reasons), but many anxious dogs and most cats are not big fans of the car. Securing your dog or cat carrier (think baby seat) is an excellent way to improve car safety and is becoming state law in some states like New Jersey. Pet safety belts and harnesses keep animals safe the same way that ours do, but also prevent your pet from creating mischief or causing a distracted driver by roaming around the car.

If you are traveling by car or plane, preparation is the key.  If you have never driven further than the vets office, consider a 20-30 minute drive around to see how your cat or dog does. Often times after 5-10 minutes of driving, your dog will settle down and you cat will stop meowing. Your pet might do much better on the interstate than on city streets.  You might discover your pet gets car sick and breakfast before the day of travel should be skipped to avoid nausea. Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) have a bonus effect of helping with car sickness. 

Lastly, it is important to know that traveling to Hawaii or to a foreign country makes life much more difficult.  Always consult your vet if you are headed to either of these destinations so that the proper paperwork (we are talking serious red tape), medical tests, preventative medications and time frames can be properly performed.  If you decide to head to Hawaii in a few weeks and your pet has to go with you, know that it is not going to happen.  More on this later in another Hill Rag article! 

With a little bit of planning and know how, traveling with your pet can be very rewarding.  Know your dog or cat’s limitations and prepare for them accordingly.  Do not be shy to contact your vet and that not knowing airline requirements can be devastating.  I have sent animals to six continents (I’m still waiting on Antartica!) and know that the rewards of travel often outway the risks.  Start prepping, have a happy holidays and see you ‘round the Hill! 

Dr. Miller and Dr. Antkowiak are the owners ofAtlasVet (the Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE and they reside in Capitol Hill. Twitter: @atlasvetdc, Website:, Facebook: