Looking for tips on flying with your senior dog? Keep sniffing me out!
Last Updated 4/5/23
WOOF! Even though I entered seniorhood several years ago, I’ve shown no signs of stopping (just take a quick sniff at my IG feed). I’m quite a beast! Thankfully, I am still snoring through both transcontinental and international flights (not to mention, out-walking my humans almost on a daily basis). While flying with a senior dog is certainly possible, it does come with increased risks and stress; yet, the risks are higher if your dog has pending health issues (geriatric dog). As the old saying goes, it’s no fun getting old. 🙁 I know my international escapades may look stupendous, but flying from one dreamy destination to another isn’t always rosy. Just as flying can be stressful for humans, it can be just as stressful (or even more) for dogs. Air travel for senior dogs may be dangerous if you don’t do everything possible to prepare for a smooth flight.
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*For simplicity purposes, the gender of the word “dog” will be in the masculine form (“he” or “him”) throughout this post.
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What’s considered a senior dog?
Generally speaking, dogs hit their senior years around 7-years-old. However, it largely depends on the size of your dog as small dogs live a longer life (with the exception of teacups due to abnormal breeding). Dogs are considered senior in the last 25% of their lives. As for “toy” breeds like Yorkies, the senior years begin anywhere from 8 to 10 years old whereas big dogs like Great Danes may hit their senior years starting at age 6.
Small dogs like me are lucky enough to have a whopping average lifespan of 13-16 years (Chihuahuas can expect to live even longer – up to 20 years!). I once met a Yorkie who was 19-years-old! Nevertheless, like humans, health and longevity all depend on the individual. Through consistent exercise, good diet, and LOTS of love, I hope all dogs will live long, happy lives.
Now, sniff out my 25 tips on flying with a senior dog below:
#1 Get a Veterinarian CHECK-UP
Before you book any flight with your senior dog, make sure he is clear for air travel by his veterinarian. Be forthcoming about your travel plans and address any pending health issues with the vet. If you are flying internationally with your dog from the States, you’ll also need a vet health certificate signed off by an accredited vet within 10-days of travel.
If your vet advises AGAINST flying with your senior dog, please follow their advice and do NOT take the risk.
#2 Do NOT Fly Cargo
Flying with your senior dog should mean flying in-cabin with your senior dog.
Heat strokes, injuries, broken crate escapes, etc. – we’ve all heard horror stories of dogs and cats disappearing, suffering from injury, or even dying in cargo. Unless you absolutely must, please do not fly your dog in cargo. In cargo, all animals are placed (typically alongside baggage) under the cabin without being monitored by a single human during the flight. As temperature changes can be unpredictable, accidental injuries and deaths have occurred. Due to affiliated risks, the outcome of cargo transport may be unforeseeable. It can be a traumatizing experience, even if your senior dog makes it to the destination safely.
Although hundreds of thousands of animals are transported safely via cargo every year, the risks are significantly higher than flying your senior dog in-cabin where you can keep an eye on him. Cargo risks for snub-nosed/brachycephalic breeds like boxers, pugs, and bulldogs are so high that many airlines have proceeded to ban them. Air travel-related animal deaths are primarily affiliated with cargo, not in-cabin.
The bottom line is if your dog isn’t physically with you throughout the flight, please carefully consider your decision.
#3 Choose the RIGHT Carrier
Unless you have a legitimate assistance dog, you’ll need to select the right carrier to fly your senior dog. How much does your dog weigh? Some airlines will have a weight limit for both your dog and the carrier, ranging anywhere from 10 to 25 lbs. Even if the airline doesn’t impose a strict weight limit, you’ll still need a carrier that fits underneath that tiny seat in front of you, which means some VERY strict dimensions for the carrier and the size of your dog.
