Traveling With Pets: Tips For A Stress-Free Trip

Welcome to Pet Peeves, a monthly series that aims to provide pet care solutions and expert advice for challenging scenarios that involve your beloved animal companions.

Traveling with pets may be relatively simple for those whose dogs love nothing more than jumping in the car and enjoying a weekend at the beach or a countryside getaway. But the reality is that not all pets find the experience or a change of scenery entirely comfortable. Whether you’re going on a road trip, traveling by train or flying with a cat or dog, it’s wise to have a plan: This means not only knowing what medical needs and documentation you should be on top prior to traveling, but also having a sense of how your pet will react to being in a carrier, a moving vehicle or a hotel room before you head out on a trip.

To ensure you have all the tools you need to minimize stress and maximize comfort the next time you’re traveling with your pets, I talked to a veterinarian and a certified dog behavior consultant and trainer. Below, you can find expert guidance—plus my own advice, as someone who has traveled with both cats and dogs—about how to prepare, including what to discuss with your vet and what products could be helpful to have on hand.

Decide Whether It’s In Your Pet’s Best Interest To Travel

If it’s not absolutely necessary to travel with your furry friend, consider your individual pet and whether taking them with you might be a positive or negative experience overall. “I really urge pet parents to think about their pet’s preferences, stress levels and behavior,” says Juliana DeWillems, owner of JW Dog Training. “Really think about if your dog or cat will have fun on the trip… Think about scenarios that stress your dog out, like crowds, other dogs, certain people, kids. Will those triggers be present a lot on your trip?” If so, she adds, it might be “best to leave your dog at home.” DeWillems also says she generally doesn’t recommend traveling with cats, who are especially sensitive to a change in environment.

Whitney Miller, DVM, chief veterinarian at Petco, also advises doing some research if you’re traveling to an unfamiliar area; for example, assess whether it’s pet-friendly and if there are places to buy emergency pet supplies if needed. And, of course, ensure that wherever you’re staying allows pets on the premises. “It might be better to leave your pet at home if you’re going to be walking around a lot and visiting places that are not pet-friendly, if it will consistently be very loud or you will have to leave your pet by themselves in a hotel all day,” she says.

How To Prepare For Traveling With Pets

If you’re going out of town with any pet, first and foremost, make sure that they are microchipped, vaccinated and up to date on flea, tick and heartworm preventatives. While this is applicable for all cats and dogs—and year-round—it’s particularly important to keep pets safe in the summer or if you’re headed to a warm destination.

“Before traveling anywhere, especially long distances, out of state or internationally, you should see your veterinarian for a checkup and let them know about your travel plans,” says Dr. Miller. “For interstate travel, you’ll typically need a health certificate issued within a certain time frame (typically three to 10 days depending on the state).” For international trips, check out the CDC’s guidelines on traveling with pets for more information on requirements. Dr. Miller adds: “A pre-trip checkup is also a great time to ask about calming supplements if you have concerns about travel, and ask if your vet is aware of any pertinent information for the area that you’re visiting, such as outbreaks, wildlife, special vaccine requirements or other regulations.”

Whether you’re traveling by car, plane, train or bus, “once you’ve identified what your pet will need to cope with during your travel, you can focus your training on recreating those conditions in a slow and positive way,” says DeWillems. “This is why giving yourself ample time is important: You can go at your pet’s pace. You can introduce them to the carrier, or work on longer and longer car rides, or practice having them under a seat in front of you in a way that they can feel comfortable with.”

And if you’re using a crate or carrier to transport your pets, make sure it’s not used exclusively during travel, adds Dr. Miller: “A crate is a safe space for many pets in daily life, and it can help them feel more secure to be transferred in it while in the car or plane. When introducing it to your pet, don’t rush the process and allow them to explore at their leisure.”

While calming treats or supplements for cats or dogs can be helpful to have on hand, they still may not provide the ideal result if you have a highly anxious pet. So if you know that they get very stressed in a carrier or during car rides, you might want to chat with your vet about prescription solutions, such as anti-anxiety medication.

Tips For The Trip

If you’ve decided to bring your pet (or pets) along for the trip, here are a few tips, tricks and helpful products to make the experience as seamless and stress-free as possible.

Feed Them A Few Hours Before Leaving

“It’s best not to feed your pet directly before you begin your travel or during your travel time,” says Dr. Miller. “Try to stick to their existing schedule, but feeding three to four hours before you begin travel is ideal as it gives your pet time to digest their food before traveling.” And if they take any medication or supplements, remember to pack enough to last the trip, plus a little extra in case you have any travel snafus.

If You’re Traveling By Car…

Make sure your pet is properly secured when they’re in a vehicle, no matter how short the drive. “This helps prevent distracted driving and keeps your pet safe if you stop suddenly or get in an accident,” says Dr. Miller. “For dogs, I suggest a dog seat belt, crash-tested harness or another appropriate device, such as a booster seat or kennel that can be properly secured.” And remember to never secure seat belts directly to your pet’s collar or leash for optimum safety.

