Few of us enjoy the sleepless hours endured after consigning our most valuable items to an airline’s checked baggage system. The ever-present fear of losing those treasures—even if only for a few hours or days—compels many travellers to do everything possible to keep our best possessions in our possession at all times.

Airlines are among the first to appreciate this fear and usually advise passengers to keep jewellery, medicine and other valuables with them at all times.

Unfortunately, one of our most cherished possessions must often be carried below in the aircraft’s cargo hold: pets. Not all pets, but certainly a lot of pets.

Recently, a gargoyle gecko named Nom Chompsky went astray flying from Toronto to Vancouver. While WestJet accepts reasonably sized cats, dogs, rabbits and some birds in the cabins of their aircraft in airline-approved carriers, they don’t accept reptiles, and Nom’s owner was sent to the cargo desk to have him shipped in the cargo hold of the same flight.

But when the owner arrived on the west coast, Nom and his little box did not—launching an immediate cross-country search for the 11-month-old, five-inch reptile.

WestJet’s pet policy is not unusual. Although airlines are eager to accommodate passengers who wish to travel with their furry or feathered friends, they must take into consideration the safety and well-being not just of all passengers but also of the animals themselves. Most airlines have strict requirements for the carrying cases they will accept in the cabin or the hold, and also ensure the areas of the hold where pet carriers are stored are heated and as comfortable as possible.

Last year, an Air Canada flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto was diverted to Frankfurt when the pilot noticed the heater was malfunctioning in the cargo hold. Aware that a French bulldog named Simba was below, the pilot chose to make an emergency detour to Germany. Although the decision likely cost Air Canada a lot of money, it not only saved Simba’s life but also provided positive publicity when the story went viral.

But beware—travelling with a pet is not the same as turning up at the airport with a hat box! And anyone contemplating taking a pet is solely responsible for doing their own research.

WestJet lost gecko

Nom Chompsky, the infamously lost gecko. (Meryl Bishop/Imgur)

Before you book

Before buying your ticket, checking the airline’s pet policy or heading out to buy the palace of all pet carriers, first determine if Canada or the destination country even permits animals to enter.

Bringing a pet back to Canada

The website of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has everything you could ever want to know about bringing back that three-legged, one-eyed, tailless mutt you fell in love with when it followed you to your hotel. In general terms, you likely can bring him back with you (and most dogs and cats), as long as you have a valid rabies vaccination certificate. And, by extension I mean, make sure the animal has indeed been immunized! Specific provincial laws differ, but the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association offers a thorough overview.

Also, it’s best to check with the CFIA beforehand, not only to verify what fees you may have to pay, but also to ensure that an inspector will be at the airport when you arrive. In addition, while the animal may need some food or water during their travels, you likely won’t be able to bring pet food back into Canada—so expect to swing by a pet store on your way home.

Taking a pet overseas

If heading overseas, the rules vary country to country. Most won’t accept pregnant animals, or puppies or kittens younger than eight weeks, while many require any or all of the following: prearranged import permit, health certificate, full medical and vaccination history, micro/identification chip and full treatment for parasites.

Some countries will require quarantine upon arrival for all animals, and in the case of the most difficult of destinations many airlines flatly refuse to carry any pets as their presence can tie up an airline in red tape.

Before booking a flight, check with the relevant embassy or consulate to ensure it’s even possible to bring your friend with you. Then immediately begin the process of completing the paperwork, if necessary.

Booking your flight

Once you’ve determined you can take your animal with you, the next step is to contact the airline. While it’s important to check terms and conditions online, always double check by actually confirming everything with someone over the phone.

Be aware there are not only restrictions on which pets can be carried with you in the cabin, but also often a limit on the number of animals on any given flight—both in the cabin (where there’s also a general rule of no more than one pet per passenger) and in the cargo hold. Don’t book your flight until you know there is room for your pet, and once you have booked don’t wait to register your companion.

Cabin pet carriers must fall within your allowable cabin baggage limits but may still be subject to an additional fee, while cargo-hold carriers will likely be charged similar to oversized or excess baggage.

And, if when you arrive at the airport your pet is being especially disagreeable or looks to be ill, most airlines reserve the right to refuse it. Even at the last moment.

In the air

Once on board, the pet carrier must remain safely secured under the seat in front of you. And no matter how much you want to take Fluffy out for a cuddle—especially if she’s a bit traumatized by the experience—don’t even think of doing it! Taking a pet out of its carrier during a flight is a great way to get banned from any future flight.

Feeling overwhelmed?

If all of this sounds a bit much or you don’t think you can handle a carry-on bag, two suitcases and a pet carrier, consider having your loved one shipped professionally. There are companies that regularly ship animals for individuals or businesses. They know the rules inside-out, provide containers, often have door-to-door service, and though they charge a fee they relieve pet owners of the stress involved.

What if I’m allergic to animals?

If this is making you sneeze and break out in hives, fear not—airlines are also doing their best to help those of us who might be allergic to cats and other animals. As long as you advise the airline of your allergy, most ensure no cat is carried within at least five rows of you, thereby allowing everyone—and everything!—to arrive stress free and safe.

What happened to Nom Chompsky?

After three days of hunting, WestJet finally found little Nom and returned him to his owner. While she was delighted to have her cold-blooded companion home again, she is continuing with efforts to have airlines change their pet policies to also allow reptiles and other small animals into the cabins of aircraft—so nothing else goes the way of the Nom.

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