The most common dimensions for a pet carrier are 18 inches long X 11 inches wide X 11 inches high (46 cm X 28 cm X 28 cm), but every airline may have different standards. Therefore, please check their websites accordingly for the exact dimensions. Most airlines only have limitations on the carrier size while others may also include a total weight limit for both the dog AND the carrier. For most airlines, the weight limit for a dog to fly in-cabin is 20 lbs, BUT I once flew an airline that had a 3.4 kg/11 lb. limit for myself AND my carrier. And DOG, I was searching all over for a light-weight soft carrier that was also big enough for me to sit and lay down. The challenge arises in smaller planes flown by budget airlines that have a significant reduction of space. Keep in mind that your dog must be able to sit, lay down, and stand inside the carrier.
Choosing the right carrier is KEY. Think ventilation, comfort, and airline compliance! When shopping around for a carrier, bring your dog with you for a “test-sit.” Make sure there’s enough room for your dog to wiggle a bit, sit, and lie down. If your dog appears tense in it, he likely feels uncomfortable; thus, do your homework and search diligently until you find the right one. Soft, durable padding is also crucial for maximum comfort. It’s a matter of finding comfort AND meeting the airline dimensions at the same time. As a frequent escapader, I have two carriers depending on the airline that I’m flying; the first one is a pretty spacious roller bag/backpack that fits perfectly under most U.S. airline seats. As it comes with multiple features, it weighs approximately 3.4 lbs.
My second carrier is the typical soft lightweight carrier that weighs a little over 1 lb.; although it offers an opening in the front, it doesn’t provide as much space so I only resort to it if I have to meet any strict weight limit.
Looking for the perfect soft carrier? Find the best soft carrier for your dog HERE!
#4 Start CARRIER Training in Advance
Once the right carrier is selected, it’s imperative to start carrier training as early as possible to assure that your senior dog feels familiar and comfortable in it long before the scheduled flight. The concept is to transform the carrier into a wondrous haven. From the moment you bring the carrier home, place his blanket, toys, and treats inside. Hiding treats inside the carrier at the beginning of each training session will entice him to go in to sniff around. After several sessions of uncovering yummy treasures, he will eventually affiliate the carrier as a place worthy of his wet nose. Allow him to sniff around freely for treats during the first few days of training. Gradually, increase his time inside the carrier 3-5 minutes daily and work up to a good 60-90 mins OR until he appears comfortable and secure inside.
#5 Do NOT Fly during Hot Summer Months
The last thing dogs want is to pant their way inside a carrier on a flight, regardless of how “quick” it is. GRRR, you know how much your dog HATES the heat! Heat is indisputably dangerous for dogs – we’ve all heard of dogs dying from heat strokes in the car or even on walks during summertime. Over the summer months, my walks are reduced drastically or completely avoided until the sun goes down. If you must fly with your senior dog over the summer, make sure you grab an evening or early morning flight when the temperature is still bearable.
#6 Take Lots of BREAKS
Travel days are RUFF for anyone! Yet flying with your senior dog can make things a bit more complicated. Be sure to give your senior dog ample opportunities to relax outside of the carrier and to walk around and relieve himself.
#7 Stay LONGER
Please don’t put your dog through the stress and hassle for a 1 or even 2-week vacation. The longer the flight, the longer you should consider staying to ease the transition and reduce the stress for your senior dog. For instance, I recommend staying at your destination for at least 2 weeks for a 5 to 6-hr one-way flight and at least 4 weeks for any destination over 8-hours one-way. Otherwise, it’s safer to board them or find someone you trust.
#8 SKIP Destinations that Require Quarantine
Unless you’re relocating, I do NOT recommend flying your senior dog to destinations that require quarantine (unless the quarantine time is under 24-hrs). The primary reason for any quarantine is to SECLUDE and CONFINE period. National quarantine laws are in effect to protect the people in the intended destination. The risk of rabies is generally the concern for dogs, but other canine health conditions may also be alarming, such as avian influenza and bordetella. As I make my way around the world, I’ve certainly heard of success stories of dogs and cats reuniting with their families after quarantine. I do not doubt the success stories, but I strongly suggest to DO YOUR HOMEWORK before making an abrupt decision to put your dog through long quarantine periods.
