When flying with emotional support dog questions most prevalent on travelers’ minds include whether the dog must travel in a pet carrier, and if so, what are the rules and required specifications.
Having an emotional support dog allows you to take that dog with you into the passenger cabins of airplanes on flights that normally do not allow dogs (or dogs of your dog’s breed or size) to travel in-cabin. Having an emotional support dog does not, however, excuse your dog from any FAA or airline requirements designed to protect the flight, airline property, the crew and other passengers. This includes airline provisions regarding keeping your dog—even an emotional support dog—in a properly-approved pet carrier.
Within the bounds of FAA guidelines and regulations, the federal Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act, all airlines are allowed to impose their own rules and requirements regarding traveling with animals on their flights. This includes airline-specific guidelines regarding pet carriers, including when one is required and what requirements a pet carrier must meet.
Fortunately for those like you aiming to navigate these differing policies, most, though not all, airline pet carrier guidelines are generally based on the same International Air Transport Association guidelines.
General Pet Carrier Requirements
When looking for a pet carrier to take your emotional support dog on a plane, there are certain qualities that all airlines tend to look for to make sure it meets their qualifications to fly. Most airlines count a pet carrier as one of your approved carry-on belongings. Many airlines will allow you to take your dog out of its carrier once a flight is in the air and going smoothly, but will require you to keep your dog in its carrier during periods of turbulence, while taxiing to and from the runway and during takeoffs and landings.
Airports have pet carrier requirements too. All federal airports require animals traveling with passengers, including emotional support dogs, to remain in their pet carriers at all times while on airport property except outdoors in approved pet potty areas.
Pet carriers must generally be compact enough to fit completely under the passenger’s seat without any part of it protruding into the aisle or seating area. Within those confines, however, the dog must be able to stand fully erect without his or her head touching the top of the carrier. The dog must also be able to turn completely around and lie down comfortably without any part of his or her body protruding from the carrier.
So, what about when flying with a large ESA dog, you ask?
When flying with a large ESA dog too big to fit comfortably inside an airline-approved pet carrier, notify the airline ahead of time that your emotional support dog is too large to fit underneath the passenger seat.
Because your dog is an emotional support dog, the airline is required to find some way to accommodate you, whether that’s on another flight on another plane, in another section of the plane on your scheduled flight or by letting your dog remain in your lap during the flight or in the seat beside you or the entire row. Some airlines without space on its planes to accommodate may require you to book a seat for your large ESA dog to allow it on a flight or to check your ESA dog in as a checked pet.
Note that different seats on a plane might have different storage space capacities than one another. Therefore, when booking your flight, contact the airline to find out which seats offer the greatest storage capacity, and book those seats. Bulkhead seats, in particular, tend to offer some of the largest stowing capacity of any seats on most airplanes. First class seats also tend to offer much greater storage room beneath them. Most airlines prohibit passengers with animals from riding in exit row seats.
If an airline refuses to provide an accommodation for your emotional support dog, you should contact the US Department of Transportation to speak with a Customer Resolution Official (CRO.) An airline that wrongfully denies your emotional support dog passage can be subject to fines and potential legal action.
Both hard-shell and soft-shell pet carriers may qualify for airline approval by many, if not most, airlines. Be aware, however, that some airlines only permit soft-shell carriers.
Whether a hard or soft shell pet carrier, it must be well-ventilated, leak-proof and escape-proof.
Airline-specific Pet Carrier Requirements
While most airlines follow the basic pet carrier guidelines outlined above, many airlines have their own specific pet carrier policies to be aware of.
When flying with emotional support dog Southwest Airlines requires pet carriers be no bigger than 13 1/2 inches wide by 18 1/2 inches long by 8 1/2 inches high.
Note that Southwest Airlines does not allow the reserving of seats. Therefore, on a Southwest flight, the only way to be sure to get the type of seat you want with sufficient stowing capacity to fit your emotional support dog’s pet carrier is to show up at the airport early enough to be one of the first to board.
The American Airlines emotional support animal policy does not require your dog to be in a pet carrier on its flights. It does, however, require dogs to be small enough to fit sitting comfortably at your feet, in your lap or under your seat, including emotional support dogs. To be allowed to remain in your lap during the flight, the dog must be no larger than a two-year old child. If your dog is not in its carrier at any point during the flight, he or she must be leashed and in your control.
