Traveling With an Emotional Support Animal 101
Back in March, I took a big leap and decided to take my dog on her first real vacation, which included traveling on an airplane for about a three-hour flight. Koda, my adorable pomsky who you can read all about here, made the trip from New York City to Puerto Rico with my boyfriend and I for my spring break.
I had never flown with an animal before so this was a first time for all of us. At the time of her first trip, Koda was 14 months old and I had already registered her as an Emotional Support Animal. (That was one of the first steps I took when I first got her back in February 2017.) The most important thing I did gearing up for Koda’s first flight was research, research, research.
Don’t forget to claim your Dog Packing List!
I took her to the veterinarian about a month before our flight and let her doctor know that this was what I was planning. There were several reasons for this: first, we needed to ensure that Koda was up-to-date on all of her shots and vaccinations and secondly, because Koda is an Emotional Support Animal, I had to have my vet fill out Delta’s paperwork.
Take your pet to the vet a month before you plan to travel to ensure vaccinations are up to date. Click To Tweet
The requirements for ESA differ based on the airport and the airline you’re flying with. As I mentioned, I flew on Delta and they have somewhat strict requirements, especially with all of the pet scandals that had been in the news at the time of my flight. (Never forget the person who tried to convince Delta that his pet peacock was an Emotional Support Animal.)
For Koda, it was three-fold. I had to have her veterinarian fill out paperwork saying that she was up-to-date on all of her vaccinations and that she was in good health. Then, I had to have a letter written by my therapist alleging that I indeed required the emotional support of an animal based on my anxiety and other mental health issues. (Just to be upfront and clear: This is not me scamming the system. Koda is a real Support Animal and I take medication for anxiety and depression.) The third part of the equation is that I had to provide a certificate of training to prove that Koda is indeed trained and listens to my commands. For us, we had her in a Puppy I class at Petco, so all I had to do was provide a copy of her graduation certificate and then we were good to go.
I get a lot of questions about what it was like traveling with Koda as an Emotional Support Animal. I’ll definitely get to specific questions later in this blog post but for now, I’ll tell you about the overall experience. Koda was very, very good. She adapted well. In general, she’s not the best adapter. She doesn’t like peeing or pooping in new spaces where she doesn’t already have her scent marked. (She’s not like a typical boy dog in that way. She’s very picky about where she ahem, attends the restroom).
But it wasn’t her first time traveling. Sure, it was definitely her first time in an airplane and in a traveling bag, but I had taken her on numerous car trips before. My family has a house in Vermont so a couple times a year Koda will make the five-hour road trip with us. She’s also “road-tripped” to Astoria and slept over my boyfriend’s house before. I definitely think that all of this preparation helped prime her for her first big trip.
So because Koda is an Emotional Support Animal, she actually got to travel in the cabin with me. No cargo for her! I brought her onto the plane in a travel bag and she was allowed to either lay in the bag underneath the seat for the entire flight or she could sit on my lap. On the way to Puerto Rico, she started crying a little bit. So for the sake of the people around us, I took her out of the carrier and let her lay across my lap. I was very lucky that the person in the seat next to me didn’t mind this (but I mean, she’s freaking adorable so what kind of grouch wouldn’t want to pet her mid-flight?).
I will say, once she was out of the bag, it was a bit more difficult to coax her back in again. But she was quiet for the entire flight because she was close to me, could smell me, and was sure I wasn’t going to leave her.
On the way back from Puerto Rico, she didn’t cry or whimper, so she stayed in the travel bag under the seat the entire flight. When I started to notice her whimpering a smidge, I would pull the bag closer to my feet. I found that if she could more overtly smell me and feel my feet or legs through the bag, then she didn’t carry on. However, she totally had a melt-down when I went to use the bathroom and my traveling partner told me, “Please don’t do that again.”
Which travel bag do you put your dog in?
I use the Sherpa on Wheels carrier, which you can get on Amazon here. I did a lot of research on which bag to buy for Koda. Trust me, a lot of research. It was difficult to choose one because Koda is technically a bigger dog than the pups that usually travel. She is a pomeranian-Husky mix and while she’s meets the under 30-pounds requirement, she’s still a big mama when it comes to lugging her fluffy butt through the terminal. She’s 22 pounds altogether (and that’s full-grown!).