#9 Book a LATE or Overnight Flight
It’s no secret that dogs thrive on routines. Dogs wag their tails when it’s time to walk, play, eat, and sleep. The act of traveling can generate stress as dogs are thrown out of their daily grind without knowing the road ahead. One effortless way to help them through a long flight is to opt for an evening flight so they could at least retain their sleeping schedule. Booking a flight near or during their usual bedtime will help them sleep through the flight. The more they sleep on the flight, the shorter and smoother the flight seems. As I happily snooze for more than half the flight duration (probably an understatement), I usually feel pretty rested by the time I arrive at my destination.
#10 Book a DIRECT Flight
The shorter the flight, the easier it’ll be for yourself AND your senior dog. And, the fewer layovers, the smoother the journey. Pick your routes carefully as your senior dog’s flight experience depends on it. This is not the time to nickel and dime and book a flight with 2 or 3 layovers. If possible, always take a direct flight for your senior dog’s sake!
#11 Ease Their Way in with a TEST Flight
Some dogs will simply have an easier time flying than others regardless of age. It’s best to do a short test flight before your intended flight to see how your dog handles air travel and the airport environment.
First things first, don’t book an international flight and expect your senior dog to wing it, especially if he has never flown before. Unless your dog is already an experienced world traveler like me, chances are he needs to ease into air travel. Road trips and train rides are ideal ways to get dogs comfortable with the motion. Once they’ve gone on a couple of road trips and/or train rides, they can graduate to a quick hour or two long domestic flights to get acquainted with the airport, and of course, the plane itself. Gradually, increase the flight duration until they are familiar and comfortable with the entire process. As for me, I went on countless 6-8 hour long road trips and at least 6 short domestic flights before hopping on a 10+ hour international flight.
#12 Do NOT use Sedatives
Unless your vet strongly recommends or prescribes them for flying with your senior dog, please NEVER give sedatives to your dog during a flight as they can cause unpredictable outcomes, including respiratory or heart issues.
#13 Locate an EMERGENCY Vet before Arrival
As soon as you have your accommodations booked, identify the nearest veterinarian in case of an emergency. Also, identify clinics that offer 24-hour care. If you’re in an urban area, read online reviews (or talk to local dog pawrents upon arrival) before selecting a vet. If you are in a remote area, you will have limited options (if any) so it’s more of a “take-what-you-can-get” type situation. I recommend doing this ahead of time before you arrive at your destination; you’ll be thankful for the time saved in the event of an emergency.
#14 Pack MEDICATIONS and Supplements
As with most senior and geriatric dogs, medications and supplements are non-negotiable for their health. So, don’t forget your dog’s meds! If you’ll be away for an extended period, be sure to pack flea/tick meds.
#15 Keep him ENTERTAINED
ARF, I’m a sucker for a good bone and can spend HOURS gnawing it. Stimulating toys and tasty chews make any long-haul flight seem quick and effortless! Keep your senior dog entertained with fun toys and lasting chews on a flight just as you keep your human self busy with movies and books. Get your furry paws on my paw-licking’ TOP PICKS below:
Some dogs relieve themselves out of stress and anxiety! While I’ve never peed or pooped on a flight, my humans always have a pack of hand wipes (for human use only), dog deodorizing wipes, and planet-friendly poop bags ready for easy cleaning.
#17 Place a PEE PAD in the Carrier
Although my vets advised me that healthy adult dogs should not have a problem holding their bladder for 10 hours, I exercise this practice with extreme caution – especially in senior dogs with pre-existing conditions. Place a pee pad in the carrier just in case your senior dog cannot hold it. Do NOT punish your dog for relieving himself on the flight as it could be a combination of stress and inability to “hold it” for such a long period. Think about how your dog feels! Always only use positive reinforcement to train your dog or correct any “undesired” behavior.
#18 FEED him 1-2 hours BEFORE Heading to the Airport
As you wouldn’t want your senior dog to fly on a full stomach, you should feed him at least 1-2 hours before heading to the airport, which will allow enough time for him to digest and relieve himself.
#19 Pack TO-GO Bowls and Meals
To-Go bowls are MUST-HAVES so that your senior dog has easy access to clean water and food. You can take the ones that you already have at home (as long as they’re not oversized) OR grab these pawsome convenient collapsible ones to save some luggage space. Depending on the duration of your flight, you may need to give him a light meal before landing.
