Another week, another United P.R. disaster. This time, a giant pet rabbit died on a United flight from London to O'Hare, and the airline's... not exactly sure what happened. The news is enough to make any responsible pet owner pause and ask, "How can I best protect my pet when he or she has to fly in cargo? What are the best practices for making sure my darling is going to 1) live and 2) be as comfortable as possible?"
Photo via Flickr.
I spoke to Dr Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at New York City's Animal Medical Center for her thoughts on how to best prepare your pet -- and yourself -- for a happy, healthy trip.
Reconsider putting your pet on a plane in the first place.
Dr Hohenhaus says, "I would say to the family: Does the pet really need to go at all? If you're moving, of course. But for a weekend trip? No one's watching them [in cargo], no one can get to them." It's a risk that might be worth taking for a move or a substantial trip, but Dr Hohenhaus asks her patients' families to consider boarding the animal, or having it driven, rather than fly. "I recently put the kibosh on a 15-year-old dog flying to Palm Beach. It would have been a three-hour flight, so six hours in the carrier, and he needs to get up and move around. They ended up having the dog driven to Florida."
Start planning early.
At least a month early, if you've never flown with your pet before, says Dr Hohenhaus. "The regulations are not uniform across airlines, and they're not uniform country to country. It's a nightmare." She recommends starting with gathering information from the web site of the airline you're flying. "And find out what kind of aeroplane you're flying -- not all carriers will fit in all planes." And make your reservations early; there will be limits on the number of animals permitted on each flight.
Hire a pet-transport company.
Look for a member of IPATA, or the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, to help facilitate your trip. They know the ins and outs of pet travel and can take a complicated logistical problem off your hands.
Take two planes.
"You know how crazy you are when you travel -- the bags, the kids," she says. She suggest sending the pet a day ahead, or having it follow you by a day, with the help of a friend or pet-transport company for logistical support. You'll be less stressed, and the animal will be less stressed.
Get a checkup.
"All airlines require that a vet examine a pet before travel, but each airline has its own set of rules about when the pet has to be examined," says Dr Hohenhaus. Most airlines won't allow very young puppies or kittens, or "squish-nosed animals" like bulldogs or Persian cats. And your vet may not sign the certificate if the animal is elderly or in poor health.
Don't drug anyone.
You might think you're being kind by giving your pet a tranq, but "I say no and Delta and American say no too," says Dr Hohenhaus. "A sedated animal can't respond to a stressful situation."
Eat a normal meal, at home.
The airlines have different rules about when the animal should have last been fed before boarding. Dr Hohenhaus says, "Don't feed the pet a whole day's food and then shove it in a crate. It's better to eat a normal meal at home ahead of time." Some airlines require that you affix food and water to the outside of the crate, along with a 24-hour feeding plan in the event of unexpected delays. Again, check the airline web site.
Microchip and zip ties.
"United is in the news right now, but every year pets get lost or escape their carriers [on all airlines]," Dr Hohenhaus notes. Make sure the animal can be returned to you by having it microchipped (for international travel, the requirement is a 15-digit microchip) and reinforcing the door and corners of the carrier with zip ties.
Put a spare leash and collar in your carry-on.
"If you somehow lose the the leash [that's stashed in the carrier] or the animal slips its collar, you're in trouble when you get to the destination and it needs to tinkle." Redundancy is key here.
Put absorbent bedding in the crate.
"If the dog has an accident, the carrier will be a lake," notes Dr Hohenhaus, who says she's seen some pet owners line the crates with absorbent shredded material like one finds in gerbil cages.
But really, the moral of the story here is start early and read every bit of information on the airline's site - and check out the Department of Environment and Energy's site too. If you're calm on travel day, your pet have a better shot at staying calm too.