Alcohol Poisoning

Becky Lundgren, DVM
Date Published: 07/04/2005
Date Reviewed/Revised: 02/18/2020

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


Dogs and cats can get more than just drunk when they drink ethanol, isopropanol, or methanol — they can get a trip to the emergency room. Pets can die from ingesting alcohol.

What are ethanol, isopropanol, and methanol?

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is most commonly formed from the fermentation of sugars. Ethanol is found in alcoholic beverages, some liquid medications and mouthwash bases, rotting/fermenting fruits, and rising (raw) yeast-containing bread dough. The “proof” of ethanol is twice the percentage of alcohol concentration (i.e. 80 proof = 40% ethanol). Although ethanol is also in some household inks, cleaners, and solvents, the levels are low enough to generally be of no clinical significance if these products are ingested by pets.

Isopropanol (isopropyl alcohol) is in rubbing alcohol (70%), some anti-freezes, some detergents, glass/window cleaners, perfumes/colognes, and alcohol-based topical sprays, including some pet flea-control and grooming products. Isopropyl alcohol is more than twice as potent as ethanol or methanol.

Methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol) is most commonly found in automotive windshield washer fluids (20-80%), but is also in some gasoline additives, “canned heat” fuels (e.g. Sterno®), and some household solvents (e.g., paint removers).

Although the strength of these three alcohols vary, the clinical signs associated with their ingestion by dogs and cats are quite similar.

All poisoning problems boil down to the amount of alcohol ingested compared to weight, just like a dosage of medicine. Thus, when pets drink an alcoholic beverage that was left within reach, or that was given to them intentionally by someone, it can cause a significant toxicity problem. In addition, significant absorption can occur through the skin or by inhalation.

Dogs are highly susceptible to the effects of alcohols. Signs of mild inebriation may occur with even minor exposure. Within 15 to 30 minutes after the pet has drunk the alcohol on an empty stomach (or within 1 to 2 hours on a full stomach), central nervous system (CNS) signs, such as staggering, excitement, or decreased reflexes, can begin. Behavioral changes can be seen, as can an increased need to urinate. As the problem gets worse, the pet may become depressed, have a slow respiratory rate, or go into cardiac arrest. Puppies and kittens are at particular risk because of their small size and immature organ systems.

Alcohols are depressants, so many of the clinical signs associated with them are due to their effect on the CNS. Alcohols irritate the gastrointestinal tract. They also act as diuretics, and the alcohol and its metabolites are eliminated by the kidneys. Liver damage may occur after exposure, although it is much more common in animals that have repeated or chronic exposure.

Clinical Signs

Clinical signs of intoxication can occur within 15-30 minutes of ingestion of alcohol. Signs include nausea, vomiting, thirst, urination, dehydration, lethargy, incoordination, disorientation, becoming cold (hypothermia), low blood pressure, and alcoholic bad breath. In severe cases, blindness, tremors, tetraplegia, respiratory depression, coma, or seizures may develop. Death is uncommon but may occur, especially if the pet has severe respiratory and cardiovascular depression, low blood pressure, and/or hypoglycemia.


Diagnosis is based on a history of exposure, combined with appropriate clinical signs and laboratory tests.


The treatments your veterinarian may use can include assisted ventilation, intravenous fluids (to improve elimination of the alcohol/metabolites, to provide cardiovascular support, and to correct electrolyte abnormalities), seizure control, and other supportive therapies. In addition, if the alcohol toxicosis is due to the ingestion of bread dough, your veterinarian may need to wash out your pet’s stomach with cold water to inhibit further alcohol production and to break up the dough mass for removal. In addition, your pet will be confined to prevent accidental self-injury.


Most dogs with alcohol intoxication can recover with adequate symptomatic and supportive care. Recovery may take 8-12 hours, and tends to take longer if it was a severe intoxication or if isopropanol was involved.

Preventing Alcohol Toxicosis

All alcoholic beverages and alcohol-containing fluids should be kept out of reach of your dogs and cats. Consult your veterinarian before giving any ethanol-containing liquid medications.

Do not feed raw bread dough to your pets or leave bread dough out to rise in areas that can be reached by them. Always dispose of discarded bread dough carefully.

Aural Hematoma in Dogs and Cats

Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
Date Published: 01/01/2001
Date Reviewed/Revised: 05/28/2021

An aural hematoma in a dog. This is called a cauliflower ear. Photo by MarVistaVet

Why is an Aural Hematoma a Problem?

