Many years ago, I used to travel frequently between Washington, D.C. and Montreal. I went to school in Montreal and my parents lived in the D.C. area, so almost every summer, winter break, etc., for four years I hopped on a plane to make the trips back and forth. For three of those four years, my dog Owen came with me (I didn’t have him when I was a freshman).
Owen wasn’t big — just 25 pounds of mutty wonderfulness — but he was too big to fit under an airplane seat. So, I packed him into an appropriately-sized crate with some comfy bedding and handed him over to make the trip in the cargo hold. I think his "ticket" cost me $20 at the time.
I get a little nauseous when I think about it now. I would have been absolutely beside myself with grief and guilt had anything happened to that beloved little guy, but at the time I just didn’t know how dangerous air travel can be for dogs. Here are some sobering stats.
Airlines have only had to report adverse incidents involving pets in a category separate from "mishandled" baggage since May of 2005. Between that time and April of 2011, 215 animals have died during air travel, 81 were injured, and 41 were lost, according to a review of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Reports, as reported by the Animal Welfare Institute.
To make matters worse, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Airlines only have to report the death, injury or loss of an animal who "at the time of transportation, is being kept as a pet in a family household in the United States." This means that animals shipped by breeders, research facilities, and people who live outside of the United States (this would have included Owen when I was in college) are not included in the tally.
What’s an owner to do? If you can avoid putting your dog in the cargo hold, by all means do so. Small dogs and cats may be allowed in the cabin if they can fit under the seat in front of you. Check with your airline. Or, consider a pet-only airline where animals travel in carriers in the main cabin of the plane.
Can you travel by car instead? My husband and I once drove from Virginia to Wyoming with four dogs, four cats, and two horses. The trip went incredibly smoothly (granted, with an awful lot of preplanning) and is still a source of some of our fondest travel-related memories. You definitely stay in some unique spots when you have to cater to the herd!
Finally, revisit the need to take your pet with you. If it’s a relatively short trip, he or she would probably be happier and safer in a well-run boarding facility or at home being taken care of by a qualified pet sitter.
I’ve signed my fair share of health certificates/acclimation statements for pets that are scheduled to travel in the cargo hold of an airplane. I hope they all made it safely to where they were going.
Dr. Jennifer Coates