Flying with a large dog: how to make it safe (and easy!)

Flying with a large dog

Your dog is likely the best buddy you have, and there’s often no real need to leave him (her / it) at home when traveling. Flying with a large dog can seem complicated, but employing a few simple strategies can make the process go smoothly for both you and your furry friend.

Large dogs are almost always required to fly in the cargo section of the plane. While that might sound uncomfortable, the cargo hold of a commercial airliner is quite different from how many people picture it. It’s climate controlled, well lit, and I’d assume it to be a great place to sleep due to the lack of distractions.

Here’s a detailed look at everything involved when flying with your large dog, including safety tips, airline policies, and more:

First of all: can you even bring a full-size dog on a plane?

Yes, most airlines allow full-size dogs to travel on both domestic and international flights. However, the areas within the plane where the dog is permitted will depend on their size.

Specifics will vary by airline, but:

  • Dogs that weigh 15 pounds or less are typically allowed in the cabin. Most airlines require that the dog is in a carrier small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you (just like you are required to do when flying with a cat).
  • Dogs that weigh more than 15 pounds aren’t allowed to travel in the cabin. Instead, they’re usually required to ride in either the cargo area (or a special pet section). They need to be in a hard-shelled crate the entire time they’re on the plane.

An exception does exist. Some airlines allow large dogs in the cabin if they’re service animals or emotional support animals (ESA). Service animals have certain legal protections, so you’ll have an easier time bringing them into the cabin compared to an ESA, which is subject to more rules from the airlines.

large dog in crate at airport
How much you wanna bet that this dog would much rather be at home playing fetch in the back yard?

What is the largest dog you can take on a plane?

The size of the dog isn’t particularly relevant. Instead, the airline is more concerned with the size of the crate and its total weight.

  • Each airline has its own maximum limits for the size of a dog crate they’ll allow onboard. For example, the largest crate you can bring on a United flight is 52″ long by 32″ wide by 32.5″ high, with a total weight of 47 pounds. Other airlines have similar restrictions.
  • Keep in mind that different types of aircraft within an airline have their own limits. A larger aircraft, such as what’s used for an international flight, is more likely to accommodate larger crates.
  • Finally, never put your large dog in a crate that’s too small for their frame. The crate should be large enough that the dog can sit up straight, turn around, and lay down with outstretched legs. At the same time, it shouldn’t be substantially larger than those requirements, as your dog might use the extra space as a bathroom.

How stressful is flying for dogs?

Although dogs are rarely in any physical danger when flying, the experience can be quite emotionally stressful. The dog is exposed to loud noises, unfamiliar sounds, unknown people, and other scary experiences.

  • Make sure your dog is comfortable spending time in their crate. Also, put their favorite blanket, stuffed animal, or other (non-rope) toy in their crate, as anything familiar will help keep them calm during travel.
  • Take the shortest, most direct flight possible. Moving the crate on and off the plane will be the most stressful time for your dog, so ideally, you want it to happen only once during your trip. If you must make multiple stops, try to space them out so you have an opportunity to exercise your dog between flights.
  • Consult with your vet before flying with a large dog. Your vet will want to examine your dog for any conditions that might interfere with their ability to travel. They might also prescribe a sedative for your dog to take when flying. And yes: flying with medication is perfectly safe and legal.
dog in crate at airport
That look when your upgrade to business class didn’t clear.

Does flying on a plane hurt a dog’s ears?

It’s possible. While the cargo hold remains pressurized during flight, dog ears react to changes in air pressure just like humans. So, their ears can feel muffled and then “pop” as the pressure changes during takeoff and landing.

Of course, dogs don’t understand the science behind what’s happening. Aside from any physical discomfort in their ear canals, the sensation can make the dog feel anxious.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many remedies for this issue. You can give your dog a chew treat, as any type of chewing action can help relieve the pressure, similar to how people chew gum when flying. The problem is that you’re not allowed near your dog when they’re in the cargo hold, so you can’t encourage the dog to chew on the toy.

The good news is that any ear discomfort typically only lasts for a short time. When the plane is at cruising altitude, your dog’s ears will likely feel normal to them.

Where do big dogs sit on a plane?

The definition of a “big dog” can become confusing when referring to air travel. In the world of canine care, a large dog is usually one that weighs 70 pounds or more. However, commercial airlines typically classify a large dog as one weighing more than 15 or even 10 pounds.

If your dog is considered small by airline standards, they can sit in the cabin. You can either keep them in a crate stowed under the seat in front of you or you can purchase a separate seat for them (where they’ll still need to remain in their crate).

Any dogs the airline considers large aren’t allowed in the cabin. Instead, their crate is secured in one of two locations within the plane. Typically, crates are placed in the cargo hold with the luggage. However, some planes have special pet areas used only for animal crates.

flying with large dog
“Are we there yet?”

Is it safe for dogs to fly in the cargo hold?

Yes, the vast majority of dogs fly in cargo without incident. Flying with a large dog in cargo is a situation with a lot of misconceptions. Truthfully, spending time in the cargo hold is far safer and more comfortable for dogs than many people realize. This is because:

  1. The cargo area remains pressurized during the entire flight. Your dog breathes in the same filtered air and feels the same pressure level as the humans in the cabin.
  2. The cargo is kept at the same comfortable temperature as the rest of the cabin.

It’s really important to know that the most significant potential risk for a dog isn’t in the plane but on the tarmac. During the loading and unloading process, the crate will likely have to sit outside, at least for a short while.

For this reason, many airlines forbid cargo travel when the outside temperatures are high or low. Specifics vary by airline, but cargo travel is typically restricted when temperatures are below 40° or above 80°.

What airlines allow you to buy a seat for your dog?

Generally, airlines require you keep your crated dog either in the seat in front of you or in the cargo hold. Relatively few airlines permit you to buy a seat specifically for your dog. They will allow you to buy an extra seat if you’re flying with a guitar though. Go figure.

The two largest airlines that allow you to purchase a separate dog seat are United and JetBlue. Keep in mind that policies can change, so check with your specific airline.

If you buy a separate seat, it can only hold the dog while they’re in their crate. No airline allows your dog to sit freely in a seat. Additionally, because the seat is for the crate, they’re only permitted for what the airline considers small dogs. Airlines don’t allow large dogs in the cabin even if you buy them a seat of their own.

Comments (2)

  1. Doug

    December 8, 2021
    • Scott (SANspotter)

      December 8, 2021

Give a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.