Flying with Rats

Jane Sorensen
From the RMCA web site, August 2006

How to travel with your rat or rodent

…because some people, as we know, are silly and speciesist, it is impossible to fly with a rodent in-cabin, where the pet, you, and everyone else is safest - because you care the most about the safety of your pet!
About a little rat named Mousie!
About a little rat named Mousie!

So, what do you do if you have to move across the country, or are taking an extended visit and want to take your pet rat (or other rodent) along? This question has come up many, many times in the past. In this page, we discuss how to do it. Much of this advice was given to Mousie's guardians by the Canada Rat Adoption list members prior to their flight. They disregarded the essential components, which are distilled here. This resulted in Mousie being sent in an incorrect carrier, and getting lost at a connecting airport. Pay attention so it doesn't happen to you.

Three items that are absolutely essential to follow should you travel with a pet are the following:

1) Do it only during temperate weather. Not in winter, and not during hot days, and early morning and evening is best. We found out upon Mousie's return that planes can be on the tarmac for a long time, loaded, prior to take-off - and the temperature variation can be quite wide. Plan a time of day that is not too hot!

2) Get a direct flight. No stopovers, no connections. (If you must connect, take several hours between the flights, and pick up your pet at the connection, and recheck your pet back in just prior to boarding). If your pet becomes lost, you want searches to only have to be conducted at the origin and destination.

3) Always use the sturdiest airline-certified carrier you can find. You can put your pet in a more suitable small-animal carrier inside the cat carrier, so long as it has ample cushioning and air circulation. Screw it down - if it has a bottom, drill the cat carrier and the transporter in matching places and use small bolts to anchor it. Make sure the carrier is normally smash-, buckle-, and escape-proof, and LABEL ALL PARTS THOROUGHLY. And, lastly, give the animal enough fruit to remain hydrated for three days!

Remember, no one will care for your pet like you do. So take maximum precautions to ensure their safety, and follow the formal guidelines both here and at your airline. Don't trust the baggage and check-in personnel for personal attention to your pet. Unfortunately in the case of Mousie, maximum precautions weren't taken because her guardians were told that better care and attention would be given to Mousie, and they didn't want to provoke any negative responses by questioning the personnel's reassurances and packing Mousie more securely. When the staff at the airline counter accepted their transport container, they thought all would be well.

During transport, however, things shift, fall, and break - and it happens all the time (have you ever seen baggage guys handle suitcases? They throw them!). This is surely what happened with Mousie, and the tabs that held the plastic lid to the plexiglass box broke, and Mousie escaped. She was trapped 8 days later, and survived the ordeal. She was 2 1/2 years old, and she lived another month and a half.

Loading procedure for pets as baggage

The following is Air Canada's, and likely all airlines', procedure for checking in a pet for travel.

When you board a plane with a pet, the Lead Station Attendant calls in to the destination airport's Weight and Balance office that there is live cargo aboard the plane. This gets logged on the Load Sheet. The animal is carried to the live cargo compartment and is installed there.

When the plane arrives at its transit points (stopovers), the animals in the live cargo compartment are verified for the Weight and Balance office. Same thing when it arrives at the destination airport, except that the animal is then unloaded and taken in to the Baggage office for claiming. If unclaimed for very long, it goes to a vet or an animal handling company to be looked after until its owners are found.

A safer alternative: Live Cargo shipping

One experienced list member's advice on flying with rats

I have shipped rats a few times now and if I were you I would get a small proper carrying cage (airline approved) not that expensive, try not worry too much and even safer if people can see inside.

Animals are sent out Cargo every single day and I found them wonderful looking out for my rats on the day of the event every time I shipped them.

I nailed a little hard sided house about 1/4 the size of the proper airline carrier required securely in place. It had a blanket all fluffed up inside in layers in case it was too cold or they wanted to hide. I had a towel and a good quality small bottle in it well taped on, some lab blocks as well as some grapes that keep well and carrots soaked in ice water.

I made sure the carrier was well marked, "This way up small animals" and my name, address and phone number attached as well.

I also found the staff very nice, most helpful and more people saying "oh aren't they cute" or they simply did not bother to comment at all.

