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.
Last year the U.S. Department of Transportation started requiring airlines to file monthly reports on incidents involving pets.
Airline statistics show less risk to animals than groups estimated.
Twenty-one animals stowed in cargo areas of airplanes have died since the Transportation Department began requiring airlines in May to record the number of pets that die on flights.
The figures released Thursday by the Transportation Department bolsters airlines' claims that the vast majority of animals survive flying without a problem.