I’ve had experience with the Maeve pet car seat from Tavo Pets, which, while an investment, is constructed using the same child safety standards as children’s car seats and rigorously tested for safety. For something a bit more budget-friendly, you can try a basic dog seat belt, a crash-tested harness that’s certified by the Center for Pet Safety or a booster seat that can be secured in your car. For cats, Dr. Miller advises a travel-safe carrier. A portable litter box will also come in handy, both during long rides and once you get to your destination.

Some other options for helping your pups stay comfortable include using a Thundershirt or weighted vest (or a heartbeat pillow, if you have a puppy). You can also consider spraying your dog’s carrier or your car with calming spray and/or using a pheromone collar. (DeWillems recommends the brands bSerene and Adaptil.) And if you’re taking a road trip and may be stopping in the evenings to give your dog a relief walk, a reflective vest can help ensure visibility in quieter areas with limited street lights.

If You’re Traveling By Plane…

Many of the guidelines for traveling by car can also apply to flying, in terms of reducing stress for your pet. That said, you need to be mindful of a few additional regulations. To start, make sure you have an airline-approved pet carrier that can fit under-seat and ensure you’re following all the guidelines of your particular airline. Chewy has a handy airline pet policy guide for all U.S. airlines, which includes information about weight and breed restrictions, fees for flying with pets and more. (Also note that emotional support animals are typically not considered service animals; these are two separate distinctions, so check your airline’s policy for what is required if traveling with an ESA versus a service animal.)

If you have a larger dog and are (rightfully) concerned if the only option is to fly with them in cargo—and you’re working with a bigger budget—the brand Bark has recently launched Bark Air, which is basically an airline for a handful of passengers and their dogs, chock-full of dog-friendly amenities. (I recently got a chance to check out one of the private jets.) Bark Air currently travels to limited destinations but has noted plans to expand service and ideally reduce prices down the line. It could be a convenient option if you’re moving cross-country or abroad with your dog, for instance, or can’t drive to your destination.

If You’re Staying In A Hotel…

If you’re bringing your dog or cat to pet-friendly accommodations—and you’re able to leave them unattended—you want to keep a few things in mind. First off, if you know your pet has separation anxiety, re-evaluate whether or not to take them with you to begin with—let alone leave them alone in a room. For all other situations, a pet camera may be helpful to keep in your hotel room if you’ll be away for any amount of time, as well as a blanket or mat from home that has their (or your) scent. You also want to leave your dog with some enrichment activities like a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew, and perhaps consider running a white-noise machine while you’re gone.

It’s also important to make sure your dog’s most important needs have been met before you leave them unattended. “Take them for a fulfilling walk, make sure they’ve been to the bathroom, make sure they have access to water and make sure they have a comfortable bed or crate to sleep in,” says DeWillems. Then, decide what setup will help them feel most comfortable. If you’ve been out with your dog all day, try to sit with them in the room and give them time to settle before you leave, as “going from exciting exercise or exploring to suddenly leaving them alone can cause a lot of stress,” she adds.

As someone with a highly confident cat who actually seems to enjoy exploring new environments, I’ve also traveled with him and left him unattended in a cat-friendly hotel room for a few hours without issue. But it could be helpful to bring something that can allow them to hide safely if they’d like to, like this collapsible cat tunnel bed (which my kitties are obsessed with).

If You’re Sharing A Space With Other Pets…

If you’re renting a home or spending time in a shared space with other friends or family who are also bringing their pets, it’s advisable to bring along gates, pens or crates to make sure each one has their own space at times. “I would especially recommend this if it’s dogs meeting for the first time, as introductions and relationship building can take time,” says DeWillems. She notes that even if your pet has never had an issue with other dogs or cats before, the combination of new environments, travel stress and lack of sleep can cause a change in a dog’s behavior. “I think a lot of us can relate to reduced tolerances of family or friends when sharing space for an extended period of time,” she adds. “Having your own space is a must.”

Meet The Experts

Juliana DeWillems, KPA CTP, CDBC, is a certified dog behavior consultant with over a decade of training experience. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, she’s the owner of and head trainer at JW Dog Training and works with behaviors of all kinds, from basic manners to fear, anxiety, reactivity and aggression. DeWillems is also faculty for the Karen Pryor Academy, where she teaches the Dog Trainer Professional program, and she previously worked on the behavior team at the Humane Rescue Alliance (formerly the Washington Humane Society) from 2015 to 2017.

Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM is chief veterinarian at Petco, where she is the lead veterinary subject matter expert. She provides strategic direction and medical management for Petco’s growth in veterinary services and leads the medical team. Dr. Miller received her DVM and MBA degrees from Colorado State University and has been board certified in preventive medicine since 2018. She has worked in pharmacovigilance reporting for Zoetis and spent time in federal government relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

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