#20 Exercise BEFORE Heading to the Airport
It’s a common saying that a tired dog is a happy dog; therefore, it’s probably fair to say that a tired traveling dog is also a happy traveling dog. I don’t suggest excessive exercise or extreme physical activity, but adding an extra 15-minutes of exercise or playtime could help ease their way into air travel. Feeling tired during the flight equates to superb sleep. The more sleep they obtain, the shorter and smoother the flight seems.
Before heading to the airport, I take a longer than usual walk approximately 45 mins after my meal. Upon arrival at the airport, I walk around outside the grounds before and after check-in. I also like to sniff out the airport pet relief areas (or what I call the canine guestbook)!
#21 Be STRATEGIC with Water Intake
After exercising your senior dog, offer him fresh clean water as usual. NEVER deny a dog of fresh clean water, but DO be strategic when providing water right before and during the flight since it may be difficult to relieve him on the plane. I limit my water intake as soon as my four paws hit the airport grounds. Again, I always pee (or shall I say, mark?) and walk around outside for about 5-10 minutes before and after checking in. Most airports have pet areas for dogs to relieve themselves outside (and sometimes even inside). Offer your dog water right after his walk before heading to the airport, and then once every 4 hours or so until landing.
#22 Board as LATE as possible
Who wants to be stuck inside the plane for so many hours? GRR, I know I don’t! Unless you’re fighting for overhead bin space, don’t be the first one in line to board. Give your senior dog as much time as possible outside his carrier and the plane.
#23 Give as much VENTILATION as possible
After the plane takes off, let your senior dog stick his head out of the carrier (make sure he cannot jump out of the carrier) or partially unzip the carrier for better ventilation. I’ve only had two experiences when the flight staff was extremely strict about fully zipping up the carrier. Most of the time, the flight staff wouldn’t care that the carrier is open. With some flight attendants loving dogs or being quite indifferent, I’ve come out of my carrier for a breather on long flights (again, after take-off). Ultimately, enforcement of the rules depends on the flight staff.
#24 NEVER allow STRUGGLE inside the carrier
If you see your dog panting or struggling inside the carrier, take him out immediately! Although this is technically against airline rules, promptly removing him from a dangerous environment can save his life. No flight is ever worth your dog’s life! If the flight attendants give you a hard time, please calmly explain to them the situation and advise that you will put your dog back in the carrier whenever he seems stable and comfortable. When you’ve put him back in his carrier, remember to leave an opening and keep a vigilant eye on him at all times.
#25 Comfort and PRAISE your senior dog
Throughout the entire journey, please comfort your senior dog. Again, travel days are RUFF! Let him know that you’re right by his side – do your usual petting and massaging to let him know that everything will be okay. Praise him (verbally and with treats) for relaxing in an unfamiliar environment. Be there for your dog just as he’s always there for you!
BONUS: Choose urban over rural OR big city over small town
As barked earlier, remote areas or small towns will not offer the same access to veterinary care compared to urban areas or big cities. For your senior dog’s sake, you should limit your itinerary to destinations where top-quality veterinary care AND 24/7 emergency animal hospital are easily found. In my semi-younger years, I used to live in Dubrovnik, a small castle town in Croatia with only ONE veterinarian clinic and ONE animal hospital (at the time). One time, I was bitten by a stray/neighborhood dog and needed treatment for a minor cut on my ear.
Since the animal hospital was closed at the time, I didn’t have a choice but to seek help from the one and only veterinarian in town. To bark the least, it was an awful experience because this veterinarian clearly did NOT like dogs and was extremely rough with me from the get-go. He also wanted to give me an injection for a minor cut, which my humans politely declined and he became completely outraged (and started screaming at them). Luckily, my situation was not serious so I escaped quickly with some ointment. However, I cannot imagine what would have happened if I were in a life-threatening situation!
Now that I’m well in my senior years (and battling collapsed trachea), those days of traveling to small towns are OVER. Big cities with top quality veterinary care are the way to go.
Markin’ it up,
Roger Wellington a.k.a. The Doob