United Bans Nearly 50 Types of Dogs and Cats After Animal-Related Incidents

united pet travel restrictions

Story at-a-glance -

  • Following several pet-related problems, including the death of one animal, United Airlines has limited the types of pets that can be put on planes, paring down the number by 21 dog breeds and four types of cats
  • During the first part of 2018, United experienced several sad and scary situations involving pets, including loading three dogs onto the wrong planes and one who died after a flight attendant forced his owner to place him in an overhead bin
  • “Strong-jawed” and snub-nosed dog and cat breeds will be excluded, largely because they have trouble breathing through their short noses, a problem that may be exacerbated by high altitudes
  • United announced it would be working with an organization called American Humane in order to update its pet handling policies and practices, and PetSafe policy requirements for safer air travel for pets

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

After an internal review, United Airlines has placed restrictions on the types of pets it's willing to transport in their planes' cargo holds. The company recently announced that 21 dog breeds and four cat breeds will no longer be allowed on planes, due in large part to a number of recent animal-related incidents. Airline officials implemented the new directive for its PetSafe program in March 2018 after a single week during which several very disturbing pet-related incidents took place.

In short, the Chicago Tribune reports, "the airline loaded three dogs onto the wrong planes and a fourth died in an overhead bin."1 The 10-month-old French bulldog died after a flight attendant reportedly insisted that the dog's owner place the dog in the overhead bin for a nearly 3.5-hour flight. This, after the family complied with all the airline rules regarding pet travel, including the use of a TSA-approved pet carrier. As NPR covered the incident:

"The dog had been traveling with a woman who also had her young baby and her older daughter on the flight with her … The airline has agreed that the situation never should have unfolded the way it did. And while passengers said they had heard barking during the trip, the dog's owners realized the dog had died after retrieving the travel carrier from the bin."2

Pet travel was suspended by the Chicago-based airline during the review, which took place earlier in 2018. Officials say pet travel should resume this summer, but not for a long list of snub-nosed (brachycephalic) and "strong-jawed" breeds, including mixed breeds. Some cat breeds, such as Himalayan and Persian, are also on the no-fly list. For both dogs and cats with short noses, trouble breathing is a problem that may be exacerbated by high altitudes. The Chicago Tribune noted:

"The dog that died was traveling in the cabin, not in cargo, and would not have been affected by the new rules. But the incidents called attention to United's record when it comes to dealing with four-legged passengers.

United transports more animals in cargo than other airlines, but also reported an above-average number of injuries and deaths among animals in its custody. In 2017, 1.3 out of every 10,000 animals the carrier transported in cargo holds died, according to the Transportation Department, compared with 0.47 out of every 10,000 across all airlines that reported data."

Reasons for the New United Policies

In March 2018, United began a thorough review of all of its policies regarding transportation of animals. In May, the airline announced it would be working with the first "national humane animal organization" in the U.S., American Humane, "to improve the well-being of all pets that travel on United."3 United's vice president of cargo, Jan Krems, explained:

"As we continue our review process to ensure that we are always doing what's right, we are committed to making significant improvements in our program and adhering to the best practices of animal comfort, well-being and travel on behalf of our customers and their pets."4

Reporting on the changes, the Chicago Tribune explains, "The more conservative approach is meant to 'improve the safety of the pet travel experience,' but it also leaves owners determined to travel with their pets — especially those often subject to airline restrictions — with one fewer option."5 One of the new United restrictions is that only dogs and cats — no other types of household pets — will be accepted on the airline as of June 18, 2018.

American Airlines is one that limits pet travel in areas where temperatures are hottest, plus it doesn't allow passengers to check breeds that may experience breathing problems. In fact, four airports in hot climates will not be accepting animals of any kind for transport between May 1 and September 30 due to high temperatures, the airline's PetSafe policy announced.6 Those airports are located in:

  • Las Vegas (LAS)
  • Palm Springs (PSP)
  • Phoenix (PHX)
  • Tucson (TUS)

United has always had breed restrictions regarding pet travel, but compared to other airlines the list of animals on the "banned" list was shorter. It has since had a change of heart.

More Problems Lead to More Rules

One reason so many of the incidents occurred on the airline may have been that, up until the newest restrictions, United had accepted some animals for travel that other airlines wouldn't. JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, for instance, only transport pets that customers can bring in the cabin. One of the changes is that any pets requiring crates taller than 30 inches are no longer acceptable fliers on United flights.

Owners also can't book pets from Point A to Point B with more than two connections. That decision may have been introduced in response to dogs that had been loaded onto the wrong flights. Here's an example: One dog, a German shepherd named Irgo, was booked onto a United flight by his family moving from Oregon to Wichita, Kansas, but ended up in Japan.

It was a case where a Great Dane that was supposed to be en route to Japan was confused by airline personnel in Denver. For several hours, there were two sets of nervous United customers until it was determined that the pets had basically had their destinations exchanged, and how and when the dogs could be returned was resolved. Needless to say, United had some explaining to do, apologies to make and, possibly, a lawsuit to cover.7

As it happens, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which tracks injury or death to pets on major carrier flights in the U.S., reported that in 2017 alone there were 24 pet deaths among 500,000 animals being flown, and three-quarters of those incidents occurred on United Airlines.8 Also, you can book your pet's travel as much as 30 days prior, but all reservations for pet travelers need to be made a minimum of five days before departure.

