When a French bulldog named Kokito died on a flight in March 2018, the incident left many pet parents and animal lovers concerned. The dog’s owner, Catalina Robledo, was traveling with her daughter, her infant son and Kokito on a United flight from Houston to New York City.
The family was seated, with Kokito in a carrier under the seat in front of Robledo, when a flight attendant insisted the dog’s carrier — which the attendant said was blocking the aisle — be placed in the overhead bin.
“And we’re like, ‘It’s a dog, it’s a dog.’ And she’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter, you still have to put it up there,’ ” Robledo’s daughter told Good Morning America. “She helped her put it up, and she just closed it like it was a bag.”
United Airlines spokesperson Maggie Schmerin told PEOPLE, “Our flight attendant did not hear or understand her and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin.”
Kokito ended up traveling in the overhead bin for the duration of the three-hour flight, barking from the bin at least 30 minutes into the trip. When Robeldo went to get her dog at the end of the trip, she discovered the canine had died.
“A stranger offered to hold her newborn while she sat on the floor, there in the airplane aisle. She was holding her dog and rocking back and forth. Her daughter was also crying,” fellow passenger Maggie Gremminger told PEOPLE about the heartbreaking moment.
Kokito’s death and the following criminal investigation sparked a larger discussion about dog owners’ rights when traveling with their pets and the rules regarding air travel and canines.
Your dog’s weight, temperament, carrier and more can change what rules you have to follow during plane travel. Before you get on a plane with your dog, make sure you know what to expect and what restrictions the airlines have.
To make it easier for traveling dog owners everywhere, PEOPLE rounded up everything you need to know before boarding a plane with your pooch.
Traveling with Small Pet Dogs
Most domesticated dogs weighing 20 pounds or less are allowed to travel with their owners in the cabin of the plane. Owners cannot simply bring their pets on board. There are several rules and restrictions that dog owners must follow before they travel to get the okay to bring their small canines on board with them.
Most flights only allow a limited number of pets on board, and most major airlines (aside from JetBlue, which has online registration) require that you call the airline in advance to let it know a small dog will be traveling with you. It’s best to inform the airline as early as possible because if all the pet spots for your flight are filled when you call, they will not allow your dog to fly with you on that flight. If the dog you are traveling with is a service or emotional support animal, this limit does not apply.
As part of your registration process, you will have to pay a fee to bring your pet on board. These fees are usually between $95-$150 each way and apply to pets, but not to emotional support animals and service animals.
If your dog is flying in the cabin, it has to travel in a TSA-approved pet carrier (soft- or hard-sided) that is well-ventilated and can fully fit under the plane seat in front of you. Each airline has its own size restrictions on pet carriers; make sure to check in advance that the carrier you plan to use fits.
Many airlines do not require dog owners to provide health records for their pet before the flight, though pet policies are changing. In March 2018, Delta began requiring anyone traveling with an animal to provide health and vaccination records at least 48 hours before the flight. Pet owners traveling with Delta also must sign a behavior voucher stating their animal will behave for the duration of the flight. Regardless of whether the airline you are using demands paperwork or not, it is always smart to travel with your dog’s medical records and license in case there is an issue during your trip. Make sure to check before your trip what paperwork your airline requires and if the destination (especially tropical destinations) you are traveling to also needs records.
Some airlines do not allow young dogs to travel in-cabin with their owners. Check with your airline to see if there are age restrictions if you are traveling with a dog 16 weeks old or younger.
Your pet carrier will count as a carry-on bag or personal item, so pack accordingly. If you want to bring a carry-on and a personal item onto the flight in addition to your pet’s carrier, you will have to pay for an extra bag. At some airlines, up to two pets can travel in one carrier if the carrier and animals don’t weigh more than 20 pounds together.
Most airlines will not allow you to travel with a small pet in the cabin on an international flight or on a flight where you are connecting to an international flight. In these cases, your small dog must travel in the cargo hold. There are some exceptions, though, so check with your airline to see what international travel it allows with an in-cabin pet.
If you are traveling with a pet in-cabin, you must check in at the airport with your pet. It is important to leave time in your travel schedule to check your pet in at the counter since you will not be able to check them in online or at a kiosk.
Pets do not go through the X-ray machine for baggage. When you reach security, remove your pet from its carrier and send the carrier through the X-ray machine. You and your pet will walk through security together, and then you can place them back in the carrier.
