To Fly or Not to Fly

Jul 10, 2011 by

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A surprisingly frequently asked question is can you fly on an airplane with a rabbit. Based on my personal experience, it can be done, but are you sure you really want to?

Imagine being a small animal inside a roaring, quivering machine for several hours. Your ears may pop, probably for the first time in your life. The reverberation seems like it will never end. The air on the floor where your box sits is hot and stuffy, or maybe it’s cold. When finally let out, you’re in a totally unfamiliar place. Ask yourself, is this an event your rabbit really needs to experience?Passenger Profile

Most rabbits are devout homebodies who do not like going out in public. When you and your bunny go places, when you get there does he stay huddled in the carrier, or does he hop out willingly when the door opens? A calm rabbit who is not bothered by long car rides and visiting new places will probably be better able to cope with the aircraft’s roar and constant vibration.

Rabbits who are nervous or fear the vacuum cleaner, who tremble in the car, or are older or have health problems would undoubtedly find a plane ride overly stressful. Such an experience could compromise their health-or worse. Even bunnies accustomed to car travel will find flying weird and scary. Rabbits commonly show stress by getting diarrhea, by becoming withdrawn or aggressive, or by refusing to eat their alfalfa pellets.

Length of Stay

How long will you be gone? If your stay will be less than a month, then the stress of a plane trip-for you and your bunny-probably isn’t worth it. How long’s the plane ride? If the choice is a one-hour flight versus ten-hours by car, then the faster route may be better. But, an all day cross-country flight may be too much. A long flight can be fatiguing, and it may take bunny several days to recover. For a high-strung rabbit, four days in a car would be less threatening than a day of getting on and off airplanes, plus going to and from airports.

Frequent Flyer? Not

When I was a student, my lop Patrick used to go everywhere with me, which included three round trip flights from California to stay with my folks in Texas for five weeks at a time during semester breaks. Easy-going Patrick was a seasoned traveler before his first flight (frequent trips by car, bus, and subway), and he seemed to take the plane rides pretty much in stride. But Holly, who joined our family later, had not traveled much before her first plane trip and seemed unsettled enough by it that I stopped bringing the buns along and instead left them at home with a carefully screened, bunny sitter.

Five years later when we moved half way across the country, Holly was more used to traveling and seemed to handle the air portion of the trip better; however, when we arrived at our new home she ate next to no pellets for six weeks. It may have been stress from the plane or the move, or it may have taken a while for her to develop a taste for the local fare.

I still fly but my new bunny pair stays at home. I will never subject Tina, a quick-to-react “watch rabbit,” to the terrors of the friendly skies. When I used to fly with Patrick, he was the only bunny I knew and I took it for granted that rabbits didn’t mind seeing the world. Now I know many, many other rabbits and I realize what an exception Patrick was. Knowing what I do now, I expect it will be a long time before I take another bunny into the air.

Ticket to Ride

Once the decision has been made to take a rabbit on a commercial plane, aside from the anxiety of the flight itself, the most stressful aspect of flying with a rabbit is finding an airline that will let you bring one aboard. Some airlines won’t accept any pets. A very few will permit rabbits in the cabin. Some allow other animals in the cabin, but rabbits must ride in cargo.

Of course, having burmy with you at all times is the safest way to go. An animal in the cabin is usually required to be in a carrier that fits under a passenger seat. (Celebrity animals sometimes get their own seats, which are quite expensive.) At only 8″x17″x12″, the carry-on kennel is too small for larger rabbits. If you aren’t sure your bun will fit, take him to the pet supply store and try one.

If the only travel your rabbit does are trips to the vet, you can help her prepare for air travel by showing her she doesn’t need to be afraid to ride in her carrier for extended periods. At least a month before departure, take her on daily rides in her kennel. Begin with short trips, slowly working your way up to going somewhere an hour or more away. Keep the experience as pleasant as possible. Help her learn that riding in the carrier is a matter of waiting rather than one of apprehension.

Flights of Fancy

Since only one animal is allowed in a cabin per flight, a reservation is needed. If the airline you had planned on using admits furry critters in the cabin, but bunnies may only ride in baggage and you want to improve the way for other bunnies, you can try going through channels to get official permission to bring your house rabbit on board. (Because the personnel who make the policy seem to see rabbits as lab specimens and livestock, you may be able to persuade them that rabbits can be wonderful family members). If you are short on time or diplomacy, some who’ve flown with rabbits advise not saying that your pet is of the lagomorph persuasion when you make your reservation and to be discreet about what’s in the carrier at the check-in counter and while boarding.

[Update 12-2-96: info on which airlines currently accept rabbits in the cabin, and what you can do to lobby airlines to change their policies is available at http://fig.cox.miami.edu/Faculty/Dana/activist.html]

The idea of a little bunny in cargo has inspired more than one creative plot for getting bun into the cabin. One scenario involved disguising a lapin as a feline. (See HRJ Vol.1, No.9.). Another person considered bundling her bun up as a newborn, but the plan was scrapped due to rabbit fur obviating the need for even a light-weight blanket.

Banished to Baggage

If you are able to get your rabbit a seat assignment under your seat, do be considerate of the other passengers by not letting bunny out while on the plane. Rabbits under stress tend to shed lots of fur, and the passenger with asthma in the row behind you or the allergy sufferer who will sit in your seat next will appreciate not being forced to inhale your bunny’s hair. Your actions may also affect the airline’s future policy towards rabbits.

Kumi Boutz and her bunny, Shigeru, were directly affected by what a past passenger had done. While visiting Hawaii, Kumi met the rabbit in need of a third new home. She was so taken by him she decided to adopt him and bring him back to California. Her ticket was on United which still permits carry-on bunnies on other routes but recently banned rabbit travel in the cabin from Hawaii to the mainland. It seems during a flight a rabbit got out of the kennel, made a mess of the cabin, and wreaked of havoc before being caught. As a result, Shigeru rode the long flight alone in baggage. (He seems to have made the trip and the adjustment to his new home just fine.) The cargo compartment is heated and pressurized, and animals in airline-approved containers are hand carried aboard (however, they are not issued hearing protection while being transported to the plane amidst the idling jet engines). Multiple animals in the same kennel fly for the price of one. Ground temperature really makes a difference because an airline cannot board an animal if the temperature on the tarmac at the departure or destination is too hot or too cold, so you may need to adjust your departure or arrival time to an earlier or later part of the day. For a list of regulations regarding transportation of animals by air, write Animal Care-APHIS, US Dept. of Agriculture, Hyattsville, MD 20782. The information on ventilation in cargo is quite educational.

In Flight

The price of an animal’s fare, a one-way ticket purchased the day of the flight, is about $50 and costs the same whether for cargo or cabin. A health certificate obtained within ten days of the flight is required. As for tranquilizers, the veterinarians I’ve talked to say such sedatives just make the animal groggy, which can make the trip seem even more bizarre.

I line the carrier with a bit of hay for snacking and paper towels for any urine. Traveling rabbits usually don’t want food and water spills in transit, so save those for when you land. Also be sure to pack some bunny chow in your carry-on in case your luggage gets lost. Bring a supply of pellets to mix with the local brand for a gradual transition.

Back on the Ground

When Patrick and I experienced our first earthquake, I couldn’t understand how he could just lay there and remain so calm. Then I realized that 20 seconds of the earth shaking was nothing compared to two hours on an airplane.

By Beth Woolbright

House Rabbit Journal Volume II, Number 12, July 1993

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