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How safe are your pets on airplanes?

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

What you should know before putting your pet on a plane

Remember the last time the airline lost your luggage? You certainly weren't happy about it, but how would you feel if the missing cargo wasn't a suitcase but in fact the crate in which you last saw your dog? Tamar Geller, the life coach for dogs and their people, shares the biggest dangers our pets face when flying on planes and what we can do to make airline travel more comfortable for our pets.

Just how dangerous is it for your pet to fly on a United States airline?

It depends on how you look at it. An airline is required by law to submit a report to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for any month in which it experienced a death, injury or loss of a pet during air transportation. DOT publishes these reports monthly, with details on each reported incident. According to the animal incident reports from the Department of Transportation website, in 2013 alone, there were 21 pet deaths, 15 pet injuries and 6 lost pets. From May 2005 to October 2014, there have been 272 pet deaths, 144 pet injuries and 49 lost pets.

To some, 465 pet incidents in the past nine years isn't that serious. But if one of those animals, especially the pets who died or were lost, was one of your pets, you'd be devastated.

According to Geller, founder of The Loved Dog and Oprah's personal dog coach, the majority of incidents involve dogs. Further, certain dogs are more at risk. "The data revealed that short-snouted breeds, particularly English bulldogs, account for the majority of purebred dog deaths on planes." Because of the risk, some airlines, including Alaska Air and Delta Airlines, have stopped allowing snub-nosed or pug-nosed breeds to travel as cargo. Pug-nosed cats, such as Persians and Burmese, are also restricted.

Statistics don't tell the whole story

Geller points out that the airline incident reports don't account for all the animals that travel on airlines. "The figures we read capture only a partial safety picture because the DOT currently requires tracking only for household pets," the pet expert explains. "That exempts scores of other animals, including those bound for pet stores or research labs." If the incident reports included these animals, the numbers would be higher.

Traveling is stressful for pets

Imagine you're a dog or cat who is a loved, pampered pet that rarely has a scare at home. Now imagine being that usually secure pet who is now in a crate, in a strange place, with strange handlers. Gellar cautions that anxiety is a big issue for our furry friends during travel. "Anxiety stems from [our pets] being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by all the strange people and smells, being unable to touch and be comforted by their 'parents' and being locked in a carrier for long periods of time," she adds.

You can't control the temperature on an airplane

The temperature in an airplane can cause health issues for our pets. "Overheating is one of the big problems, as you are advised to limit [your pet's] water intake as a way to limit their need to pee," says Geller. Even if your pet is in the cabin with you, it can get too hot. "Some aircrafts offer in-seat TV monitors so [your pet], being under the middle seat, will be significantly warmer due to the TV equipment."

Most airlines do have seasonal guidelines that restrict pet travel in the cargo hold during extremely hot or cold times of the year, but that doesn't guarantee your pet will be comfortable. Reconsider travel during the warmer times of year to protect your pet from overheating, and if you travel when it is cooler, make sure there is a blanket (that doesn't block ventilation) to keep your pet warm.

Tranquilizers are not the answer — initially

Geller isn't a fan of giving pets tranquilizers during travel and suggests more natural calming remedies instead. "Tranquilizers can have negative effects, and you don't want to find it out while on the plane," she says. "Rescue Remedy is a natural homeopathic solution that should be given a couple of days before the flight and the day of travel." However, because Geller knows our pets can become terribly distressed, she recommends having an emergency short-acting tranquilizer from the vet, just in case your pet can't be calmed down.

How can pet owners prepare their pets for airline travel?

If you must travel with your pets, commit to preparing them for flight. Geller stresses the importance of teaching your pets to love their carrier and the airport, whether they are in the cabin with you or in the cargo hold. "Before your travel day, have your pets remain in the carrier while its closed for at least a couple of hours," she suggests. "Also, take them to the airport a few times before your trip to acquaint them with the sounds and smells of that busy place, and bring plenty of gold-level treats that are super special." In addition, the pet expert recommends training your dog to use pee pads, and practice using it at the airport so it isn't a brand-new thing the day you travel. "Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect," she adds.

Check with the airlines, and get a carrier

Before you get your heart set on a trip, check with each airline for the travel fees for your pet as well as the carrier requirements. A new pet carrier we've got our eye on is the ZuGoPet, an airport-compliant pet carrier designed to comfort and reduce a pet's stress when traveling in the cabin. Another perk is that for every bag sold, 100 percent of the profits go toward pet shelters and other care-conscious organizations. For pets that aren't allowed in the cabin, buy a sturdy, airline-compliant crate. PetTravelStore.com has a variety of crate sizes, sizing guidelines for your pet and other accessories that can make travel more comfortable.

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