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Ultimate Guide to Pet Travel Carriers

Published on: November 22, 2019  |  Author: Starwood Pet Travel



Dogs and cats who travel on planes must be confined to a pet travel carrier, or “crate.” That makes sense, but we’re not talking about just any carrier here. Your pet’s in-transit “home away from home” must meet stringent requirements. So, one of the most important aspects of planning your furry friend’s move is getting him exactly the right carrier.

It is important to do that as soon as possible, too, but we’ll talk more about that later.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) makes the rules about pet travel crates. All airlines follow these rules. You may already have a carrier that you use to transport Henry to the vet or for everyday use in the house, but there is little chance that product meets IATA standards. Therefore, our Starwood team has put together this Ultimate Guide to help you choose an approved carrier designed with your fur baby’s safety and comfort in mind. 

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Pet Travel Crate Requirements

One pet per carrier – that’s the rule for air travel, unless you are transporting young puppies or kittens. If that’s the case, consult your airline to learn their rules about this. Otherwise, if Henry has feline and/or canine siblings, everyone will need their own travel carrier.

Where will Henry ride on the plane?

If he’s small and you’re traveling within the US, he can probably sit with you in the passenger cabin (under the seat in front of you, not in your lap). However, for international travel, most airlines (and some foreign countries) do not allow this. No matter his size, Henry will have to ride in the hold, as cargo or, in a few cases, as checked baggage. Note that airlines now have additional restrictions for brachycephalic pets, because air travel is more stressful for flat-faced dogs and cats.

No matter where Henry rides, he must be confined in an IATA-approved carrier. He must be able to stand, sit, turn around and lie down normally, without touching the sides or top of the carrier. The carrier must provide plenty of ventilation and have no openings big enough for Henry’s nose, toes, or tail to protrude. And it must be escape-proof. So, how do you pick the right one?

For in-cabin travel

You have some choices here, because airlines allow both hard- and soft-sided carriers in the cabin, as long as they meet IATA standards for space and ventilation. However, the carrier must also fit under the seat in front of you. This varies by airline and aircraft model, so you’ll need to know the specs for your intended airplane to be confirm fit.

A soft-sided carrier offers several benefits. Because it is soft, it can be “scrunched” a bit to fit under the seat. Shoulder-straps make the load feel lighter as you’re hiking around the terminal and leave your hands free for your other stuff. You can even look for features that benefit you, such as zippered pockets to hold Henry’s leash, a snack, etc. (You’ll want to keep his travel documents with your own passport.)

If Henry is, indeed, a snub-nosed breed, choose the carrier that provides the most ventilation.

For travel as checked baggage or cargo

The area within the plane’s hold where animals are placed is pressurized and temperature-controlled, similar to the passenger cabin. However, pets also spend time in a waiting area and are moved between the terminal and the plane. IATA-approved travel crates are designed to maximize safety for ground crews as well as pets on the ground and in the air.

Therefore, the crate must be non-collapsible and constructed of fiberglass, metal, solid wood, plywood, or rigid plastic. You can obtain exact specifications from IATA and build your own crate, but it’s easy to purchase excellent carriers. Most commercial products are made of rigid plastic and come ready to assemble. The carrier must: 

  • Provide ventilation on all sides
  • Have a front door with locking mechanism that your pet cannot unlatch
  • Use bolts and nuts to secure the top and bottom sections (clips or snaps are not acceptable because they can come undone)
  • Have a solid floor that is leak-proof and covered with a layer of absorbent material (provided by you, such as a pad or small blanket)

So, if Henry is a cat or a very tiny dog, you can be confident in purchasing him a size Small carrier. Otherwise, it’s time to get out the measuring tape. It may seem silly to literally measure your dog, but you can’t afford to get this wrong. Every inch matters, and as we noted above, fudging is not a good plan.

How To Measure Your Pet

Comfort starts with a good fit. But when it comes to your pet’s travel carrier, fit is not a luxury. It is critical. Even with all the right documentation, if Henry arrives at the airport in an un-approved or incorrectly sized travel crate, he will not be allowed to fly. This industry-wide rule is in place to ensure the safety of traveling pets.

And there’s another potential problem. Airplanes come in different sizes and shapes. If Henry is a large dog, his travel crate may not fit on some aircraft. You’ll need to know his crate size in order to plan and confirm his itinerary. Like clothing, pet travel crates come in standardized sizes:


You’ll need to measure – at least if Henry is a dog (or an extraordinarily large cat). Crates must be roomy enough to allow pets to stand, sit, turn, and lie down in a natural position. Crates must be tall enough to allow sitting or standing with at least 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) clearance to the ceiling. If Henry has erect ears, we’re talking about his ear tips, not the top of his head.  

Here’s how to measure Henry:

  • Length – tip of nose to base of tail (not including the tail itself)
  • Height – from the ground to the tallest point (top of head or ears)



For flat-faced pets, we strongly recommend you purchase a travel crate that is one or even two sizes larger than specified, to ensure maximum ventilation. A few airlines now also require snub-nosed dogs and cats to have a size-larger carrier.

If you are using Starwood Animal Transport to handle Henry’s air travel, we will need to know your pet’s measurements and travel carrier size. We also require photos of his actual travel carrier, one with him inside and one with him sitting or standing next to it.

Rules About Accessories

Some travel carrier accessories are required:

  • 2 plastic or metal cups, for water and food – these must be affixed to the carrier. If you purchase a commercial crate, check to be sure these cups are included. You can also attach a small drip-type water bottle above the cups.
  • A sealed clear plastic bag containing some food. Dry only, please. This is for trips long enough that Henry will need to be fed.
  • An absorbent pad or blanket for the floor. Soft is for comfort, absorbent is for “just in case.” We advise maximum 1” thickness to avoid affecting the interior height requirement. Do not use newspaper, as your pet could ingest it and no one wants ink all over their white dog or cat. (Yes, that has happened.)

