A Day in the Life of a Pet in Airline Cargo

Dog in Airline Crate

Every day, thousands of pets fly on U.S. airlines. Most of the time, it's a seamless event and everyone arrives safely. Occasionally it's not -- with some unfortunate results.

More than 140 pets died and 88 were lost or injured while traveling on airplanes between May 2005 and July 2010, according to a Department of Transportation report. So what does happen when your precious pooch goes in cargo? We asked Continental Airlines to show us the trip of one checked pet as it travels from Houston to Newark.

First, there's a little preparation the pet owner needs to do.

A month before the flight
Buy an approved kennel for your pet. All airlines and the DOT require that kennels be big enough for the animal to stand, sit, turn around, and lie down without restriction. Some airlines disallow the kind that fold flat, so check before buying a crate. The kennel must also have two bowls that attach to the inside of the kennel. These will be used to supply water to your animal if needed during flight.

"It's better to err on the larger side when buying a kennel," says Lisa Schoppa, Manager of Continental's PetSafe program. "All you do is increase air circulation and space. Go large if there's a question."

Leave the kennel, with the door open, in a busy area of your home and get the animal used to being in it, suggests Schoppa.

One week to 10 days before the flight:
Visit your vet. This is the time to get the updated rabies certification and a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection, as well as updates or refills on any medications the animal might need. The American Veterinarian Medical Association recommends microchipping your pet to further help identify it.

The night before the flight:
Give your pet a nice, carb-heavy meal and plenty of water. Consider sleeping in an old t-shirt, which you can then place in the pet's crate for the flight. Your scent helps calm the animal. The AVMA recommends only newspaper or thin material be placed on the kennel floor.

Finally, flight day arrives:
Keeping Your Pet Safe
1. Check the rules
Of the major U.S. airlines, only American, Continental and Delta are accepting pets as checked baggage or cargo, and their rules vary. Check the airlines' websites for pet policies. Most airlines allow small pets underneath the seat in front of you in an approved carrier and will charge $100 to 125 each way for the privilege.

2. Try to find a nonstop flight
You will be assured that once the animal goes on the plane, it's not going to have multiple moves and exposure to the outdoors.

3. Don't do drugs or feed them
Just say no to sedatives -- vets don't recommend it. Animals should get a good carb load the day before the flight but no food within four hours of the flight to reduce nausea.

4. Go one on one
Put only one pet in per crate and make sure the crate is well ventilated. Even if airlines allow it, putting two animals in a crate together raises the chances for heat-related problems or other injuries. Remember, most dogs keep cool by panting, so overly close warm quarters make it harder for them to stay cool.

5. Time your flight
In warm weather, choose early morning flights, and in colder weather, choose mid-day flights. The temps will be more moderate at those times.

5:30 a.m. Buddy wakes up, goes for a walk and eagerly climbs in the car for a trip to the airport.

6:00 a.m. You give Buddy one last walk around outside before heading into the cargo facility at Houston. Each city and airline has a different spot, so check with your carrier about where you are supposed to take your pet.

6:15 a.m. Continental Airlines' PetSafe program representative greets Buddy at the counter. Buddy is regretting that big carb load he had yesterday, because now he has to step on a scale to get weighed. The rep also pets and talks to Buddy, checks out his crate and makes sure he looks ready to travel.

The pet treats you've brought for Buddy in a plastic bag, along with his leash and collar, are taped to the top of the crate. Next up is completion of the USDA paperwork and checking the Certificate of Veterinary Inspection.

The crate is sent through the X-ray machine, but not Buddy. According to Sarah Horowitz, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, TSA officers "will conduct both a visual inspection and screen for explosives while the pet owner is present." At this point, you will give Buddy a hug and head off to go through security while Buddy gets ready for his flight.

6:45 a.m. The PetSafe agent finishes up the paperwork, affixes live animal labels and arrows on the crate so it is always in the proper position. Plastic zip ties get secured on the crate to ensure the door doesn't fly open accidentally.

7:15 a.m. Buddy stands in his crate in a lighted, heated and air-conditioned cargo holding area, waiting for passengers to board the plane. He's a little nervous since this is his first flight, and he's whimpering. Several other crates sit nearby, some with pets and some with commercial shippers' animals. Continental's pet area is climate controlled, but other airlines require a written statement from your vet that includes what temperature your dog is acclimated to. Airlines restrict shipping animals if the temperature is higher than 85 degrees or if it is below 45 degrees.

8:35 a.m. All luggage has been loaded on the aircraft; passengers are settling into their seats and getting buckled in. Buddy's PetSafe van driver loads his crate and the others for the flight into the van and heads off to the plane. Continental has PetSafe vans in 14 markets. The vans are all climate controlled and allow agents to wait plane-side with the animals for the last five to 10 minutes, with the heater or air-conditioning running.

8:40 a.m. The kennel is strapped to a special section (front or back) of the plane, apart from the other luggage. Animals are loaded last on the aircraft, and a curtain separates them from other cargo. There are no lights on in this portion of the plane, but the temperature is maintained at the same level as the cabin where you are seated, and it is pressurized, as required by the federal Animal Welfare Act. "They are very well protected," says Schoppa.

8:50 a.m. Your flight takes off. After Buddy gets used to the constant jet noise, he settles down and goes to sleep. "Just as babies often go to sleep when they're riding in a car, we find the same effect holds true with the pets we fly," says Schoppa. "We know because we can hear them barking, and once we close the door, they stop barking."

1:15 p.m. You flight arrives in Newark, and before the door opens for the passengers, Buddy is being unbuckled and is the first thing taken off the plane.

1:25 p.m. Buddy's crate is loaded into a PetSafe van and driven off to the animal holding area. PetSafe agents check in on pets to be sure they are comfortable, even offering ice chips, before putting his crate in the secure waiting area for you.

1:45 p.m. You exit security and head over to the cargo area to pick up your pooch. He is ready and waiting, and he starts barking and wagging his tail as soon as he hears your voice. It was a good flight.

A Few Facts About Flying With Your Pet
Airline charges for pet travel varies, but in-cabin rates are about $100 each way, and you must reserve space for your pet when you book your flight. Continental's PetSafe is a cargo program, so charges are calculated by weight for the animal in the crate, starting at $149 one way. American Airlines allows pets as checked baggage and charges $150 each way. Delta charges $200 for pets as checked baggage, but they also offer a cargo option.

The biggest risk in transporting pets on aircraft is heat. The U.S. Department of Transportation warned that short-nosed dogs are at the greatest risk (think English bulldogs or pugs) and accounted for half the animal fatalities. Consider all your options (including boarding your pet or driving to your vacation) if this is a concern to you.

There is a pets-only airline: PetAirways. Flights are limited to nine cities once a week, but pets do fly in the main cabin and are attended throughout by a pet attendant. Sample fare: $264 round-trip from New York's Republic Airport on Long Island to Chicago's Midway.

Photo, TheGiantVermin, Flickr.

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