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The Wild Blue Yonder: Airline travel with your bird

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Whatever the complications of ground travel with your bird, travel by air presents a far more complex and challenging set of issues. From a bird's point of view, an airline cabin or cargo hold is a very different -- and more stressful -- place than the back seat of the family car. From your point of view as a caring bird owner, the airline environment is less controllable and potentially more hazardous to your avian pet's well-being.

The key to successful air travel with your bird can be summed up in one word: preparation.

Preparation: for your bird, for yourself

From a health perspective, it's essential to make sure that your bird is in good health before your trip. Byron de la Navarre, DVM, chief veterinarian at Animal House of Chicago and member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, puts it this way: "Don't put your bird through the stress of travel if it's ill, and this is not something you can tell just by looking.'' He advises a thorough examination, including blood tests, to make sure there is no hidden illness that will rear its head while you are away.

Rules, regulations, and paperwork

If you're planning air travel with your bird, it is essential to find out in advance what your airline's policy is on taking animals in the passenger cabin. Some airlines -- Frontier, Jet Blue, and Southwest, for example -- do not permit animals in the passenger cabin, with the exception of service dogs. Those that do allow animals have specific regulations as to how many are permitted and how they must be contained. It's important to make your reservations as far in advance as possible so that "pet-space'' is still available on your flight.

Whether your travel plans are domestic or international, you will need to obtain a health certificate for your bird within 10 days of your departure. Not all vets are certified to distribute these health certificates; if your vet cannot, have him or her recommend a vet that can. The certificate is valid for ten days, and you may have to obtain a second certificate for your return if the first one has expired.

Comfort and safety

If you want to take your bird with you in the passenger cabin, it must be kept in a container at all times and the container must be small enough to fit underneath the seat. Some airlines have specific rules as to what bird species may travel in the passenger cabin. Find out about these rules in advance so that you don't arrive at the ticket counter expecting to take your bird aboard with you only to be told that he'll have to travel as checked baggage.

If your bird is too large for in-cabin transport, you will have to ship it as cargo. In that case, it's important to select a container that meets airline requirements and is the appropriate size for your bird. If your bird is flying in the cargo hold, check with your airline to see if the fire extinguishers kept in the hold contain the chemical halon, which can be deadly to birds. 

Getting specific

There are a number of steps that de la Navarre suggests to make your trip less stressful for your bird -- and for you:

  • Some airlines have rules prohibiting certain species of birds in the passenger cabin. If you are planning to take your bird in the passenger cabin, make sure your bird isn't on the "no-fly'' list of species.
  • Use no-spill water and feed containers instead of your bird's usual dishes. Try a dropper-type water bottle. If your bird isn't used to drinking from a dropper, introduce it to him at home so that he can become accustomed to it. You can also put a clean sponge in the bottom of your bird's dish. Introduce this to your bird a few days before the trip.
  • Leave some pieces of fresh fruit in the cage in addition to your bird feed. This will provide another source of water.
  • Lower your bird's perch so that if the cage is jostled in flight, your bird will not have far to fall. You can also screw the perch to the bottom of the cage. Make sure to put some soft material at the bottom of the cage to cushion any falls.
  • Use a cover over your bird's cage. The lower light level will be a stress reducer, and will protect it from drafts. But make sure that the cage is adequately ventilated.
  • Bring along a bird first-aid kit in case of minor injuries, such as a broken blood-feather. Your avian vet may be able to make one up for you, or suggest a commercial brand.

You can do this!

Although air travel with your bird presents special challenges, with preparation and planning it can be done. Thousands of bird owners do it, and so can you!

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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