A hematoma is swelling created by a broken blood vessel after bleeding has occurred inside a tissue. Hematomas in the earflaps (aural hematomas) occur when head shaking breaks a blood vessel within the earflap. The earflap may partially or completely swell with blood. The swelling may be so large that the opening of the ear canal is occluded. The extra weight of the earflap may be uncomfortable and may lead to a permanent change in the carriage of the ears. This condition is more common in dogs but can occur in cats as well. The earflap will feel fluctuant and fluid-filled, like a water balloon.

A small hematoma may not actually be a problem and may not require repair. There are several situations where the hematoma should be repaired.

  • The hematoma is so big that the ear canal is occluded (blocked). If this is the case, the ear cannot be evaluated for infection nor can any infection be treated. In this situation, the hematoma must be relieved before the ear canal can be accessed.
  • The hematoma is in a location where natural healing will create scarring in such a way that the ear canal will be permanently narrowed. A permanently narrow ear canal can predispose the patient to a lifetime of ear infections. This is particularly a problem in cats.
  • The hematoma should be repaired if the owner feels the heavy ear flap is unacceptably uncomfortable for the pet.
  • To maximize the ability of the ear flap to stand up straight after hematoma resolution or to prevent excessive scarring in the ear flap for cosmetic reasons.

What do we do to Relieve it? 

There are probably as many ways of correcting ear hematomas as there are veterinarians. Some veterinarians have good results using medical therapy, treating with a corticosteroid. You and your veterinarian need to discuss the best way to treat your pet. The following are some commonly performed procedures. Some veterinarians will use low-level laser therapy in the treatment regimen for aural hematomas.


This procedure involves simply using a syringe to remove the fluid contents from the hematoma. The problem is that a space is left behind when the fluid is removed and this space readily refills with more fluid leading to only temporary results. The benefits of the aspiration method are that it is inexpensive and relatively easy to perform but the disadvantages are that it may introduce infection and may require multiple attempts. If the clot in the hematoma is already well organized and on its way to scarring, there may not be much fluid left to aspirate and the technique may not work at all. Usually other methods are utilized.

Ear flap after pie-crusting sutures. Tubing is used to help flatten the ear. Photo by MarVistaVet


Pie-Crusting Sutures

Here, an incision is made in the earflap surgically. The hematoma is drained of fluid and blood clots. To prevent the hematoma from refilling with fluid, multiple sutures are placed in the hematoma area either vertically or horizontally, either partly or completely through the earflap, with or without ear cartilage removal. Sometimes bandages are applied post-operatively, sometimes not. Sutures are generally left in place for three weeks to allow good scarring to take place so that refilling will not occur. The earflap is essentially quilted to close any space where fluid might refill.



Teat Cannula Placement

Teat cannula. Photo by MarVistaVet

A teat cannula is a small device used in the treatment of udder inflammation in cattle. It can be placed in the opening of the teat to allow drainage of milk or infected discharges. Teat cannulas can also be surgically placed in a dog’s aural hematoma if the earflap is large enough to accommodate the device. The hematoma is drained of fluids and allowed to heal over the next several weeks. This method is generally successful but does involve the dog tolerating a gadget inserted in its earflap for several weeks as well as accompanying fluid drainage.



What if There is a Concurrent Ear Infection?

Usually there is a reason why a dog has been shaking his head: an ear infection. This means that the ear infection must be treated along with the hematoma. The ear will need cleaning, microscopic examination of the discharge, and medication. Sometimes ear shaking just happens and there is no underlying infection, but be prepared for the expense and trouble of treating an ear infection along with that of the hematoma.

What if We Leave it Alone?

If left alone, an ear hematoma will resolve by itself. The fluid will be re-absorbed back into the body and the earflap will no longer bulge. The problem is that a lot of scarring is associated with this process and the ear is often not cosmetically appealing afterwards (i.e. it becomes a “cauliflower” ear). Resolution of a large hematoma can take several months during which it may be uncomfortable for the pet. If the patient is a poor anesthetic risk, it is certainly reasonable to forgo surgery.

Aural Hematoma in Cats

Ear hematoma before surgery. Note ear canal is totally blocked by the swelling. If allowed to resolve on its own, the canal could easily scar closed, sealing in infection. Photo by MarVistaVet.

