En español | Many pet owners are faced with this question: What do you do with your dog when you travel? One family recently made the decision to fly their dog to San Francisco, and what happened was devastating.
Lula, a 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, flew in the cargo area of a United Airlines plane from Houston. Prior to the flight the family’s veterinarian signed off on Lulu’s health to fly, a requirement by the airline. But upon arrival in San Francisco, the Rasmussen family found Lulu dead, according to KTRK-TV. While the family noted the flight was delayed and held on the tarmac for two hours before departing, it’s unclear whether that was a factor in the dog's death.
United released a statement saying, “We are so sorry to learn of Lulu's passing and have reached out to our customer to offer our condolences and assistance. We are deeply upset any time an animal suffers an injury while traveling with us and especially grieved in the rare instance that one passes away. We are conducting a thorough review of this incident."
United has a special program called PetSafe that is designed for pets not eligible to fly in the cabin space. Among the listed benefits on its website: specially designed cargo compartments that are pressurized in the same way as passenger cabins.
But ABC News reported that statistics from the Department of Transportation from 2014 to 2016 found that among U.S. carriers, United had the most pet deaths — nine — during transport. Among all carriers, 26 deaths were reported during that timeframe.
The Humane Society of the United States warns that cargo hold travel for pets should be a last resort. A representative told ABC News that if you must fly your pet in the cargo area, you should avoid midday flights on hot days. The group notes air travel can be particularly dangerous for animals with pushed-in faces; their short nasal passages leave them especially vulnerable to heat stroke and oxygen deprivation.
AARP looked into options, besides cargo, for flying with your pets. Policies vary based on airline and plane size. United’s website says it allows cats, dogs, rabbits and some birds to travel with you in the passenger cabin. Your pet must fit into an approved kennel bag that fits under the seat in front of you. Keep in mind the space under seats varies based on the model of the plane. There is a fee to travel with your pet, and you must book the space in advance because some flights have a limit on the number of pets allowed.
There are also separate rules for traveling with a service, emotional support or psychiatric assist animal. According to United’s website, the animal should be able to sit in the floor space in front of your assigned seat but cannot protrude into the aisles.
The Humane Society has recommendations if your dog must fly in the cargo area. Among them:
- Use direct flights. You will avoid the mistakes that occur during airline transfers and possible delays in getting your pet off the plane.
- When you board the plane, notify the captain and at least one flight attendant that your pet is traveling in the cargo hold. If the captain knows that pets are onboard, they may take special precautions.
- Don't ever ship brachycephalic animals such as Pekingese dogs, bulldogs or Persian cats in the cargo holds.
- If traveling during the summer or winter months, choose flights that will accommodate the temperature extremes. Early morning or late evening flights are better in the summer; afternoon flights are better in the winter.
- When you arrive at your destination, open the carrier as soon as you are in a safe place and examine your pet. If anything seems wrong, take your pet to a veterinarian immediately. Get the results of the examination in writing, including the date and time.