At the Airport
Dogs must stay in their carriers while at the airport unless they are using a pet relief area. If the airport does not have pet relief areas, you and your dog will have to leave the airport and return through security.
On the plane, your small pet must remain in the carrier at all times. You cannot remove the animal from the carrier while on the plane. The carrier containing your dog can only go completely under the seat in front of you. Carriers cannot be stored on your lap, in an overhead bin or anywhere else. Your dog must remain in its carrier under the seat in front of you for the duration of the trip.
Airlines have the right to have you and your pet removed from a flight or deny you and your pet boarding if your dog acts aggressively toward airline staff or other travelers.
Traveling with Larger Pet Dogs
Dogs over 20 pounds, unless they are emotional support or service dogs, will have to travel in the cargo hold of the plane. Not all airlines offer this option since the cargo hold needs to be pressurized to allow pet travel. When planning a trip with a larger dog, ensure the airline you are using offers a travel option for larger pets. Cargo-hold travel differs from in-cabin travel in many ways, but the biggest is that you will not have access to your pet during your flight. Your dog will spend the entirety of the flight, including tarmac delays, in the cargo hold, where there can be fluctuations in temperature.
Booking a Cargo Hold Trip
Most airlines don’t allow you to book a pet via cargo until 10 days before your trip. Check to see when your airline allows pets traveling in cargo to be booked and try to set your pet’s travel plans as early as you can to prevent stress down the line.
Larger dogs should be in a crate large enough for them to move and stand freely, including turning their head. It also needs to be large enough for them to stand and sit without the top of their head or ears touching the roof of the crate. Crates must also have a solid roof with no holes and one secure-close metal door. Crates need to be made of rigid material that does not bend when pressure is applied. For cargo travel, you will likely need to buy a different carrier than the one you have since most pet carriers have materials and design elements not permitted for cargo travel.
The documents required for your pet’s travel varies based on where you are traveling from and where you are going. Contact both the consulate of the countries you are traveling to and your veterinarian to make sure your dog has all the required paperwork for your trip. The airline will require all travelers sending their pets through cargo to fill out forms for the airline and provide a health certificate from the dog’s vet. This health certificate must be issued shortly before your pet travels (usually 10 days or less). If you are going on a long trip with your dog, you may be required to get a new health certificate for the return trip.
There are age restrictions for pets traveling via cargo. If your dog is 16 weeks or younger, contact the airline you are traveling with to ensure that your pet can fly in the cargo hold.
Every airline that flies pets through cargo has different breed restrictions. Some dog breeds (like English bulldogs) may be prohibited from flying due to breathing problems they may encounter during the trip. Other breeds are allowed to fly, but only during certain months, in certain carriers and at certain ages. These restrictions are for your pet’s safety. Make sure to check with your airline that your dog is allowed to fly in its cargo hold.
Rates vary based on your destination and the size of your pet. Travel fees for pets traveling via cargo usually start around $200 one-way.
Pick-up and Drop-off
To have your dog flown through cargo, you must drop them off at a special location at least two to three hours before your flight and then pick them up at the cargo location of your destination, which is usually different from where you pick up your bags. Check with the airline you are using to see when they require pets to be dropped off at cargo and where the cargo pick-up and drop-off locations are for your trip. Leave extra time in your travel schedule to make these stops as stress-free as possible.
Traveling with Emotional Support Animals
If you have an emotional support dog, you can travel with your animal, often free of charge, as long as you prepare the correct paperwork and your dog can fit comfortably on your lap or in the space in front of your seat. Exact size restrictions vary for each airline, as do paperwork requirements. Most airlines need a letter from your doctor that is less than a year old (and meets several requirements), stating that your dog is flying with you to help with a mental or emotional condition. Your emotional support animal can be denied boarding or removed from the plane if it shows aggressive behavior toward passengers and/or flight staff. Contact the airline you are traveling with to understand the specific paperwork it requires and to inform them that you are traveling with an emotional support animal.
Traveling with a Service Dog
Service dogs travel free of charge. Since 2018, Delta has required that service dog owners submit health records at least 48 hours before their flight before their flight. To prevent issues at the gate, check with your airline to see if any paperwork is required prior to boarding. Service dogs are allowed to sit on their owner’s lap or in the space in front of their seat.