The situation in cats is somewhat more complicated than in dogs largely because the cartilage in the feline ear is more sensitive to inflammation and scarring is more severe. This makes the untreated hematoma more likely to form a permanently narrowed ear canal and long-term ear infection potential. Cats’ ear cartilage tends to experience more healing deformity than dogs’ ear cartilage and more curling and softening of the thinner pinnal areas is seen.

Post-operatively, this cat’s ear canal is open to prevent infection but there is an issue. Photo by MarVistaVet.

What this comes down to is that there is less leeway in letting the ear heal on its own in cats than dogs. Surgical repair is especially important as there is a greater tendency for the a cat’s canal to narrow. That said, a more natural cosmetic appearance of the actual ear flap is harder to achieve in cat than dogs. It is more important to focus on the function.

As with dogs, a cat’s hematoma is generally brought about by ear infections and subsequent head-shaking. (In cats, most ear infections stem from ear mites but there are plenty of exceptions.) Bandaging is often used post-operatively as is the Elizabethan collar to protect the ear from being scratched. The cat will need confinement during a healing period of approximately 3 weeks.

The ear carriage of the post-operative ear does not match the normal ear. Photo by MarVistaVet.

Anal Glands and Anal Gland Abscess in Dogs and Cats

Shalini Radhakrishnan, Veterinary Student Class of 2023
Date Published: 08/06/2020

Illustration by Shalini Radhakrishnan/VIN

What are anal glands?

Anal glands are two sac-like structures that release an unmistakable, foul-smelling fluid. It’s really unfortunate when veterinarians get that fluid on their clothing because then they smell like that all day, as does the exam room. Dogs and cats use this fluid to mark their territory when they poop. Anal glands are not important for your pet’s health and can be removed if medically necessary (i.e, constant infections, recurrent abscess formation), but not without risking incontinence.

What animals have anal glands?

  • Female and male cats, dogs, and many other animals
  • People do not have them

Illustration by Shalini Radhakrishnan/VIN


What is the anatomy of an anal gland?

Each animal has two glands located on the left and right side of the anus. Each gland connects to the end of the anal canal through a small connecting tube (duct). When your pet is defecating (pooping) the feces (poop) passes through the anal canal and squeezes the sacs, releasing the smelly fluid.

What is an anal gland abscess?

An anal gland abscess is a painful infection of the anal glands. During an infection, pus builds up in the sac. The infection prevents the foul-smelling anal gland fluid from leaving the sac. The anal gland swells with the fluids and may even burst. This abscess is extremely painful and should be treated immediately.

Can my pet get an anal gland abscess?

Animals with anal glands can have an anal gland abscess. There is no breed, gender, or age group that is more likely to have this happen. There are a variety of potential explanations of why the anal gland swells and even ruptures, such as underlying diseases or allergies. By working together, you and your veterinarian will create the best treatment plan to prevent abscesses from forming in the future.

What are the symptoms?

  • Scooting across the floor to put pressure on the anal gand and release the fluid
  • Trauma and biting of the tail and anal area
  • Matting of the hair at the anal area
  • Reluctance to sit and to poop
  • Constipation and anal discharge
  • Crying, whimpering or signs of pain
  • Being withdrawn and lethargic, not wanting to eat
  • Swelling and redness of anal area

Should I treat the anal gland abscess?

Yes, and treat it immediately. Although this is not a medical emergency, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. An abscess is painful for your pet and infection can spread to different parts of the anus. The veterinarian will clean the abscess and treat the infection. In some cases, anesthesia or sedation is needed to clean it. Treatment only stops after your veterinarian has rechecked your pet to determine if the abscess is healing properly. The goal of this treatment is to minimize the swelling and discomfort to your pet. Treatment may include:

  • Cleaning and unclogging of the anal duct to prevent fluid buildup
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling and pain
  • Antibiotics to treat infection
  • Recheck by your veterinarian is necessary

Is there any additional testing needed?

There may be additional testing depending on each case. Standard tests that may be needed include complete lab work, especially if anesthesia is needed. In complex or unusual cases, culture or biopsy may be needed.

Does my pet need surgery?

These sacs only produce scent markers and are not necessary for your pet’s health. If your pet continues to have infected and abscessed anal glands, a more permanent treatment may be needed. This involves removing the anal glands entirely. The surgery may affect sphincter strength, causing incontinence. This severe side effect makes surgery a last resort for chronic anal gland abscess offenders.

How can I prevent it?