While that might seem small, most travel bags cut off at around 10 or 15 pounds and I was very concerned about getting Koda to fit into one of these. I got the Sherpa carrier in the Large size. I like that it’s on wheels, features mesh panels for ventilation and two possible entry points (top and on the side, which is great for slowly tricking her into the bag), a large accessory pocket for treats, medications, and poop baggies, and roll-up flaps on each side so Koda could see very clearly what was going on around her.
It cost about $70. In the long-run, for the amount of traveling I want to do, I definitely think this travel bag was worth it. We’ll probably go to Puerto Rico about once or twice a year. Not to mention, it’s always good to have in other traveling situations like if we were going into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad or whatnot because most trains require that pets be concealed in some type of transport tote.
Do you drug your dog when traveling?
Drugging your dog is not for everyone. I want to say that up-front. Additionally, I will not tolerate any hate I may receive for admitting this next precaution I took while traveling with my dog. The third reason for visiting my veterinarian a month before the flight was to ask his opinion on tranquilizers. My vet prescribed Koda a very low dose of anxiety medication, which made her a little groggy and sleepy so that she’d be easier to get into the travel carrier and more mellow while en route.
My vet also recommended trying out a half dosage of the tranquilizer beforehand. A few weeks before the flight, I cut one of the pills into quarters and administered Koda a half dosage. I did this on a day where I was home for 24 hours and could monitor her behavior very closely. I noticed she was pretty sleepy for about one hour, then was back to her normal, energetic self. Because of this, my vet and I decided to administer the full dosage while on the flight, therefore ensuring that she would be sleepier longer since traveling took about a total of five hours door-to-door.
What paperwork do you need when traveling with a pet?
This could be different for each individual airport or airline. What I needed when traveling with Koda to Puerto Rico on a Delta flight was a signed letter from my therapist, a document signed by my therapist, a document signed by Koda’s vet, and a copy of Koda’s training certificate from Petco. So that’s:
- Signed letter + signed document by therapist
- Document signed by vet
- Copy of training certificate
How did you register your dog as an ESA?
I used the National Service Animal Registry to register Koda as an Emotional Support Animal. It cost about $60 and guarantees two great features. The first is that Koda flies for free in the cabin on any flight. Secondly, if I ever live in an apartment complex or some kind of housing situation, the landlords are legally required to waive any pet fees.
💭 traveling with a pup is HARD, i’ll put it straight 🤷🏻♀️ i worried if she got enough water, too much sun, enough air on the plane. (ask @peterpop90, he can vouch 😂) but it was so cute bringing her with us + molding her into a little travel puppy ✨ thanks again to @delta for making it as seamless a trip as possible, especially with an #EmotionalSupportAnimal 🐶 and now, headed back to real life (ugh, i have so much HW due)✨〰️
For those two features alone, I knew it was a no-brainer to register Koda as ESA. Not to mention, I struggle with depression and anxiety, which Koda really helps with. I got her in February 2017, barely a month after my boyfriend at the time had passed away from cancer. She has been the biggest help in aiding me emotionally.
What did you pack?
I’m the queen of either overpacking or underpacking, never the happy-medium in between, so I’ve put together the list that I used to pack for Koda as a downloadable PDF for you! This packing list helped me get super organized and ensured that I didn’t forget anything important behind.
I will say though, my method of packing Koda’s food isn’t what I’d do now. At the time, I wasn’t living a zero waste lifestyle, so I packed her food in individual sandwich baggies. If I were to do it again, I would use Stasher bags, a reusable, zero-waste alternative to plastic baggies. I also brought:
- All the necessary Emotional Support Animal paperwork
- Doggie melatonin
- Food in individual baggies
- Prescription tranquilizers
- 1-2 toys
- A blanket
Also, because we went to Puerto Rico where it was mostly beach and hot 24/7, next time I would bring either a cooling mat or a cooling sweater for Koda to wear while out and about. Want more in-depth information about what I packed for Koda? Check out the Dog Packing List I created below. It’s the ultimate guide for what you’ll need for Fido on the plane and afterward, too, once you get to your vacation destination.
It’s a free, downloadable PDF that details everything you’ll need when taking your dog on a flight and vacation.
For more on traveling with pups, check out the Human Society for more travel safety tips.