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Dogs and airplane travel: A deadly mix?

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By Elijah Merrill
 

Did you know pugs are at an increased risk when flying, compared with other dogs? Veterinarians have long been concerned about this fact, and now there's more evidence thanks to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). For five years, starting in May of 2005, DOT recorded all pet deaths during air travel. There were 122 dog deaths in that time period, and approximately half of them were "short-faced" breeds, like pugs and bulldogs.

Breed-specific Problems
Brachycephalic is the word used for these kinds of dogs, which also include boxers, bullmastiffs, Pekingese and others. The defining characteristic is a skull that's broad and short. "These brachycephalic dogs tend to have abnormalities that cause them to have a constellation of respiratory issues," says Dr. Trisha Joyce, an emergency veterinarian at New York City Veterinary Specialists. "Many of them also tend to be excited, nervous dogs. So, anxiety-producing situations would cause them to pant more and become more anxious. This can drive temperatures up and cause them to hyperventilate."

Joyce thinks the real trouble is due to being away from their owners in the cargo hold. She advises against air travel if you have a pug or bulldog that would need to travel in the cargo hold. Many airlines will also no longer fly bulldogs under any circumstances.

Safe Air Travel for Dogs

While 122 deaths may seem like a lot, the DOT calls it an "extremely small percentage" of the total number of dogs that traveled by air in that five-year span, but the DOT does not record the number of dogs that fly successfully. In fact, there are many brachycephalic dogs that did not make the list at all, such as chow chows, shih tzus and Boston terriers.

"This number is hard to assemble because the airlines are not required to report it," says Susan Smith, president of PetTravel.com. "We have heard that it is somewhere around 2 to 3 million." Pet Travel is a repository of mostly free information that helps people travel with their pets. You can get lists of dog-friendly hotels, animal policies for different airlines, and even pet immigration information. "We started in the late 1990s with less than 2,000 pet-friendly hotels nationwide," says Smith. "Now we have over 36,000 pet-friendly hotels and services in our database."

Other companies, like PetAirways.com and FlyPets.com, are animal-only airlines. All animals fly in the cabin, and there are trained flight attendants on board. Prices might be a little steeper and only select major cities are serviced.

Tips for Flying With Your Dog
Very small dogs will be allowed to fly in the cabin with you, and Joyce recommends going that route if you can. Otherwise, she and Smith offer some tips to assure your dog has a safe flight:

  • Get a doctor's clearance. A health certificate is required for your dog to fly. A compromised immune system or respiratory problems could lead to dangerous complications.
  • Don't skimp on the crate. Get a crate that's big enough for your dog to stand up and turn around in. It should also have adequate ventilation and spring-locked doors.
  • Practice. If your dog is not accustomed to being in a crate, take your dog on car trips while inside the crate, preferably to a place your dog likes.
  • Choose a direct flight. It's stressful enough for dogs to fly, but being transferred to a different plane's cargo hold can just add to it. If you must, make it a transfer where you can be with your dog in between. Hydrate your dog when you do.
  • Be proactive. Ask questions and make sure the airline staff knows your dog is onboard. Ask to receive confirmation that your dog was safely loaded, and make sure the captain is informed since he or she monitors the cargo hold's temperature and pressure.

The vast majority of dogs who fly do so with no problems, so don't let the fear of a rare event ruin your plans.

 

Elijah Merrill is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover. 

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