If your pet continues to have anal gland swelling and infection, your veterinarian may suggest high fiber diets, hypoallergenic diets, or surgical removal of the anal sacs. Knowing the cause of your pet’s continued anal gland abscesses is important for coming up with a prevention method. Your veterinarian will work with you to come up with the best plan to prevent discomfort and pain in your pet.


Assessing Quality of Life & Euthanasia in Companion Animals

Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
Date Published: 08/25/2003
Date Reviewed/Revised: 12/05/2021

(Photocredit: R.L. used with permission)

The euthanasia decision for a beloved pet may be one of the most difficult choices you must face during your entire lifetime. It is hard to make a life-ending determination like this for someone who cannot tell you what his wishes are and yet a judgment call must be made. There are emotional issues such as guilt, grief, and uncertainty as well as financial and/or time commitment matters in choosing to treat or not treat an illness. Family members with differing opinions or philosophies may be involved. The decision process is arduous and everyone dreads its necessity.

You likely have questions about how to tell whether the right time has come in addition to questions about what to expect and what the procedure is. This article is meant to guide you through these difficult issues so that you can be certain in the years to come that you made the right decision without regret.

When is the Right Time?

Some pets simply become debilitated by age or disease to a point where their life quality deteriorates to an unacceptable level. This does not mean that improvement is not possible so it is important to seek counseling from your veterinarian about your pet’s condition and what may be possible to improve it.

Many medical issues that seem hopeless to a pet owner are surprisingly easy to palliate or even solve. Long-standing in-home urination problems may boil down to a bladder infection that can be resolved with antibiotics or sphincter tightening remedies. Arthritis medication can yield great improvement in mobility. Unhealing wounds may represent allergy and not cancer. Every veterinarian can tell stories of pets assumed by their owners to have terminal illness that turned out to have been easily treated problems.

It is best not to make your own assumptions about the reversibility of your pet’s condition. Have your veterinarian evaluate the pet before making your decision if possible. Find out what sort of supportive care you might need to perform as primary caregiver and what the associated expenses are. Avoid making assumptions on your own and get all the options.

Involve your veterinarian early. Find out treatment options and costs before making euthanasia decisions.

When You’ve Done all you Can: Life Quality Evaluation

As much as we hate to admit it, caregivers have limitations of what they are capable of doing and some pets are not willing to cooperate with the treatments that will help them recover. There is a point where all the love, attention, therapies, and special foods are just not enough. Saying goodbye is emotionally devastating enough without having to suffer through uncertainty in your decision.

Some people will tell you that you will simply “know” when it is time but this idea is not really fair. Determining someone else’s life quality is not completely intuitive. Fortunately, some criteria have been developed to help make evaluating life quality a little more definable.

  • Does he still enjoy his favorite activities? The elderly pet does not necessarily need to continue chasing balls or jumping after Frisbees but he should enjoy sleeping comfortably, favorite resting spots, your company, etc.
  • Is your pet eating? Basically, quality life involves eating or at least interest in food. An animal that is hungry has vitality that must be considered, though this is not the only consideration.
  • Is your pet comfortable? The pet should be free of debilitating pains, cramps, aches or even the psychological pain that comes from the development of incontinence in an animal that has been housebroken its entire life.

Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinarian who started a quality of life program for terminal pets called Pawspice, has published a scoring system for life quality called the HHHHHMM scale (see scoring system below). Having a quality of life inventory is helpful in seeing your pet’s situation in a more objective light.

After the Decision is Made

You may have some questions as to the process and if there are other options.

Should you be present for the procedure?
This is a very personal decision and there is no wrong answer. Many people simply cannot watch for emotional reasons. Others want to be sure their pet has at least one familiar family member there throughout. It is best to decide in advance which family members, if any, want to be there. Every owner wants to think of euthanasia as a gentle slipping into death much like falling asleep. While every effort is made to approximate this vision, the pet will probably not close its eyes, and there may be a final twitch or gasp. Some animals will urinate or release other body fluids as they relax. To help ease this transition between and death, sometimes a tranquilizer is given first, thus alleviating some of the above.

How is the procedure performed?
Not all clinics have the exact same steps, but the following is typical. Appropriate forms must be signed in order for the procedure to take place. If the owner is to be present, an intravenous catheter may be placed. This takes a few minutes and is usually done while the owner pays for the procedure and deals with paperwork. The payment transaction is done prior to the procedure so that the owner will not have to tearfully sign checks or credit card slips just following the emotional height of the procedure.

