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United’s New Dog Travel Restrictions

Rethinking air travel with our best friends
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2018, Updated June 2021

In response to a PR nightmare over their terrible record with keeping pets safe during travel, United Airlines has announced a new pet travel policy. From now on, the only pets they will fly are dogs and cats. Included in the new rules is a ban on transporting a number of breeds of dogs (and several breeds of cats) in the cargo hold of their planes. All brachycephalic (short-nosed dogs like Pugs, Llasa Apsos, Boston Terriers, Pekinese, Affenpinscher, Bulldogs) dogs are prohibited from traveling in the cargo hold. The reason given is that such dogs are more likely to suffer adverse health effects while flying.

What that means is that United is essentially acknowledging that these dogs cannot safely travel on planes if they are not in the cabin with the human passengers. Acknowledging this may prevent death and serious suffering by dogs, but it should add to our concern about the risks of air travel for all of our dogs. Another way that the airline is seeking to prevent canine injuries and fatalities is by prohibiting pets from traveling in cargo to and from hot destinations such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson and Palm Springs for five months of the year (May-September).

Dogs of all breeds that fit under the seat in pet carriers can still fly, but the policy effectively bans full-grown dogs of a number of breeds. I’m curious who will enforce breed bans at the airport. Some dogs are obviously short-nosed like Pugs, but will all airport employees be capable of flagging a Belgian Malinois, a Chow Chow or a Mastiff as members of the canine no-fly list?

There will also be limitations on the size of the crates allowed—no taller than 30 inches—and on the number of connections a pet will be allowed to have. United Airlines reserves the right to decline to fly an animal if the weather conditions are deemed unsafe, and they may even change the route a dog travels in order to avoid exposing the animal to harsh conditions.


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To me, it’s good news that United is attempting to make things safer for dogs who fly with them. However, the challenges of keeping dogs safe in cargo suggests that we need a way to fly dogs in safer conditions, much like the ones that people are in when they are in the cabin. Flying animals in cargo holds in planes has long been problematic, but with more people than ever traveling with their dogs, I suspect there is a market for an airline that will allow pet dogs of all sizes and breeds to fly in the cabin, even though this will obviously be more expensive than the current options.

If you are hesitant to fly with your dog, would you consider it if your dog could be in the cabin with you?

photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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