According to the United Airlines emotional support animal policy, to be allowed on a United Airlines flight, a hard-shell carrier must be no greater than 12 inches wide by 17 1/2 inches long by 7 1/2 inches high, and a soft-shell carrier must be no greater than 11 inches wide by 18 inches long by 11 inches high. There is some leeway allowed with soft carriers since they can be collapsed to fit under a seat without sticking out into the aisle or feet area. To bring a soft-shell carrier onto a Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft, it can be no taller than 10 inches.
Under new Delta emotional support animal rules, in order for an emotional support animal to travel in-cabin without being confined in a pet carrier, you must present an additional document besides your emotional support animal letter. This additional document must state that your emotional support dog is sufficiently well-behaved to travel on an airplane without being confined to a carrier. You’ll be required to sign this document and take full responsibility for any actions your ESA takes.
Delta Airlines determines the maximum pet carrier dimensions based on the type of aircraft being flown. To find out the type of aircraft you’ll be flying and the corresponding maximum dimensions of the pet carrier required, or if you’ve got any other flying with emotional support dog questions for Delta, contact the Delta reservations department ahead of your flight. Generally speaking, a pet carrier not exceeding 21 inches by 15 inches by 16 inches should be acceptable on most Delta flights.
Emotional Support Animal International Flight
To travel with an emotional support animal international flight rules may differ from domestic flight rules, even within the same airline. Certain countries, cities and airports simply prohibit pets of any type, whether emotional support animals or not, from entering through their airports. When traveling to such places, like Auckland, New Zealand, for example, there’s no pet carrier in the world that will allow your emotional support dog to be granted entry.
What to Look for in a Pet Carrier
There are many different pet carriers that qualify as “airline-approved.” When choosing an airline-approved pet carrier to take your emotional support dog on a plane, here are some additional factors to consider:
Your dog may be small enough to carry by hand under normal circumstances but airline travel is anything but normal circumstances. You’ll likely have other luggage and carry-on belongings to lug around. You’ll also be on your feet for long periods of time standing in line or walking through the long terminal to your gate. If you’re like most people, you’re also not likely to be your most rested, well-nourished or stress-free on travel days, all of which can make carrying even a small dog more burdensome than normal. All this is to say, a pet carrier with wheels can be your best friend (sorry pooch) on travel days.
When considering what type of enclosure to have on the pet carrier you choose, either velcro or a zipper can be better or worse depending on your pooch and your preferences. Velcro is easier to open and close, but a curious, mischievous or rambunctious dog might easily open it as well. Zippers are more secure but they can also be more bothersome to open and close. If your dog rests calmly in his or her crate, then a velcro enclosure shouldn’t be a problem.
More a convenience than a necessity, pockets on your pet carrier make it easier for you to keep all your pets needs and belongings close. By getting a pet carrier with pockets, you can keep handy your dog’s emotional support animal letter, leash and harness, snacks, even a water dish (they make them collapsible.)
To be airline-approved, a pet carrier must have a certain minimum level of ventilation. Beyond those requirements, however, you may want to opt for giving your dog more than the minimum degree of ventilation.
What to Bring With You in Your Emotional Support Dog’s Pet Carrier
To make your dog’s pet carrier and overall travel experience as comfortable and accommodating as possible, there are certain items to make sure to bring with you on the plane. If your pet carrier has pockets, you can use them to store these items. Otherwise, you can include them in your other carry-on item (if another carry-on is allowed by the airline) or on your person. These include:
- Blanket – Whether to keep the dog warm or to provide a soft padding to lie on.
- Collapsible water dish – A dog can go without food for a long time, but should not be forced to go without water for an entire flight of any length.
- Familiar snack – Avoid trying out new snacks with your dog on flights, as you won’t know if the dog will have a negative reaction to it. A snack on a flight is counterproductive if the dog refuses to eat it or, worse, if it gives the dog a stomach ache or other digestive distress.
- Familiar toy – A familiar toy can not only occupy the dog and keep him or her from being bored but can also provide comfort that helps the dog stay calm during the confusion and upheaval of air travel.
- Motion sickness medication – If you want to give your dog something to help him or her stay calm during a flight, you can either get a prescription from your dog’s veterinarian or give the dog a light dose of Benadryl. A basic measurement of a dose is to give the dog 1 mg of Benadryl per pound of his or her body weight.
- Pee pads – Since you won’t be able to take your dog out for pee breaks once you’re on the plane, a pee pad gives your dog the freedom to relieve him or herself when the need arises while making for easy clean-up for you.