Photo by Carrie Christner

The intravenous catheter serves several purposes. First, the euthanasia solution is painful if administered outside the vein. The catheter ensures clean access to the vein, even if the owner is holding the pet. The catheter also allows for a sedative to be administered prior to the euthanasia solution. Not all veterinarians use catheters.

After the catheter is placed, the owner may spend some last time alone with the pet if desired.

The procedure itself is very fast. If a sedative is to be used, it is given first so that the pet is euthanized from a sleeping status. The euthanasia solution, generally dyed a bright color so that it cannot be mistaken for anything else, is delivered and death comes peacefully in a matter of seconds. The owner is allowed to remain with the pet for final private goodbyes. At the end of this time after the last goodbyes and caresses are completed, the owner simply exits the room when ready and the hospital staff takes over.

Let your veterinarian know in advance if you would like a lock of hair or the collar as a keepsake. Some clinics also offer a decorative clay paw imprint.

Home Euthanasia

Some clinics provide this service, but there are also house call euthanasia services in some areas.


After the procedure is over, there are some options regarding your pet’s remains. In some municipalities, city ordinances preclude burying pets at home. Otherwise, a cremation service is used. Typically you can choose between a group cremation and an individual one. In a group cremation, you do not receive any ashes. An individual one will cost more, but you will have your pets’ ashes.

Quality of Life Scale

Dr. Alice Villalobos, the veterinarian who started Pawspice, a quality of life program for terminal pets, has published a scoring system for life quality called The HHHHHMM scale.  The letters stand for: Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility, and More Good Days than Bad.

Quality of Life Scale: The HHHHHMM Scale
Pet caregivers can use this Quality of Life Scale to determine
the success of pawspice care. Score patients using a scale of 1 to 10,
10 being the highest quality of life.
1-10HURT – Adequate pain control, including breathing ability, is first and foremost on the scale. Is the pet’s pain successfully managed? Is oxygen necessary?
1-10HUNGER – Is the pet eating enough? Does hand feeding help? Does the patient require a feeding tube?
1-10HYDRATION – Is the patient dehydrated? For patients not drinking enough, use subcutaneous fluids once or twice daily to supplement fluid intake.
1-10HYGIENE – The patient should be brushed and cleaned, particularly after elimination. Avoid pressure sores and keep all wounds clean.
1-10HAPPINESS – Does the pet express joy and interest? Is the pet responsive to things around him or her (family, toys, etc.)? Is the pet depressed, lonely, anxious, bored or afraid? Can the pet’s bed be close to the family activities and not be isolated?
1-10MOBILITY – Can the patient get up without assistance? Does the pet need human or mechanical help (e.g., a cart)? Does the pet feel like going for a walk? Is the pet having seizures or stumbling? (Some caregivers feel euthanasia is preferable to amputation, yet an animal with limited mobility but is still alert and responsive can have a good quality of life as long as caregivers are committed to helping the pet.)
1-10MORE GOOD DAYS THAN BAD – When bad days outnumber good days, quality of life might be compromised. When a healthy human-animal bond is no longer possible, the caregiver must be made aware the end is near. The decision needs to be made if the pet is suffering. If death comes peacefully and painlessly, that is okay.
*TOTAL*A total over 35 points represents acceptable life quality

Adapted from Villalobos, A.E., Quality of Life Scale Helps Make Final Call, VPN, 09/2004, for Canine and Feline Geriatric Oncology Honoring the Human-Animal Bond, by Blackwell Publishing, Table 10.1, released 2006.

Alternative Diets for Dogs and Cats

Savanna Bruce, Veterinary Student Class of 2024
Date Published: 07/27/2021

You’ve spoken with your veterinarian and are thinking about personally making your pet’s meals. There are about as many diet options for your pet as there are for you, so which one is best? Breed, age, weight, allergies, medical conditions, and finances are some of the contributing factors that need to be considered when choosing an alternative diet.

Photo courtesy of Depositphotos

If you decide to home cook your pet’s food, we highly recommend first consulting with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that your pet’s nutritional needs are adequately met. Once there is a recipe available, it is important to follow it exactly. Any changes could affect its nutritional value.

Sometimes, especially in the case of dietary adverse responses, your veterinarian may recommend a limited ingredient home-cooked diet. The purpose is to identify those foods to which your pet is sensitive; there will be trial and error. When discussing your pet’s diet history with your veterinarian, be as thorough as possible to shorten the time that your pet has to be on a limited-ingredient diet.  During this period, do not give anything outside of the specific diet or the results will not be accurate.

