Flying with a Small Dog: Misadventures with Airline Pet Policies

My dog likes to fly. 

Chicken has flown on several different airlines and has been as far north as Alaska and as far south as Puerto Rico. She has been shown preferential treatment because of her ‘cuteness’ (Alaska Airlines); she’s had her tickets revoked and non-refunded (American Airlines); and she’s even been a stowaway and gotten away with it (United Airlines). 

First off, let me tell you a little about Chicken. She’s a true lap dog—a long-haired Chihuahua/Papillon mix—weighing in around 15-pounds. She’s a healthy dog, about 4.5 years old, potty trained, has all her shots, and is good with people.

She’s never flown internationally, sat in First Class, or joined the Mile High Club. Yet. But along the way, we have learned a few lessons.

#1: Pet carriers. We’ve tried a few different kinds. Soft-sided carriers seem to be the best because the area under the seats have slight dimensional differences and the soft sides can bend to fit. The pet carriers found at Petco (Sherpa brand) are generally too small for Chicken.

We are currently using a Snoozer *link here*. We purchased the carrier on Amazon and are very happy with it.

Chicken under the seat

Even the flight attendants notice and approve of it’s size. We use it as a backpack (although it can be used as a roller cart as well) and Chicken likes it too. Before placing the Snoozer underneath the seat, I detach the hard wheel platform (picture below) which makes for an easier fit.

Detachable platform

Pro tip: Next time you visit your veterinarian, ask them to create a document stating your dog’s carry-on case is the correct size for your pet. (See why in Tip #9)

#2 Pet Policy: You’d think this might be a standardized set of rules but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Links to the different Pet Policies can be found here:

  Alaska Airlines

  United Airlines




Pet Fees. Alaska Airlines charges $100 each way, Delta $95 each way, United $125 (and an additional $125 if your layover is more than 4-hours), Southwest $95, American Airlines $125.

#3: Pet travel kit: Along with your leash and bowl; you should have poop bags, wet wipes, paper towels (for accidents), treats, and documentation of your dog’s rabies shot—which may be requested during check-in although we’ve only been asked for it when flying to and from Puerto Rico. I also bring a dog coat in case the flight gets cold.

#4: Stowaway: During the height of the pandemic you could get away with sneaking your dog on the plane because the flight attendants were busy checking for people’s masks, not dogs. Those days are now gone. You can get through security with your pet but when trying to board the plane, they will ask to see if you paid the pet fee (a tag attached to your pet carrier is required). No pay, no board. Best to reserve your pet’s spot on the plane by calling ahead of time.

#5: Sedatives: Chicken is naturally a nervous dog. I’ve found if I act confident, she will trust me. Going through TSA can be especially intimidating for pets. I hold Chicken throughout the process and she does fine. There are several reasons I disagree with sedatives. First, altitude will increase the effects of the drug (yes, even in a pressurized cabin), so it’s best to give a much smaller dose than your veterinarian suggests. Secondly, sedatives can make your pet physically sick and they might associate that feeling with air travel which will only increase the pet’s stress level on subsequent flights.  It should be noted that Chicken is very good on planes and doesn’t bark. One time, she did escape under the seat to visit the people behind me, but those nice people ushered her back the way she’d come.

Pro tip: If you have a well behaved animal, you can put them on your lap during the flight, hiding them under a blanket. 

#6: Pet Relief Areas: These can be hard to find and your pet might not know what to do when you get there. We take Chicken on a long walk just before the flight and then we don’t feed her before or during our flights. We give her water just before landing in hopes she might use the Pet Relief Areas. If there are long layovers we take her outside past security.

Would your dog know what to do here?

#7: Alaska Airlines: This is our preferred airline when flying with Chicken. The flight attendants and ticket counter folks were very sweet to her and they never weighed her or measured her carry-on case or any of that BS. However, they don’t accept certain breeds. So check their pet policy (link above)

#8: Service Animals: On my latest flight, I saw a huge K-9 service dog (German Shepherd) sitting at a guy’s feet. So apparently if you have a registered service animal you may be able to take very large breeds on the plane and don’t need to follow any of their dumb rules. I’m looking into this because Chicken can detect earthquakes.

#9:  Avoid American Airlines. Here’s why: we were on a red-eye flight to New Orleans to see family. Chicken’s $125 dollar Pet Fee was paid in advance. We went up to the desk to get our tickets and the lady there wanted to weigh Chicken. 15lbs. Then she measured Chicken from head to toe like a piece of luggage. She then deemed our carry-on case too small. We followed their online Pet Policy and have flown with this same case on several different airlines. We put Chicken in the case to demonstrate that she had plenty of room but the lady just folded her arms. So we had to cancel our tickets—and to make matters worse—they refused to refund our money.

Just 30-minutes later, I saw a lady going through security with a dog twice the size of Chicken. I asked what airline she was on and she said American! “How did you get past the check-in counter?” I asked. She had issues with American Airlines on previous visits, so she had her vet write up a document stating that her carry-on case was the correct size for her dog. Smart. After that tip, we did the same. However, once we stopped using American, we never had the issue of being denied travel again.

I’ve spoken to a few other frequent-flying pet-owners and they too have had issues with American Airlines. Anyway, avoid them and avoid a headache.

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