Reasons Why Pets Should Not Be Sedated For Flights

Dear Montecristo (A Letter from Dr. Cindy Elias),

Thank you for asking me this very important question reguarding air travel for canines… and hello to all the four-legged friends out there that are lucky to have their bipeds bring them along while traveling. (It is definitely no fun to know that you have been left behind while the rest of your family is off having a great time without you!)

While most dogs have had the opportunity to travel by car on joyous family jaunts, perhaps a smaller number have braved travel by airplane. Most bipeds tend to get very stressed at the mere thought of flying their precious furry babies – whether it be in a carry-on bag that they must “put under their seat” or in the less favorable crate or kennel stored down below in an ominous place called “cargo.” As a result, I am often asked by my clients if I would recommend sedatives for their pets to help ease their stress during flying.

My answer is a definite “NO.”


Say no to drugs!

Ok, now I can see that not all of you little furries and bipeds out there agree with me, but I do have some good reasons behind this statement, as I will explain.

Each and every canine has its own personality, just like bipeds. Some are laid back and nothing phases them, some are high strung and start hyperventilating (uh, panting) at anything that takes them out of their daily routine. Sometimes a veterinarian may prescribe a sedative for a stressful situation such as thunderstorms, fireworks, or a long car trip. Sedatives in themselves are not a bad thing and are actually very helpful for a lot of pets in the right situations.

If you have never been sedated, I will try to describe it for you. It lowers the dogs heart-rate and makes them sleepy so their eyelids get really heavy. Even though they try to keep their head up, it takes lots of effort! Sometimes they get nauseous and vomit, but most of the time they just drool a little. It makes them relax. That is normally the way it works.


PJ’s are good if your dog gets cold!

However, sometimes drugs affect an individual differently, and there is no way to tell for sure how it may affect the canine until the drug is administered. Not to scare you about sedation, because adverse reactions are really not that common, but it really should always be administered under supervision.

Here are some reasons not to sedate canines while flying:

  1. Whether  traveling in cabin or down in cargo, you will experience some changes in air pressure. This may affect the heart-rate and respiration while sedated. The canines body is already in a state of lowered perfusion (lower blood pressure resulting in slowed oxygenation to all cells in your body) due to the sedation. And now it is compounded by the changes in air pressure. This sort of acts as a double-whammy, so to speak and can be very dangerous. Anyone that suffers from really low blood pressure will understand why this is not a good thing.
  2. Remember how we were talking about how sedatives make a dog feel weak and tired? Most cannot walk well while sedated. Now, I know that while flying, there may not be much walking in the carrier or crate, but a dog still needs to sit up, stand up, or turn around if they want to be more comfortable. Depending upon how much sedative has been administered and how the dog reacts to that particular drug, they may not be able to adjust or change their position. And there is the possibility “turbulence” that causes the ride to get a little “bumpy” and the dog can get jostled around a little. If he or she is sedated and not able react to sudden shifts, they may get rolled around and I worry about possible injuries such as bruises to the body and concussions from a “bump” to the head.
  3. Not sounding too good, huh? One other thing I really worry about if pets are sedated is dehydration from being too sleepy to drink water while they are flying. I know, it sounds weird, but believe me, it happens! And dehydration can really take its toll during a stressful situation like flying in a plane.

It is hard for bipeds to accept, but canines (all sizes) are stronger than most think. They can handle the flight without all those pills! It will be a new experience, and yes, they will get a little nervous, but they can better handle the trip wide awake!

Flying with canines has often gotten a bad rap, but I have had some wonderful experiences. A few years ago I flew with my Golden Retriever all the way from the Brittish Territories (almost the Yukon), across Canada to the east coast, and down into the United States.


A toy to soothe ….

