You're packed, you have the health certificate and you are ready to take that much needed vacation with your pet. You just have one more thing to decide: should you sedate your pet for the trip or not?
If you were going to be stuck in a dark, cool cargo area near a roaring airplane engine, you would want to be sedated. So it would be natural to assume your pet would prefer this as well. Unfortunately what you and your pet prefer may not be what is safe or even necessary.
Sedatives have been used for years to calm pets and reduce nervousness, usually in association with thunderstorms or fireworks. Sedatives have also been used to reduce fear that may develop during air travel. Sedatives are commonly used to calm extremely fearful pets, those prone to severe separation anxiety and overactive pets. In these situations, sedatives reduce the potential for self-injury.
For most pets, sedatives are not recommended. Even nervous pets, once they are in a carrier in a quiet dark place, typically calm down and most even go to sleep. The primary disadvantage of sedating pets for air travel is that there is no one to check on them nor offer medical care if problems arise. As with any drug, sedatives have side effects. The most profound and potentially life threatening problem associated with sedation is the effect on blood pressure. Most sedatives lower the blood pressure which can make your pet groggy and cold. Cargo cabins are not heated and, in cold weather, are quite cool. This cool environment, accompanied by lower blood pressure and a colder body temperature, can result in hypothermia. If left untreated, hypothermia and low blood pressure can be fatal. Another concern is that the effect of high altitude on the action of sedatives is unknown. What is known is that sedative use has been implicated as a contributing factor to many pet air travel deaths.
Overall, sedation for traveling pets is NOT recommended. Even for those pets that may benefit from sedation, the owner must be thoroughly aware of all the complications, side effects and risks of using a sedative. You and your pet would probably be safer and have a much more pleasant vacation if sedatives were not included.