When the cargo bin of the Continental Airlines plane was opened July 10, Joey, a 6-year-old mixed breed dog, was found lying on his side, loose inside the hold. During the flight, Joey had chewed and pushed his way out of his metal and plastic crate.
Despite being rushed to a veterinarian, Joey died several hours later. He was one of 45 animals that died during or shortly after flights in the United States over the past 16 months, according to the federal government.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, airports were teeming with dogs and cats as thousands accompanied their families in pet carriers. With the next big holiday season approaching, more families will be facing decisions about whether to fly with their pets.
Until recently, there was no way of knowing how many pets were killed, injured or lost while traveling by air. But last year the U.S. Department of Transportation started requiring airlines to file monthly reports on incidents involving pets.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the first 16 months showed the 45 deaths, as well as 23 injuries and 11 lost pets. That's a fraction of 1 percent of the roughly 1 million companion animals estimated to fly each year, and airlines say they strive to assure pet safety.
"If you think in terms of how many animals are shipped industrywide, it is really incredible," said Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines, which flies about 200,000 pets a year. "Of course we would rather it were zero, but still, it's a very low number."
Pets, owners nervous
But statistics aren't much comfort to those who lose a pet.
"It's too risky," Roswell veterinarian Melinda Merck said of cargo transport. "Even if it's statistically marginal, it should be a simple, low-risk thing."
Sometimes, as in Joey's case, the causes can be hard to determine. Other times, it's more clear-cut. Here are excerpts from a few reports:
* "... We are unclear how the cat got out of the kennel while en route to the aircraft. The cat jumped from the cart and was struck by a tractor traveling in the opposite direction." --- From a United Airlines report on the death of Ginxie on April 24.
* "Necropsy results reveal the dog died of a pre-existing heart condition. The stress of flying caused the dog to hyperventilate and triggered a cardiac episode." --- From an American Airlines report on the death of Baxter, a Boston terrier.
* "The necropsy performed on the deceased dog indicated that the animal 'became agitated and this led to an extreme nervous state that led to her death.' The veterinarian also reported that 'the lungs showed signs of hemorrhage.' He stated the animal's death was not transit related." --- From a report on Madison, 4, an American bulldog on a Continental flight.
Kelly Connolly of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, which campaigned for the reporting law, said the stress of flying can be hard on even a young, healthy animal. And the stress is especially dangerous to dogs and cats with short snouts, like English bulldogs, pugs, boxers and Persian cats, which often have difficulty breathing under normal conditions. Seventeen of the animals that died were snub-nosed.
"The airlines really need to educate the public to the risks of death or injury and I don't think they're doing that right now," Connolly said.
Cargo vs. cabin
Of the 11 airlines that reported pet deaths through September, Continental Airlines had 16 deaths and three dogs listed as injured that later died. Second was American Airlines, with seven deaths and no injuries.
The Continental deaths came despite a special program to oversee the safety of shipped animals called PetSafe. Company spokeswoman Susannah Thurston said the program improves monitoring of the shipment of pets and includes specially trained cargo agents to handle animals.
"100 percent of our incidents over the last 16 months were as a result of preexisting causes or were self-inflicted," Thurston said in an e-mail about the deaths. "None were due to our handling of the animal."
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines had three deaths and three lost animals (including Vivi, a whippet that ran away after attending the Westminster dog show last February in New York and was not found). "We strive to care for all the animals entrusted to us," said spokeswoman Gina Laughlin.
Continental expects to ship 110,000 pets as cargo and 55,000 in-cabin, Thurston said. United Airlines flies about 150,000 pets a year in cargo and in-cabin, spokesman Jeff Kovick said.
Tad Hutcheson of AirTran Airways said his company decided years ago to allow pets only in the cabin. "It's not good for the pet to fly in cargo," he said.
Veterinarian Mike Younker, president of the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association, said flying pets in the cabin is safe, but otherwise he advises people to leave pets at home with a sitter.
"If they stress easily, or they get stressed when you board them, then they probably won't fly well," he said.
Pet owners need to know their animals --- and share the responsibility, vets and industry spokesmen said. American Airlines' Smith said some owners fly sick or overweight pets. One pet died after its owner administered a human-grade tranquilizer before the flight.
Ray Harbour of Atlanta never flies with her Chinese crested dog, even in the cabin.
"I know it just wouldn't work for him, that he'd be crying and barking the whole time," said Harbour, who instead leaves Romeo, 7, with a neighbor.
But Barbara Whitford, who was boarding a flight from Atlanta to Chicago for Thanksgiving last week, said her tea cup Yorkshire terrier, Bogie, never makes a scene.
"Most people don't even know we're traveling with a dog," Whitford said.
Tracey Thompson, founder of PetFriendlyTravel.com, a Web site for people who travel with their pets, said she thinks traveling in cargo holds is too stressful.
"The truth is the number of injuries and deaths is pretty low, but that said, I would never, never put a pet of mine in the cargo hold of a plane," Thompson said. "As a pet owner, you have to know your pet's limitations and personality and ultimately do what's best for your pet and not what's best for you."
To look at all of the Airline Animal Incident Reports go to airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports.
Staff writer Bridget Gutierrez contributed to this article.
PET TRAVELS BY AIR OR CAR
* Before travel, always have a pet checked by vet and take shot records with you.
* Leave yourself plenty of time to check your pet in. If you're stressed, your pet will pick up on it.
* Book reservations early. Restrictions vary widely among airlines, flights and time of year. Check requirements ahead.
* Use bungee cords, ties or even duct tape to ensure a pet's kennel doesn't break open during transit.
* Book a nonstop flight, even if it costs more.
* When driving, keep pets in a carrier or a harness attached to a seat belt.
* Don't leave pets unattended in a car or hotel.
* Call hotels ahead to see if pets are allowed in rooms and if they have breed or size restrictions.
* If taking a pet to someone else's house, clear it with the host.
Sources: Susan Sims, publisher of Fido Friendly magazine; Dr. Melinda Merck; and Tracey Thompson, founder of PetFriendlyTravel.com
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