The Choice of Last Resort When Traveling with Your Pet

Flying with Pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • A tragic event four years ago in which seven puppies died on a commercial flight from Tulsa to Chicago prompted the filing of a petition with the U.S. Department of Transportation
  • On January 1, ’15, new federal rules will increase from 15 to 27 the number of commercial airlines that must file regular reports with DOT
  • Flying your pet in a plane’s cargo hold can be risky for many reasons, not the least of which is that temperatures can shift by 50 degrees or more during most flights
  • If you must fly your pet, I recommend first making sure he’s fit to fly; investing in a quality carrier; taking him with you in the main passenger cabin if possible; flying non-stop and in mild temperatures

By Dr. Becker

If you’ve ever shipped a pet by air in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner, hopefully the worst that happened was that you couldn’t know how your furry family member was doing while en route. Sadly, too many people have had bad experiences flying a pet on a commercial carrier.

Airlines are legally required to report pets in their care that have been lost, injured, or died. However, the requirement has historically applied only to animals classified as pets – not animals shipped by a breeder, and not research animals.

But a tragic event in 2010 prompted the Animal Legal Defense Fund to file a petition with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The seven puppies that died on an American Airlines flight from Tulsa to Chicago were shipped by a breeder, so the airline was not required to report the deaths to federal authorities.

New Federal Law Goes Into Effect January 1, 2015

Thanks in large part to the ALDF petition, this past July, DOT announced that starting January 1, 2015, airlines must file reports for lost or injured animals that are shipped commercially, which includes by breeders.

“This rule will provide consumers with a fuller picture of an airline’s safety record when it comes to transporting animals,” said DOT spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey. For example, airlines will be required to report if an animal becomes ill while in their care. This enhanced reporting requirement should make it easier for pet owners and shippers to decide which airlines to choose.

The new law will apply to any airline with aircraft that carries more than 60 passengers, which will almost double the number of airlines currently required to file reports with DOT. The reports must be completed monthly and include each lost, injured, or deceased animal. An annual report is also required.

Since 2010, the 15 airlines required to report have filed an average of 53 incidents a year that covered such problems as animals escaping their kennels, injuries to paws, and deaths. (When a pet dies in transit, often the carrier refunds the cost of the flight. The owner also has the option of ordering a necropsy at the airline’s expense.)

Under the new rules, airlines must also track the number of animals they fly each year, which should shed more light on who is and is not complying with animal welfare laws. Unfortunately, the new law does not extend to zoo animals, or to research animals other than dogs and cats.

On Most Flights, Cargo Hold Temps Shift by 50+ Degrees 

K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, makes the point that an airplane’s cargo hold is not “a passenger cabin one level down.” Temperatures vary widely depending on the time of year, where the plane is flying to and from, and any stops in between.

A study by the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science showed that cargo hold temperatures shift by 50 degrees or more during most flights. On half the flights studied, the cargo area reached 85 degrees, which is quite a bit warmer than the temperature in the passenger cabin. And 15 percent of the time, the cargo hold dropped to a chilly 45 degrees.

Tips for Flying Your Pet Safely

Flying a pet carries inherent risks and stressors, so my first recommendation is to leave your precious companion safely at home with a trusted caretaker if possible. Unless your dog or cat is a seasoned air traveler (which is very rare), I think putting your pet on a plane, especially in the cargo hold, should be an option of last resort.

If you have no choice but to bring your pet on a flight, here are some tips you should find helpful:

  • Make sure your pet is fit to fly. Very young animals, elderly pets, ill pets, pets with a chronic health condition, pregnant animals, and brachycephalic breeds are among the types of pets for whom air travel is in my opinion an unacceptable risk.
  • Bring your pet in the main passenger cabin with you if possible. Whether or not your pet can fly in the passenger cabin will depend on his size and the airline you use. Most if not all airlines only allow pets in passenger cabins that can fit in a carrier small enough to slide under the seat. This is the only way cats should ever travel by air.
  • Avoid flying in very hot or cold weather and book non-stop flights whenever possible. In warmer months, book morning or evening flights so you're traveling during the coolest part of the day. In cold weather, try to fly during the warmest part of the day. Non-stop flights are highly preferable to connections, especially if your pet is flying in the baggage compartment or cargo hold.
  • Make sure your pet is wearing a secure collar and a current ID tag. Also keep a photo of your pet on your person to help with identification in case he is lost.
  • Make sure your pet is very comfortable in her carrier before heading to the airport. Long before your scheduled flight, your pet should view her carrier as a safe place. Purchase it well ahead of time and get her used to hanging out in it at home.
  • If your pet will be traveling in the baggage compartment or cargo hold, invest in a good-quality carrier. Defective or inappropriate carriers are behind most of the problems with escaped or injured pets during air travel. A suitable carrier will be TSA approved, have secure construction (for example, locking bolts), metal doors (not plastic), metal rods that fasten the door to the container, a strong and effective lock mechanism, and no wheels.
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