I got to take my Golden out of her crate in Calgary and walk her outside and spend time with her while we waited for our next flight. The people I met were wonderful and my furry baby seemed to take the trip much better than I did! I was so worried, as this was my first experience flying my pet.  I went to some extremes which now, in retrospect, I think are not so extreme and I recommend them for every biped traveling with their pet:

  1. Make signs for your crate if the pet is traveling in cargo, such as “My name is Meg” and “This if my first flight – I’m a little scared – please talk to me.” I guarantee you that if your canine hears someone talking to them while they are being placed in and out of the plane, they will feel SO MUCH better! And the fact that some will use their name, will really help!
  2. If the pet is flying in cargo, speak to the flight attendant, or the Captain if possible, and tell them that a dog is scheduled for that particular flight and ask them to make sure that indeed the pet (give the name) has been loaded prior to take-off.  I made sure to do this for every flight, and had some very sweet comments from some reassuring flight attendants.  Like the one who told me that my sweet baby was tucked in next to a Doberman named “Sam” and that their crates were secured for the trip.

Doesn’t sound quite so bad, now does it?  And only a small price to pay for being able to travel as a family and enjoy the trip rather than having to stay behind.

May you have happy trails, my sweet furry friends!

Cindy Elias, DVM, Creekside Animal Hospital – Roanoke Rapids, NC  USA

P.S. – Have you ever heard of a Thundershirt?  In my experience they REALLY work and have a calming, yet not a sedating, effect on dogs and even cats, too!  If you are skeptical, they even come with a money-back guarantee! Reasons Why Pets Should Not Be Sedated For Flights!


25 Comments on “Reasons Why Pets Should Not Be Sedated For Flights

  1. Great information!!! WE about to travel, by car, from Texas to Maine then from Maine to Ottawa Canada with our 2 pups. LOL, we are hoping for a stress-free trip. I did say HOPING! 😉

  2. Ok, Sounds logical.
    I m flying with my cavalier spaniel to Germany and want to try the thunder shirt instead of sedative (maybe with the calming collar) any experience in that matter? He’s going in the cabin with me.
    Any suggestions are welcome

  3. Unfortunately, the thunder shirt hasn’t worked for our cockapoo, Dino. Does anyone have any idea why he would have suddenly developed a fear of thunder at age 6?

    From Dino: My bipeds leave me with other bipeds I love and who love me when they travel. Don’t tell them, but they miss me more than I miss them while they’re away.

    • Maybe he was especially starteled by an extra loud one or even if somebody near Dino got startled it can just start an anxiety.

    • You are not the first to tell me the thundershirt does not work. And I have no idea why Dino would suddenly be so afraid … let me ask around!

      Dino my amigo … secret is now out of the bag!

  4. Great info, never used anything ever though, we just handle stresses if they happen in a natural way, and i must say that i go through them much more often than my dogs, because i have to think about many things during our travel for them not to be feeling uncomfy, and they just enjoy, 😉 🙂

    • Same here. Never taken anything while traveling. I could see it for some of my doggy friends that are very very hyper or high strung. But it is better to just go with the flow. I agree Val — I think the humans stress more than the canines.

  5. Thank you for a great post!

    This is my input. We have two chihuahuas Oliver and Chloe, and they both have traveled with us by plane several times. Oliver is naturally very laid back and nothing phases him. He goes right to sleep and stays like that the whole time (even 8-hour flight). Chloe, on the other hand, is little bit anxious. Lately she has developed pretty bad fear of thunderstorms (after 4 years). I don’t know the cause either, so I can relate to Dino with this issue.

    The first time we had traveled with her to the Czech Republic, I bought her this herbal tonic called “Sleepytime Tonic”, and it is awesome! I use ten drops right under her tongue, and it calms her down within 15 minutes. It doesn’t make her sleepy or put her out at all, it just calms her down, and she’s not panting and shivering. It has honey flavor, and it is all-natural formula that contains herbs and Bach Flower Essences, which soothe and nourish the dog’s nervous system. It’s made in U.S.A.

    Give it a try if you wish. You can buy it at I have only good experience with it. Oliver doesn’t need anything ever, but Chloe gets pretty anxious and this helps her.