Other extras are forbidden:

Do not include stuffed animals or other toys, clothing, bones or other chews, loose bowls, carry cases, or overly large beds. Airlines will not accept these items, because they will crowd Henry and might pose a danger to him during travel. Stick his favorite toy in your carry-on so it will be at the ready as soon as you’re reunited.

Where To Get Your Pet Travel Carrier

Many airlines that transport pets sell IATA-approved travel crates at their cargo counter. However, you can find carriers suitable for both in-cabin and cargo travel at pet supply stores and online. Look for products that not only meet air travel standards but are top-rated by pet owners. The easiest way to get a top-quality carrier guaranteed to meet size and other specs is to call our Starwood team. We carry a full range of pet travel crates, at competitive prices.

Tips & Recmomendations

Give him time to accept his crate

We mentioned at the beginning that you should acquire Henry’s pet travel carrier as soon as possible. Giving him ample time to become familiar with it is the single most valuable step you can take toward reducing your pet’s anxiety on the day of his flight.

This helps cats because most felines are resistant to change. A new carrier will automatically be suspect, whereas over time Henry will come to view it as “his.” Everything else about his flight experience might be strange, but at least he’ll be ensconced in a familiar cocoon.

Crate-training is generally easier for dogs, thanks to their natural “cave instinct.” They naturally feel safer and more secure in an enclosed space. Once Henry has had a chance to check out his new crate, he’ll accept it as his new cave – just the thing for a travel adventure.

But familiarity takes time, more for some pets than others. We recommend a minimum “fam” period of 3 weeks, but the longer the better.

Follow these proven steps:

  • Week 1:

Feed Henry inside his crate – just put his bowl inside and leave the door wide open. At other times, place a yummy treat or toy inside so he has to go in to retrieve it. If Henry is one of those dogs who is afraid of confined spaces, start with the crate unassembled, just using the bottom section so it looks and feels like a bed, not a trap. Encourage him to play or snooze in it as well as eat.

  • Week 2:

Continue the feeding and random treat routine, but close the door gently after he enters. Open it again as soon as he has finished, but don’t leave him inside for more than 15 minutes. If you started with just the bottom half, assemble the crate and follow the plan for week #1 for a couple of days before “graduating” to the closed door.

  • Week 3:

Follow the same routine, but have Henry enter the crate and remain there 15 minutes before you feed him or give him his treat/toy.

If Henry is a cat whose only travel experience is trips to the vet, he’s going to associate any container with a negative outcome. You can help alleviate that anxiety with positive trips in his carrier. Load him up (along with his favorite toy) and give him a walk around the yard, or around the block. Take him on short (but increasingly longer) rides in the car. Always give him a high-value reward immediately afterward. See? That wasn’t bad at all!

Make it fun!

While these three training steps will build Henry’s confidence and cooperation in entering and remaining in the travel crate, making the process fun can speed the process and increase his comfort with the carrier.

  • Every time he enters willingly, reward him with a treat or a toy to play with.
  • Every time he successfully completes a “stay” inside the carrier, reward him with a game of fetch, a short run, or some time with his favorite catnip mouse.
  • Store his toys in it, or on top of it.
  • Play games with him in and around the carrier at random times so it becomes just another normal part of his daily routine.

Add a homey touch

Since you must put something soft and absorbent in the carrier, use something that smells and feels like home to Henry. That might be his favorite pad or blanket (if it’s small enough), or a T-shirt or sweatshirt that smells like you (from the laundry bin, not freshly cleaned).

No sedation!

Tempting as it might be to ask your vet for “a little something” to take the edge off Henry’s stress during travel, this is not allowed because it is unsafe. Pet transport companies and airlines won’t accept drugged animals. Tranquilizers and sedatives make pets mentally and physically woozy, which can leave them off-balance, unable to control their movements, and confused. That increases anxiety and risk of injury.

As an alternative, ask your vet about naturally-calming products such as Bach Rescue Remedy, Zylkene or (only for cats) Feliway.

Freshly-groomed, please

If Henry may be inclined to scratch at or claw the carrier once he’s inside, trim his nails just before travel so he can’t hurt himself. (The carrier is designed to withstand this sort of thing.) If he has a very thick or long-haired coat and is traveling from a cold climate to a hot destination, trimming his fur prior to flight can help him adjust more easily to his new environment upon arrival.

Remain Calm . . . And Smile: Your Role as a Pack Leader

Henry looks to you for direction and assurance in all things, because you’re the pack leader (or your cat’s secretly-favorite human). Your goal is to model calm: this is just another adventure – albeit a big one – with FurMom or FurDad.

We know it’s not easy to project calm and “all’s well” when you’re tearing your hair out over the million to-dos and little details required to pull together an overseas move. But going crazy won’t help you, and it will definitely add to your Henry’s worries and woes. His biggest worry? That he’ll be left behind.

It’s time to double down on best stress reliever for both pet parents and fur babies -- togetherness. Play time and cuddling work out the anxiety and reinforce your special bond. Yes, things seem strange and chaotic now, but that’s OK because we’re doing this together. So make time to spend as much one-on-one time as you can with Henry. And make sure some of that time includes play on or in his pet travel carrier.


We’ve put together this guide to provide everything you need to know about pet travel carriers. Even so, we know you may have more questions. After all, your pet and your family’s move aren’t quite the same as anyone else’s. But you can do this.

And, one day soon, you’ll open that pet travel crate door for the last time. You and Henry will both be home, no matter where that is.

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Starwood Animal Transport has rebranded to Starwood Pet Travel. We are still the same great company with the best team, just now with a slightly different name.