When purchasing foods and/or ingredients, look at the nutrition label, just as you do for your own food. “Organic” is a USDA certification that refers to how a food is grown and processed. For example, organic vegetables may be grown without pesticides and organic meats may come from animals that were allowed to graze or are antibiotic/hormone free. “Natural” products are those without synthetic ingredients, added coloring, and often are minimally processed.

A common misconception is that corn is a filler and causes significant allergies in pets. However, a study was done in 2016 on 297 dogs. Of those,  only about four percent had a corn allergy. Corn is a source of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and fats. Corn provides energy and helps digestion and in most cases is completely fine for dogs to eat.

“Grain-free” means that the product does not include grains such as rice, corn, or wheat. Therefore, the source of carbohydrates are peas, legumes, potatoes and/or lentils. Grain-free diets and their possible association with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) are continuously being researched. Caution is advised at this time before making any choices about grain-free diets.

Gluten is the protein in grain that is left over after all the starch is removed. Celiac disease is an intolerance to gluten. Celiac disease in dogs is incredibly rare (as it is in people) and has not been documented in cats as of November 2019. Dogs reported to have celiac disease were mainly from a single line of inbred Irish Setters in the United Kingdom. Unless your dog has a known sensitivity to gluten, there is no need to avoid it in their diet.

Raw pet food is commonly either frozen or freeze-dried. Prepackaged raw diets that are not marked as complete may need to have vitamin and mineral supplements added to provide a balanced meal. Do not exclude the parts of the meal that your pet selectively ignores, as this can also lead to deficiencies and subsequent clinical disease; make sure, one way or another, that the pet eats all of it.  Nutrient deficiencies can occur if a meal is not made correctly. Bones can potentially cause obstructions, constipation, and tooth fractures. A real risk of feeding raw food is bacterial contamination, especially by Salmonella and E. coli. Contamination can affect your pets, healthy humans, and can be devastatingly harmful to pregnant, young, old, or immunocompromised people in the house. Raw diets also increase the risk of exposure to parasites. Raw feeding is not recommended according to the official AVMA position, which strongly discourages raw feeding.

Some veterinarians recommend that cats be able to eat various foods, including non-dry, non-kibble food to provide moisture in their diets. If your feline arrives to your home as a kitten, make sure to feed a variety of foods and textures as kittens will imprint on what they were fed as kittens. If your feline arrives as an adult, do your best to encourage a variety of foods. For some medical conditions, feeding an all-canned diet may be recommended.

Although raw feeding is not recommended, if you have made the decision to feed a raw or alternative diet, it is time to hit the store! A great way to make consistent meals for your pet is to print and laminate instructions from your veterinarian and veterinary nutritionist. You can purchase a cutting board and bowls/plates that are specifically for your furry friend’s food to lower the risk of cross-contamination. Many people find they can reduce their costs by purchasing large quantities of each ingredient and storing the meat in a freezer purchased specifically for pet food. Some butchers understand the needs of pet owners, and you may be able to arrange with them to have the best possible price.  Dedicate a part of your pantry and fridge to ingredients specifically for your pet; Your pet will thank you!

Air Travel with Your Pets

Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
Date Published: 11/25/2002
Date Reviewed/Revised: 01/26/2021

Summer and holiday seasons turn into USDA health certificate seasons at animal hospitals nationwide. If you are planning air travel with your pet, here are some things you need to know.

Graphic by MarVistaVet

Traveling Dog

Travel is stressful enough without having to worry about how the pet will fare in a carrier surrounded by noise and unfamiliar people. Horror stories abound. Still, most travel disasters stem from one of three issues (all of which are readily preventable). Do not open the carrier for a final petting or hug before travel as the pet can escape. Do not use a low-quality carrier that can open or break. Get your pet used to being inside the carrier prior to travel so as to minimize anxiety. Keep in mind that brachycephalic (short-faced) dog breeds may have difficulty breathing when agitated.


Proper planning makes for a fun excursion for every member of the family, even the furry ones.