    Cheers, Michaela, Oliver & Chloe 🙂

  6. Terrific advice from Dr. Elias. Our dog has been flying (in-cabin) with us for 3+ years, and we’ve never sedated him.

    A couple of additional suggestions to help avoid the need for sedation:

    If at all possible, take LOTS of time beforehand to acclimate your dog to the conditions he’ll face during travel. Months before we first flew with Wrigley, we casually set up his carrier in the house with treats/toys inside. Once he was going in on his own and hanging out, we began zipping him in and carrying him around the house. After that, we started taking him for car rides, to restaurant patios, to the park, etc., all in the carrier.

    Before long, Wrigley saw his carrier as a safe place to hang out AND a welcome indication that he was going along with his humans, rather than being left at home. (If he’d been a super-nervous dog, I might have even taken him on trial runs to the airport, to expose him in advance to as many parts of the travel experience as possible.)

    Another thing that’s worked for us is to wear Wrigley out before flying. He gets extra-long walks and lots of play time on travel days (unless it’s really hot — don’t want him consuming too much water pre-flight.)

    For longer trips, we book overnight flights. Not so pleasant for the bipeds, but Wrigley’s used to being crated overnight anyway, so he just hops into his carrier and sleeps through the flight. We put the little blanket from his crate into the travel carrier, so it smells more like home.

    These are the things that have worked for us — hope they’re useful for others.

    Amanda (and Wrigley)

    • Absolutely Amanda!! We do (did) much the same thing! I agree that a tired dog travels better! We always make sure we have time for a good 1-2 hour walk before any flying. Even if it means waking up early. Most flights to Europe are night flights so that works out nicely in those cases!

      We just changed carrier. So we did much of the same thing as before. The carrier has been out for a good month now – left open in the bedroom and it has become a fun “new” place to hide and sleep. That way by the time we are on the go it will be familiar. We also did some little drives, a walk to a really noisy street with loads of construction and things like that. It helps. Like you said – my carrier is a safe place I call my own.

      I can’t wait to find out if I love my new carrier as much as my sleepypod. 🙂 Thanks Amanda for sharing!!

  7. Thanks for this info. I never thought of some of these things. I have never flown with Chester and Gretel but if I did I would have gone right for sedatives. I would still probably give some to Gretel because I KNOW she wouldn’t handle it well but I would be sure to keep her dose low. There are some herbal calming formulas that I think might be strong enough for her so I would try that route first but have some sedatives as backup.

  8. Love this advice. And I agree 100%: i will put money on the fact that in every case, it’s the bipeds who are more nervous than the pet. I remember the first time I took the plane with my kitty, Princess. London England to Boston. The entire flight I couldn’t sit still. She was in the cargo. So as soon as we got to luggage pick-up, i RAN to the belt expecting… well, not sure what i was expecting, but definitely something stressful, and what do I find? My Princess is sitting on her side quietly in her box, this look of TOTALLY taking it in her stride, relaxed and unphased. She was alert and just watching people’s feet walk past her crate. I was blown away.

    The 2nd flight was stressful for me too, and again, honestly, she was fine.

    Amazing what “living in the moment” does. We need to learn from them!

  9. My vet prescribed my dog Trazadone for a 6-hour flight to California in 2 weeks. The last time we flew she panted the ENTIRE time. I would never want to do this to her again – she was stressed and scared. Please explain why the altitude in the cabin changes? everything should be pressurized, so I do not understand why it’s harmful to give her a prescribed sedative. Can you kindly explain this logic a bit better?

    • I am not a vet so I am only sharing what my own vet has shared with me. Altitude is an effect, even on humans. For example folks that have blood clots often have to wear pressure socks to help prevent their legs from swelling right up. Feet swell etc. If your dog needs i, and your vet has prescribed it then you should be fine. But it is a caution provided not just by some vets, but by some airlines as well. One major concern id that these meds also dehydrate terribly. As long as you are on top of things and monitoring … but like I said… we are not vets.

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