Medication of dogs and cats for air transport
Ratification Date: 15 Jul 2022
Dogs and cats should not be sedated for air transport.
Medication of dogs and cats for air transport for anti-emetic or anxiolytic effects may be desired or required.
Veterinary guidance on the needs of animals should be sought by caregivers for any proposed air travel.
Veterinarians are often asked by pet owners to provide sedative, anti-emetic and anxiolytic medication for air transport. There is a paucity of information on the experience of animals during air transport. One study in dogs1 indicated that air travel can increase physiological stress responses in Beagles, mainly during takeoff. Sedation with acepromazine had no effect on either physiological or behavioural stress responses. Studies on the use of modern anxiolytics for pets travelling by air have not been published.
An animal’s natural ability to balance and maintain equilibrium is altered under sedation, so when a kennel is moved the animal may not be able to brace and prevent injury. Sedation does not affect the anxiety of animals.
Cargo holds are typically pressurised at an altitude of 8000 feet.2 Cardiovascular and respiratory problems can be caused by increased altitude, and sedation can lower blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates leading to cardiovascular and respiratory collapse. The effects of sedation are unpredictable in individual animals.
Sedation can reduce an animal’s ability to regulate its body temperature and it may be less likely to drink, becoming more prone to dehydration. Additionally, there may be complications with aspiration of water into the lungs when an animal is sedated.
Once sedation wears off, some animals can become more excitable. Animals are inaccessible during a flight, so if complications from sedation arise no treatment is available.
The US Department of Transport advised that half the dogs that died during air transport during the period 2005 - 2010 were Brachycephalic breeds. Many airlines around the world have now banned the transportation of these breeds in the cargo hold, and they are particularly at risk if sedated.
Some pets suffer nausea due to travel and these pets may benefit from the pre-administration of appropriate anti-nausea medications at labelled dose rates. Brachycephalic dogs are at increased risk of regurgitation, vomiting and aspiration and benefit from the administration of an anti-emetic medication.
Many cats and dogs experience anxiety during the travel process. This is in part due to it being a novel experience, from being separated from their support person(s), and from being unfamiliar with the motion and pressure changes which occur in the aircraft.
Different animals will experience this to different degrees and the level of anxiety suffered will differ from patient to patient. Their behaviours should be monitored by caregivers, and their physical and emotional needs attended to during transport. Immature animals should not be transported by air before 16 weeks of age.
There are a number of safe and appropriate anxiolytic medications that do not cause sedation and when indicated, these are preferred over sedative medications.
- Brachycephalic breeds should not be transported in the cargo hold of airplanes. These breeds particularly benefit from administration of anti-emetic medications prior to travel.
- Scientific evidence supporting specific recommendations for animals travelling by air is currently lacking. Recommendations therefore should be given on a case-by-case basis.
- Animal caregivers should seek veterinary advice as early as possible when they know their animal will be travelling by air.
- Animals with a physical health problem should be treated so that the issue has resolved or is well managed prior to air travel.
- Where possible, consideration needs to be given to the individual animal’s stage of development, its previous experiences and learning, its resilience to new and potentially stressful situations, and to any specific situations known to cause the individual increased anxiety.
- The use of anxiolytic or anti-emetic drugs without sedative effects may be appropriate and warranted in some circumstances. Animals recognized as vulnerable to anxiety during air transport should be prescribed appropriate medications prior to air travel, in order for these medications to be deemed effective. Most medications being used only at the time of air travel should (where possible) be trialed prior to travelling.
- Management advice should be given to caregivers on how to help animals feel comfortable and safe in crates for air transport.4,5 Crates should comply with any requirements of the airline5, and should be of a size which allows the animal to turn around naturally while standing, to be able to stand and sit erect, and be able to lie in a natural position. Dogs and cats should be familiarized with the crate prior to air travel, and travel with their own bedding and scents to minimize the anxiety produced by unfamiliar surroundings.
- Pheromone sprays for dogs and cats may help reduce anxiety6 and can be sprayed on the bedding of the crate at least 15 minutes prior to the animal entering the crate.7,8 A longer period may be necessary for an enclosed crate with reduced ventilation or airflow.
Other relevant policies or positions statements
- Renee Bergeron, Shannon L. Scott, Jean-Pierre Emond, Florentine Mercier, Nigel J. Cook, Al L. Schaefer. Physiology and behaviour of dogs during air transport. The Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research 2002;66:211-216
- Cabin cruising altitudes for regular transport aircraft (Aerospace Medical Association, Aviation Safety Committee, Civil Aviation Subcommittee). Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, Vol 79 No 4, April 2008.
- Piotti P. et al. 2019. Management of specific fears and anxiety in the behavioural medicine of companion animals: punctual use of psychoactive medications.
- Gruen M.E et al. Conditioning laboratory cats to handling and transport. Lab Anim (NY), 2013. 42(10): p385-9.
- Ghandour I. Transporting small animals by air: welfare aspects. Companion Animal, 2017. 22(5): p 284-288
- Pageat P. and Gaultier E. Current research in canine and feline pheromones. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract, 2003. 33(2): p 187
- Feliway Spray (CEVA 6 November 2021). https://www.ceva.com.au/Products/Products-list/FELIWAY-R-Spray
- Adaptil Spray (CEVA 6 November 2021). https://www.ceva.com.au/Products/Products-list/ADAPTIL-R-Spray