For many of us, the holidays mean spending time with family and close friends, even if it requires traveling. And for many travelers, pets are both family AND friends, so the thought of celebrating without these companions is unthinkable.

Animal experts, however, offer strong warnings about traveling with pets, particularly by air. And since much of the country will experience freezing weather conditions during this period, the holiday season can be especially challenging.

Flying with animals has become more complex than ever, and in an upcoming column I’ll address the specifics of several recent changes, particularly for service animals and emotional support animals. Below are some very broad guidelines for various sectors of travel that can help you better decide if this year it’s best for your furriest friends to remain behind with a trusted friend or relative, or at a reliable boarding service.

Thinking it through

First things first: The travel industry groups animals into very distinct categories, and each category contains numerous rules and caveats.

• Service animals
• Emotional support animals
• Pets accompanying travelers
• Pets traveling as baggage
• Animals (both pets and nonpets) traveling as cargo

As a general rule, service animals and emotional support animals are welcome on most forms of public transportation, including the 10 largest domestic scheduled airlines. But the rules for pets are much more complicated, and certain breeds – such as pug-nosed animals – are banned on many airlines. The most important advice, for all modes of travel, is to check with your veterinarian before planning any trips.

The nation’s leading animal rights organizations are quite clear in cautioning about the dangers of travel, especially air travel and most especially in aircraft cargo compartments. Consider the following warnings from experts:

• American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals states: “Unless your furry friend is small enough to ride under your seat, it’s best to avoid air travel.”

• People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers blunt advice in bold type on its website: “We strongly advise against transporting your animal companion by air in the cargo area.”

• Humane Society of the United States is equally blunt on its website for those considering flying with pets: “Look for another option.”

• American Veterinary Medical Association echoes other experts by providing detailed Q&A on whether travel is right for your pet.

Here’s a breakdown.

Airlines

A recent Airfarewatchdog poll of 1,500 travelers found that 47 percent flew with their pets in the past year. When asked why, 41 percent of that group stated they “simply can’t or don’t want to leave them behind.” Yet many should reconsider this, since in 2017 the U.S. Department of Transportation reported 24 animals died on U.S. commercial flights, while 15 were injured and one was lost. That’s a small percentage of the 507,000 carried – unless it’s your beloved pet.

But there’s a caveat: The DOT’s reports only cover animals traveling in baggage compartments, so there are no reliable figures on pets injured or killed in cabins. For example, the widely-publicized death of a French bulldog forced to travel in an overhead bin by a United Airlines flight attendant wasn’t included in the DOT report for last March.

All 10 of the largest U.S. scheduled carriers allow pets in the cabin, but there are dozens and dozens of requirements and exceptions, so it’s absolutely vital to contact the airline in advance. There are varying rules for the number, size and breed of animals; approved pet carriers; proof of vaccination; booking and check-in requirements; bans on specific aircraft and destinations (especially outside the U.S.); etc. Fees range from $35 to $200 one way.

As for transporting pets in luggage holds, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian and United allow this, albeit with many restrictions, and for fees ranging from $60 to $225 one way. Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and Spirit do not allow pets outside the cabin. But even when certain animals are allowed, it’s still absolutely critical to check with your veterinarian first. The warnings from animal experts posted above apply to air travel more so than any other mode, and experts also don’t recommend tranquilizing animals for air travel.

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