USDA Restrictions for Pet Travel

United also announced that "improved standards, which will be updated on an ongoing basis," will involve some new requirements. Some involve rates for shipping or traveling with animals and required documents when owners plan to send their animals on a United flight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)9 has its own sets of rules and information that pet parents should note when flying, such as:

  • Restrictions for international travel to and from the U.S. make it clear: "It is the responsibility of the pet owner to make sure their pet has met the requirements of the destination country."
  • Not all birds qualify as pets; some are regulated as poultry and as such must meet different requirements. In addition, if the animal you want to transport is one of the 13 birds regulated as poultry, such as doves, partridges, chickens and ducks, it doesn't qualify for travel as a pet bird.
  • Even from state to state within the U.S., there may be different animal health requirements specific to that destination, usually due to ensuring the health of the pet. Certain airports in Hawaii, for instance, require a Neighbor Island Inspection Permit. Hawaii.gov's Animal Quarantine Information page notes: "Pets that are denied entry will be transported to Honolulu for inspection or transported out-of-state at the owner's expense."10
  • When pets travel internationally, many countries require an international health certificate, which must be issued by a veterinarian accredited through the National Veterinary Accreditation Program (NVAP), and then endorsed by APHIS.11

In fact, there's a page on the APHIS site that defines what a pet is: It's "a privately-owned companion animal not intended for research or resale."12 It includes the following animal groups only:

Dogs

Cats

Rabbits

Rodents

Reptiles

Hedgehog/tenrecs

Amphibians

Ferrets

United Airlines Pet Bans Include Those for Emotional Support

Dogs and cats are usually the pets people adopt when they need a companion, whether they're acquired as a fellow couch potato or hiking buddy. American Airlines is also in the news because it may not have been prepared for a deluge of requests to "book" a flight for an array of pets allegedly used for emotional support.

United summarily barred an "emotional support peacock" from boarding, but now American has hopped on board; peacocks aren't the only service/emotional support animals excluded; goats, hedgehogs, and tusked, horned or hooved creatures can't fly with American now, either. (An exception is miniature horses trained as service animals).

It must be noted that United is merely joining other airlines in the restrictions being carried out right now. In fact, it was their "open-door policy" that arguably caused some of the problems the airline has been having, especially in recent months. One of the things required by American is for human customers to "vouch" for the good behavior of their animal charges.

The restrictions are also based on a desire for airline officials to determine what constitutes legitimate needs for service and support animals, and to avoid any disruption that might take place if one misbehaves. However:

"Federal laws require airlines to permit passengers with disabilities to travel with service and emotional support animals in the cabin, though airlines can require a statement from a licensed mental health professional documenting the passenger's need for an emotional support animal."13

Service and support animals fly for free, while ordinary household pets are subject to a $125 fee. It's easy to see how easily the system could be taken advantage of by people with pets who want to avoid the fee by claiming their pet is necessary for emotional survival.

Requirements for Emotional Support Animals

Support animals given the green light and a pass on American flights, but then observed as "growling, biting, attempting to bite, jumping on or lunging at people without being corrected or controlled,"14 will be placed in the pet category and charged the appropriate fee.

American's new policy requires that people wanting to fly with their support animals must submit the required documentations for their animals at least 48 hours in advance, with exceptions for emergencies. "The airline won't charge a passenger retroactively if a support animal misbehaves, but it will step in if the passenger and animal haven't finished their trip," the Tribune quoted airline spokesman Ross Feinstein. Additionally:

"Unlike Delta Air Lines and Chicago-based United, American won't require passengers with support or service animals to submit animal health and vaccination forms. United also asks a veterinarian to document whether the animal has ever bitten, scratched or attacked a person."15

Feinstein stated, however, that the airline's new rules won't affect passengers who are traveling with their trained service animals. Even as United and Delta implemented their new rules for traveling pets, American held off as it reviewed their policies, which included speaking with disability advocacy groups.

Albert Rizzi, founder of a group for visually impaired individuals called My Blind Spot, sent a video to American thanking the company for its thoughtful oversight so that only legitimate service animals would be accepted on flights. In effect, the new rules make it easier for people who really need service animals, especially when a passenger's impairment isn't easily recognizable.

How to Help Get Your Animals Prepared for Travel

Air travel is very stressful for pets, so I suggest you avoid it unless absolutely necessary. One writer advises that if you're going to be air traveling with cats, it's best to train them early in their lives to get used to being in a carrier and riding in cars and other types of transportation.

After one particularly harrowing trip when his cat yowled the entire flight, in a carrier at his feet, unwilling to be comforted, Francine Hicks, Northeast regional director of The International Cat Association, has a number of helpful suggestions for preparing your favorite feline for flying:

"Get the cat used to the carrier. Leave it out for the cat to go in and out of. Maybe put his/her favorite toy in the carrier. Prior to travel, line the carrier with an absorbent pad and then something nice and soft for the kitty to sleep and travel on. There are also portable litter boxes that you can have handy in case the need arises. Make sure the carrier has air circulation. A small water dish inside the carrier with a sponge full of water will help the cat get liquid if he/she desires … "16

Bring Fido17 has suggestions for getting your dog ready for traveling on airplanes, too, in order to lessen what may seem traumatic to him. The first order of business, however, is to become familiar with your chosen airline's pet policy and restrictions on pet air travel, both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the best bits of advice:

  • Fly direct whenever possible
  • Buy a pet carrier suitable for your dog's size and make sure it fits under the seat
  • Feed your dog four hours before the flight, not right before
  • Make sure he gets plenty of exercise, not only to lessen the chance of cramped muscles, but to get him tired enough to rest during the flight