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Traveling with Pets or Service Animals to the United States

Updated: Jan 21, 2024  | Tags: Airline Safety, Service Animals

Traveling to the United States with pets or service animals requires careful planning and adherence to specific regulations. Whether you're moving, vacationing, or visiting for business, ensuring the comfort and safety of your animal companion during the journey is paramount. This comprehensive guide provides essential information on preparing for travel, understanding regulations, and navigating the process of entering the U.S. with pets or service animals.

Service animals which may also be used by those with deafness, visual impairments, mobility impairments or seizures. This has allowed owners to travel with small cats and dogs in special carriers that fit under the seat of the cabin. However, not every airline has allowed this and other airline companies have specified that the animals are not allowed in the cabin. Some airlines will only transport animals as cargo in ventilated and heating holds.

Traveling with Pets or Service Animals to the United States
Traveling with Pets or Service Animals to the United States

Understanding U.S. Regulations for Importing Pets and Service Animals

The United States has specific health requirements for importing pets and service animals, primarily to prevent the spread of diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the primary agencies overseeing these regulations.

For dogs, a valid rabies vaccination certificate is usually required. The CDC mandates that dogs be vaccinated against rabies at least 30 days before entering the U.S. Puppies must be at least four months old to be vaccinated. Some states have additional requirements, such as quarantine periods or additional vaccinations, so it's important to check the regulations of your destination state.

Cats are not required to have a rabies vaccination certificate for entry into the U.S., but it's recommended. Individual states or airlines may have their own requirements for cats.

For other pets or service animals, such as birds or reptiles, regulations vary and may include health certificates, permits, and quarantine requirements. It's crucial to research the specific regulations pertaining to your animal.

While traveling on an aircraft, the animal should also be clean, trained, well-behaved and able to fit under the seat in front of you or on your lap. The animal should also be kept in a sanitary state for the journey. In line with other practical health and safety rules on aircraft, the animal should not be positioned in an exit row or protrude into aisles to cause an obstruction, nor can it occupy a seat or eat from a tray table.

As rules are regularly modified and updated, it is imperative to check the policies of individual airlines well in advance of your travel date. If you are not sure of the current rules and regulations of traveling to the United States with service animals, contact your airline for more information.

Notes on Larger Animals

In some cases, an animal may be considered too large or heavy to be safely transported in the cabin, even if it can be classified as an emotional support pet. In these circumstances the choices can include rebooking a different flight with more open seat options, transporting the animal in the cargo of the aircraft, or buying a ticket for the animal. Therefore, when contacting airlines ensure you give them as much detail about the pet including size and other relevant information.

Notes on Pet Behavior

The safety of all passengers is of paramount importance for airlines. Behavior that could be intimidating or dangerous may include biting or attempting to bite, growling, barking and lunging at people, or jumping on them. Airline staff and cabin crew will be observing animal behavior from the moment you arrive at the airport, and if the behavior is not controlled nor corrected they are within their rights to classify the animal as a normal pet, and not a service animal. This would likely result in additional fees and subject you and the pet to additional travel restrictions.

Preparing Your Pet or Service Animal for Air Travel

Traveling can be stressful for animals, so it's important to prepare them in advance. Acclimate your pet to its carrier or crate well before your travel date to reduce stress during the journey. Ensure that the carrier is IATA (International Air Transport Association) compliant, has adequate ventilation, and is large enough for your pet to stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably.

Visit your veterinarian for a health check-up and to obtain any necessary health certificates or documentation required for travel. Discuss sedation with your vet if you think it's necessary, but be aware that many airlines discourage or prohibit sedating animals during flights due to health risks.

Choosing an Airline and Booking Your Flight

When booking your flight, choose an airline with a good reputation for handling pets and service animals. Airlines have specific policies and procedures for traveling with animals, including restrictions on breeds, size, and number of animals allowed.

Contact the airline directly to understand their policies and to book your pet's travel. If your pet is small enough, some airlines allow it to travel in the cabin with you. Larger pets may need to travel in the cargo hold, which is climate-controlled and pressurized.

For service animals, airlines typically allow them to travel in the cabin with their handler at no additional charge. However, you may be required to provide documentation, such as proof of the animal's training and purpose.

Airport Procedures and Security Checks

On the day of travel, arrive at the airport early to allow extra time for check-in and security procedures. Pets and service animals will need to go through security screening. You may be asked to remove your pet from its carrier so the carrier can be X-rayed, while the pet goes through the metal detector with you.

Ensure your pet has a collar with an ID tag and is on a leash during security checks. Carry a photo of your pet and any necessary paperwork, such as health certificates and vaccination records, in your carry-on luggage.

In-Flight Tips for Traveling with Pets and Service Animals

During the flight, ensure your pet or service animal is comfortable and secure. If your pet is in the cabin, keep the carrier under the seat in front of you and avoid opening it during the flight. For service animals, they should remain at your feet or in your lap if they're small enough.

Provide your pet with a familiar blanket or toy to help them feel more at ease. Avoid feeding your pet a large meal before the flight, but offer water if possible, especially on longer flights.

Arrival in the United States

Upon arrival in the U.S., you'll need to go through customs and declare your pet or service animal. Be prepared to present all required documentation, such as health certificates and vaccination records. In some cases, a customs or CDC officer may inspect your pet to ensure it meets entry requirements.

Tips for a Successful Journey with Your Pet or Service Animal

Plan Ahead: Start preparations well in advance of your travel date to ensure all requirements are met.

Consult with Your Veterinarian: Schedule a check-up and discuss travel considerations, including health certificates and any necessary vaccinations.

Research Airline Policies: Choose an airline with favorable policies for pets or service animals and understand their specific requirements.

Prepare Your Pet: Acclimate your pet to its carrier and ensure it's comfortable and secure.

Pack Essentials: Carry essential items such as food, water, a leash, and any required documentation.

Stay Calm and Patient: Your pet or service animal can sense your emotions, so staying calm and patient can help them remain relaxed.


New restrictions mean it can be difficult or even impossible to transport pets or service animals of a particular type. You should consider other arrangements if you feel you would be able to travel without your pet for short periods. This could include leaving the pet with a trusted friend, family member or boarding kennel. These options would likely be a less traumatic experience for the animal, as complications of traveling with a pet can become too difficult for all parties involved. Travelers should communicate with their airline and their doctors before planning on taking their service animal or pet to the United States.