The Plane Truth About Flying with Fluffy or Fido

Let’s admit it. We want to take our fur-babies everywhere!

We can hardly bear to be without them and they certainly don’t seem to want to be without us. We are bound by mutual love - and, it seems, by mutual dependence.

So what’s the harm in conking them out with a few milligrams of pet prozac,  tucking them inside an airline-approved animal crate wrapped in a shirt bathed in our scent and shipping them to our happy hideaway across the pond?

An analysis published in Psychology Today by Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, concludes that you are slightly more likely to lose your loved one on a passenger flight than you are to hit the bonanza in a state lottery.

Dr. Coren compiled raw data from incidents of pet loss, injury and death between 2005 and 2012 as reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). This table revealed that Delta Airlines led the dubious pack in adverse pet-related incidents. 

Coren then compared the number of pet incidents to the number of passengers carried to account for airline size and dubbed this formula the “Flight Hazard Ratio.” The adjusted conclusion was that Alaska Airlines had the highest rate of pet-related incidents per passenger.

Overall, the numbers from this sample don’t point to a significant statistical risk for our pets being harmed in the cargo section. But as we know, numbers by themselves may not tell the whole story, In fact, we probably don’t even have all of the numbers.

One problem with the DOT data itself is that it excludes animals shipped for commercial purposes such as from breeder to purchaser or owner to dog show. Though current regulations mandate the reporting of pet incidents by airlines, the airlines are NOT compelled to include information regarding loss or injury to this class of pets as they are considered property, not living beings.

Just try and sell a numbers story to supermodel Maggie Rizer who lost her beloved golden retriever, Bea, while returning to San Francisco from vacation on United Airlines in 2012. A private autopsy showed “heat stroke” to be the cause of death. United refunded Rizer the $1,800 cost of shipping Bea back home, but reportedly offered no sympathy and admitted no liability. United has since developed it’s PetSafe program geared to minimize the chances for similar incidents in the future. Reviews of the program are mixed.

Even if you’re not a supermodel (or a superhero), occupying the infinitesimal statistic is horrific, perhaps more so for the fact that it was avoidable.

While the chances are excellent that both you and your fur-baby will live through an unforgettable adventure and return safe and sound, some sound considerations beckon:

  • Snub-nosed animals including some dogs breeds (pug, Boston, boxer, bulldog) and most cats are prone to respiratory compromise due to their compressed airways. Relaxed breathing at 30,000 feet may be difficult.
  • While the climate in the separate cargo hold for animals is usually controlled, wild temperature swings and loss of air pressure have been reported. Dormant heart and respiratory conditions that may not have surfaced on terra firma may become ripe and explode in mid air. Sedatives can magnify the possibilities.
  • Noise inside the hold can be deafening, not exactly a lullaby to animals traveling in dark, unfamiliar conditions. Your beloved may be jostled about from sudden and prolonged turbulence. Some animals have been extracted from the hold lame and bleeding from having attempted and/or succeeded in gnawing through the crate door.
  • Delays in the air or on the ground can create or exacerbate your pet’s trauma and your anxiety.
  • A few baggage handlers may be, frankly, more interested in their union benefits than seeing to the safety of your fur-baby.

If you feel that travel with your pet is unavoidable, common sense rules the day. Assuming your beloved does not fit neatly in a carrier under the seat in front of you:

  • Pay a visit to the vet anywhere from 10-30 days before departure.
  • Make sure your baby is microchipped.
  • You’ll need an airline-approved crate (requirements differ by airline) properly labeled LIVE ANIMAL and plastered with pictures, names and contact information. Include comfy items bearing your scent and ice frozen in a shallow bowl. Be sure that the crate door is latched but NOT LOCKED. Tape a zip-lock packet of food to the side of the crate.
  • NEVER sedate your pet for reasons already mentioned. Additionally, she needs to maintain equilibrium in the event of sudden shifts of cargo contents.
  • AVOID travel during peak summer/winter months to minimize the chances of overheating/freezing.
  • Carry a photo of your pet in your wallet or smart phone.
  • Inform all airline personnel that your best friend is in the cargo hold. If delays and weather threaten his safety, insist on checking on him. If conditions are severe, deplane with him immediately.

Who is at fault for pet-related incidents on commercial airlines? Between pet owners and the airlines themselves, there’s plenty of culpability to go around.

There are some circumstances under which I totally support animal transport by air. Massive Humane Society airlifts of dogs that would otherwise become South Korean hors d’oeuvres is one prominent example that springs to mind.

As far as optional flying goes, my gut feeling is this: until the airlines allow me to purchase a seat for our Lilly, the Boston terrier, she is grounded. I don’t want her fitted for a halo and getting her “wings” any sooner than she has to.