On one trip a while back some of my rats missed their connection and were looked after by a nice stewardess who checked their water bottle that was taped on. She assured me they would be watched and had to be and put right on the next plane.

I know one cargo guy who is a friend of our family at the Ottawa airport and he is in charge of Cargo and takes the animals and sees they are put on the plane too. I saw it happen myself and the animals were driven from inside right to the plane and carefully put on. The sent a special truck to get my rats for me too when they arrived.

The Cargo department's temperature is controlled as well and he says the airlines have to be careful and look after animals best they can just like people.

They don't want any more trouble than needed either and my hubby flies all the time and out of the country too and he sure has problems, misses connections and many things can happen sometimes.

I think if you see that your rat is put on and locked up carefully, and it has a warm bed inside with some grapes and soaked carrots, and the flight is not way over 13 hours like mine was, or a change of planes, you will be just fine.

I am not saying things never go wrong and others have not had some bad luck but many animals go in and out every day from our airport and do just fine. You will hear some bad experiences but hardly ever hear any good ones. I had three pretty good ones and a lot of people do care too okay.

My good version is when travelling through customs and a 13 hour flight and 2 planes with a transfer my rats woke up and stretched and yawned and greeted me at the door saying, "Oh are we here now? Time to get up?"

Good luck to you!

Every day, everywhere around North America and around the world, rats, mice, and other animals are flown by the singles to thousands. They are flown in boxes that are specifically designed to maximize their survival in adverse conditions. They are chew-proof and they contain a gel source for hydration. However, they are NOT suitable for hamsters. Hamsters have special requirements, and you'll need todo additional research. The place to get a box like this would be a lab animal supply company. Check your closest university to ask them for any used boxes, or to ask their suppliers for a fresh one for your rodents.

Mousie, when she was found, got to fly back in one of these special rodent-shipping boxes, right on the flight deck of an Air Canada Cargo jet.

You can also, of course, use an airline-certified cat carrier with the customizations required for rodent occupants. See sidebar. (I'd add a hammock, too!)

Call your airline and ask for Live shipping. Find a live animal cargo specialist. You want this because cargo is a whole different system than baggage, where animals are treated better. (Cargo flights are not passenger flights. They have some passengers, but we'll get to that in a minute.) I confirmed with Rob Little, one of Air Canada's animal handlers, that there are more staff people around per shipment than in regular baggage, and they also have specialized knowledge about how to handle animals of different kinds. (Whereas at the gate, who knows what they know!) As they handle rats a lot, they know rats! They also ship horses, tigers, elephants - you name it.

Still, I wouldn't want to fly separately from my pets, and neither would most people, so I inquired about being a passenger on a cargo plane. It can be done, but it requires special arrangements. Usually the seats on a cargo plane are occupied by "dead-heading" airline staff - staff heading home at the end of their shift, or for their time off after a week of work.

Get help when your pet is lost!

For one - never assume you don't know anyone who knows someone who works at a major corporation - tell everyone you know! Someone came forward on the CRA list because he had connections through friends and colleagues in the industry. I found that one of my petsitters has an uncle who worked 30 years for Air Canada in the baggage division.

For two - those largely aggravating administrative bodies called unions are proliferate in any airport and airline. Call the union who's responsible for the baggage and cargo - chances are, two or three unions are! And they know the people in charge of doing actual physical work, whereas the Corporate offices really couldn't care less, and wouldn't want any disruption in the normal flow of their day.

For three - get the word out at the airport, and call the Airport Authority, call Security, call the Canine Unit, call the corporate office (if you have some time to be put on hold), and call the Canada Customs (or your country's equivalent) agriculture inspector. Some Airport Authorities have wildlife departments and THEY were the ones to finally trap Mousie at Pearson International! But, the airport may claim they can't act until asked to by the airline, because if the airline is a tenant at the airport, it has ultimate authority over its domain. But the more people who know, the greater its priority.

And for four - contact me. I will share with you all my background information on everything we did to get results, for we documented it well. And I will advise you in your situation, too.

NEVER give up in the face of adversity! Drop your ego, but uphold your convictions! It can be truly amazing what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it.