Airline travel with pets: Is it safe?

Summer brings vacation, and sometimes traveling with our pets. Small dogs and cats are usually allowed to travel in the cabin as long as they are in a carrier. If your dog cannot fit in a carrier under the seat they have to travel in the cargo hold. Many airlines have restrictions on which months pets can travel in the cargo hold. Apparently it is not the safest way to fly, because the US Department of Transportation includes pet “incidents” in its monthly Air Travel Consumer Report. The reports are available to the public on the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement web site.

These reports reveal some interesting trends. A quick look at the data reveals 9 pet deaths and 2 injuries just from January to March of this year! Since 7 of the 9 deaths occurred on Delta, I looked at last year’s data to see if this was just an anomaly. Last year the there were 16 deaths on Delta, 6 each on American and Continental, and 4 or fewer on other airlines. Delta also had the most injuries (6) and 1 loss. The incident reports themselves are available (redacted to protect the identities of the furry victims) and make for fascinating reading!

So is Delta really more dangerous for pets? After all, they are the third largest carrier after Southwest, who (perhaps wisely) doesn’t allow animals in the cargo hold, and American. So I calculated the number of incidents as a percentage of passengers who traveled each airline in 2010. Unfortunately the airlines don’t publish the number of animals who traveled in the cargo hold without incident. So the calculations are rudimentary at best.

Delta’s percentage of incidents (2 tenths of one percent) was double that of the second and fourth largest carriers, American and United. But hold on, Continental (#7) had the same percentage as Delta (#3). Even worse, Alaska Airlines had 4 deaths, 4 injuries, and 1 loss out of only 14,041 passengers in 2010! That’s six tenths of a percent. However there are no specific trends over time, so there does not seem to be any particular airline that is more or less dangerous.

Regardless of airline, almost all of the deaths occurred in dogs, and many of them were Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, or Pugs. Because of their short noses and convoluted nasal passages, these breeds have more difficulty breathing when stressed. Dogs who sustained injury usually hurt the mouth and/or front feet, apparently from trying to escape the kennel. Although the area that houses pets in the cargo hold is temperature and pressure controlled, one can only assume that dogs are extremely stressed while traveling in it.

Bottom line, yes, there is a slight risk to pets traveling in the cargo hold. If I had a Bulldog or other short-nosed dog, I would probably avoid it if at all possible. (In fact, some airlines do not accept these breeds.) As to whether or not to sedate your pet for an air flight, I would consult your veterinarian for advice. I usually recommend that clients try the sedative out in advance (on their pet) to make sure it gives the desired effect.