Report May Conquer Owners' Fear of Flying Their Pets

Pet owners who worry about shipping Fido in the belly of an aircraft might want to chew on this.

Despite previous estimates from animal rights groups that thousands of animals were killed, injured or lost on commercial airlines each year, only 56 incidents were reported nationwide in the past year, the first that official statistics were kept.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of records reported by airlines to the federal government reveals that 28 animals died, 22 were injured, and six were lost from May 2005 through May 2006.

About 70 percent of the incidents involved dogs, which are more likely to travel in cargo than in the cabin. Fourteen cats, two birds, and one rat made up the rest.

The figures don't show how many animals travel on each airline each month. But estimates from two Texas-based airlines - American and Continental - show that at least 200,000 animals are airborne annually.

"It's actually safer for your pet to go cargo than to drive the same distance because of the amount of time the animal is under stress," said Susannah Thurston, spokeswoman for Continental Airlines.

Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., said she disagrees, though airlines have done more to make travel safer for pets.

"We still recommend that you do not fly your animal in cargo," she said. While pets might travel fewer hours in a plane, an aircraft cargo hold is unfamiliar and isolated and can be downright scary, she said.

Higher estimates

Web sites for various animal groups, including the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, tallied annual animal deaths much higher.

"As many as 5,000 animals may be lost, injured or die annually due to extreme heat or cold temperatures, lack of oxygen, or rough handling while being transported in commercial airline cargo holds," reads a 2003 article on the Humane Society Web site.

Ms. Shain said that figure came from the Air Transport Association, but officials with the airline trade group say that's not quite true.

The group released a statement about 10 years ago saying that about 99 percent of pets arrived safely at their destination. It was possible someone else extrapolated the 5,000 figure from that estimate, said spokesman David A. Castelveter.

Ms. Shain said it's difficult to say how many incidents are actually being counted in the latest figures. The new reporting rules apply to pets with owners, which excludes animals heading to zoos, pet stores or laboratories. And they exclude coldblooded animals, such as iguanas.

"I'm a bit skeptical of these lower numbers, although I think that one [death] is too many," said Daphna Nachminovitch, director of the domestic animal department with PETA in Norfolk, Va.

Mistakes by airlines

Airline slip-ups recorded include an Alaska Airlines employee who was disciplined after loading a small cat named Cricket in the same cargo hold with dry ice, which released carbon dioxide and made the cat ill.

And there was a U.S. Airways handler who loaded a small dog into the wrong - and unheated - cargo compartment on a flight from Philadelphia to San Diego. The dog arrived "very cold and shivering" but otherwise unharmed, the report states.

In March, passenger Terrence Ing sued Fort Worth-based American Airlines after his 2-year-old English bulldog, Willie, died during a flight to San Francisco.

The case is awaiting trial in a federal court in California.

Mr. Ing's attorney Corey Evans said the airline did not provide prompt medical care, nor did employees allow Mr. Ing to take his dog to a vet soon enough.

American spokesman Tim Smith said the company followed correct procedures. He said the airline works with owners on-site to provide prompt veterinary care.

Restrictions for flying

Many airlines, including American, ban pets from flying in extremely hot or cold weather because they might suffer while waiting on the tarmac.

Cargo holds throughout the industry are temperature-controlled and pressurized to the same degree as the cabin.

Continental allows year-round flying because it transports the pets to and from the plane in temperature-controlled vehicles, Ms. Thurston said. It also has arrangements at all cities with local veterinarians to respond to animal emergencies. The airline's PetSafe program is designed to attract passengers flying with animals.

Continental also has a kennel at its hub at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport for pets with long layovers.

The carrier transports more pets than other airlines, Ms. Thurston said. It also had the most incidents, with eight deaths and eight injuries. American and Alaska Airlines followed, with six incidents each. Other airlines had five or fewer. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is not included because it does not fly pets.

Those numbers seem reasonable to Jerry Hatfield, owner of Pet Travel Inc. in Borrego Springs, Calif., which serves travelers with pets.

"Pets travel all over the world," Mr. Hatfield said. "Nine times out of 10 it's the ... owners who cause the problems and not the airlines."

Owners often put animals in crates or kennels that aren't sturdy or secure enough for air travel. On an Alaska Airlines flight, a large dog busted out of a kennel "not strong enough to contain its level of aggression," ripped into a cat's kennel and killed the Abyssinian cat named Tango.

Some animals fly with pre-existing health conditions.

Take Rocky, a 9-year-old golden retriever who got sick on a flight from New Orleans to Houston. The cause? Eating cellophane cheese wrappers from the neighbor's garbage the night before.

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