Flying your Pet in the Cabin with you

  • Most airlines allow pets weighing 15 lbs or less to fly in the cabin with their owners (this weight includes both the pet and the carrier). This also means the carrier must fit under the seat in front of you. Check with the airline about the carrier size and dimensions. Most airlines sell carriers or you can buy one from a pet supply store.
  • Be sure to confirm with the airline the day before travel that your pet is coming with you.
  • Remember that in most cases you will need a USDA health certificate. Check with the airline as to how many days before travel the certificate must be issued. The USDA considers a health certificate to be valid for 30 days, but many airlines and states have their own ideas about how long a health certificate should be valid and 10 days is typical for domestic travel. Some states require specific vaccinations. Travel to many foreign countries now requires special notarization of the certificate beyond the veterinarian’s signature and some countries require special blood tests for entry. Always be sure to check with the consulate regarding what you need.
  • Some animals may be stressed or frightened by travel. Consider asking your veterinarian about anxiolytics (medication to reduce or prevent anxiety). If your pet is traveling in the cabin with you, you may just want to have some on hand in case of unexpected anxiety.
  • Service animals (animals that have been specifically trained to assist someone with a disability) generally fly for free and do not have to be confined to a carrier but they do have to be leashed or harnessed. Paperwork is necessary to attest to the animal’s training and temperament and rabies vaccination must be documented. Emotional support animals are not considered service animals as of December 2020 and are not allowed in the cabin as they have been previously.

(Editor’s Note: Airline regulations regarding Emotional Support Animals are changing rapidly due to the number of incidents from false ESAs that disrupt passenger service, such as aggression, biting, elimination, barking, and so on. Be certain to check with your specific airline when you book the tickets and follow their requirements to the letter or your valid ESA may be turned away. Most require that you have appropriate paperwork to them 48 hours before the flight.) 

Your Pet as Checked Luggage or Manifest Cargo

What if your pet is too big for cabin travel? You can have your pet travel as checked luggage or as manifest cargo. But what is the difference? In both situations, the pet travels in a pressure and temperature controlled hold. It turns out that cargo is probably a better experience for your pet. In fact, many airlines no longer allow for pets to fly as checked luggage for reasons that will become obvious below.

Checked Luggage (could save money but probably not worth the reduced safety)

  • Check in happens at the main terminal.
  • You must accompany your pet on the same flight. If you are not flying yourself, your pet will need to be in cargo. Checked luggage is not an option.
  • Personnel are generally trained to handle luggage, not live animals.
  • Charged as a flat fee rather than by weight which usually works out cheaper than cargo.
  • Transport vehicles moving across tarmac are not required to be temperature controlled. Often these vehicles are open to the air and raw environmental temperature for unspecified time periods

Manifest Cargo

  • Check in happens at cargo entrance.
  • Personnel are trained to handle live animals and their enclosures.
  • Generally more expensive and charged by weight.
  • Transport vehicles are temperature controlled and protected from the environment.

Regardless of whether you choose cargo or checked luggage, each airline will have additional requirements and you will need to check with the specific airline to get most of these. For example, some airlines have maximum weight requirements. Be sure to check  for any restrictions. Most states will not accept animals younger than 8 weeks of age. Such youngsters will not be allowed to travel by air. As of December 2020, airlines may not prohibit transport based on breed per se but they may have safety restrictions as for brachycephalic breeds.

Most states will not accept animals younger than 8 weeks of age. Such youngsters will not be allowed to travel by air.

Guidelines for animal shipping are set by the International Air Travel Association (IATA). These include the size of the shipping container, how it must be marked, how it is ventilated and how food and water should be made available. Read the guidelines.

Consider implanting a microchip for any pet who travels.

According to the Animal Welfare Act, there are specific temperature guidelines to which airlines must adhere. Ambient temperatures in holding areas for cats and dogs must not fall below 45⁰F for more than 45 minutes when being moved to or from a holding area.

Animals transported in a carry-on are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act, so it is up to the person carrying them to see that they do not become too cold or overheated.

At the present time, Delta Airlines and United Airlines no longer accept animals as checked luggage. They must fly as cargo or in the cabin (if appropriate requirements for in-cabin travel are met). However, every airline has its own rules about pet travel, so check with your airline before you book tickets.

Helpful Links and Information

For Airline Requirements for Pet Travel By Airline

For USDA Regulations for Bringing a Pet to Another State or to a Foreign Country

For the AVMA Guidelines on travel with short-faced breeds

International Pet and Animal Transportation Association can help you find a pet relocation service.

For further Air Travel Tips including a guide to In-terminal Pet Relief Stations:

For information on Frequent Flyer Points for Pet Travel

For general tips on traveling with pets.

We wish easy travel and a pleasant journey to everyone transporting their pets.