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Flying Pets in Cargo: Will My Pet be Safe?

Pets are beloved companions to millions of people around the world, and for many pet owners, traveling with their furry friends is a must. However, when it comes to air travel, many dog and cat owners are hesitant to put their pets in cargo. The thought of your furry friends being stowed away in the cargo hold of a plane may be a cause for concern and you may be questioning how safe cargo travel is. 

The answer is not a simple one, as there are a number of factors to consider when it comes to the safety of pets flying in cargo. Firstly, it’s important to understand the regulations and protocols surrounding pet air travel. In this article we will discuss these, talk you through the risks with pets flying in cargo, and provide some tips for stress-free travel. 

What are the regulations and protocols for pets flying in cargo?

1. The crate must meet The International Air Transport Association (IATA) standards.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) sets standards for the transportation of live animals by air, including pets. These standards are designed to ensure the welfare of animals during air travel and are followed by airlines worldwide.

According to IATA, dogs and cats must be transported in IATA-approved containers that meet specific size requirements based on the size and weight of the animal. The container must be well-ventilated, leak-proof, and secure, and your pet must be able to stand, turn around, and lie down comfortably.

Pets in cargo must travel in a rigid kennel. Soft-sided kennels are not permitted due to safety reasons. 

IATA - Traveler's Pet Corner

2. Your pet must be microchipped.

A microchip is a permanent method of electronic identification, administered by your vet. The chip is around the size of a grain of rice – and is implanted just under your pet’s skin between its shoulder blades. Each chip has a unique number that is detected using a microchip scanner.

3. You must have an endorsed veterinary health certificate.

Most airlines require a copy of your dog’s health certificate.

The certificate must be endorsed by the USDA or CFIA if your dog is traveling from the United States or Canada respectively. If your dog or cat is traveling from another country, the Governing Authority responsible for the import and export of animals should endorse your forms.

They are usually valid for 10 days. 

4. Cats and dogs will likely need to be vaccinated against rabies.

Not all airlines require a rabies vaccination certificate when flying with pets in cargo. However, some do. It’s also usually a requirement when traveling overseas. If the Rabies Vaccination Certificate is not included on your health certificate, you can obtain a copy from your veterinarian.

5. Your pet must be at least 8 weeks old.

In most cases your dog must be at least 8 weeks old and fully weaned to be accepted for travel in the cargo. This may vary slightly depending on the airline you fly with. 

6. Your pet must be an approved breed.

Many airlines have restrictions on which dog breeds are permitted to fly in cargo. Often, snub-nosed  and ‘aggressive’ breeds are not permitted. 

For example, American Airlines bans the following dogs in cargo: Affenpinscher, American Bully, American Staffordshire Terrier, Boston Terrier, Boxer (All breeds), Brussels Griffon, Bulldog (All breeds), Cane Corso, Chow Chow, Dogue De Bordeaux, English Toy Spaniel, Japanese Chin, Lhasa Apso, Mastiff (All breeds), Pekingese, Pit Bull, Presa Canario, Pug (All breeds), Shar Pei, Shih Tzu, Staffordshire Terrier, Tibetan Spaniel

They also ban the following cat breeds from traveling in cargo: Burmese, Exotic Shorthair, Himalayan and Persian cats. 

What are the risks when flying pets in cargo?

The U.S. Department of Transportation collected data on pet cargo travel in 2017. In 2017, 506,994 animals flew in cargo. Of this number, 24 animals died (a 0.005% probability), 15 animals were injured (0.003% probability), and 1 animal was lost (0.0002% probability).

Although the large majority of pets traveling via cargo arrive safely at their destination, it is important to understand the potential hazards with cargo travel.

One of the biggest concerns for dog owners is the potential for their pets to experience distress or harm during air travel. While incidents of injury or death during pet air travel are rare, they do occur, and it’s important for dog owners to understand the risks.

1. Stress. One risk factor is the stress of the travel experience itself. Your pet may experience anxiety and discomfort due to the noise, unfamiliar surroundings, and confinement of air travel.

2. Dehydration. Although airlines require pets to have ample food and water throughout their journey, there is still risk of dehydration, particularly if your pet is not used to drinking from their own water source. Before booking travel, it’s important to ensure your pet is used to his or her kennel and knows how to drink from the kennel’s bowl or water bottle.

3. Heatstroke. In order to ensure your cat or dog is not overheated (or too cold), select an airline that enforces seasonal restrictions and temperature-related rules for pet cargo travel. American Airlines will not transport dogs when ground temperatures are higher than 85 degrees Fahrenheit or less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This applies to origin, connection, and destination cities.

4. Heart failure. Senior cats and dogs, those prone to anxiety, or those in general poor health are at increased risk of heart failure during travel. Please consult your vet before travel to ensure your pet is in good health.

5. Other injury. Although unlikely, there have been past incidents where pets were injured after escaping their kennel. Other pets were injured after objects fell on their kennel. There have also been cases of dogs and cats injuring their teeth, gums and nails while trying to escape. This is why it’s important to crate train your pet, as mentioned above.

Any avoidable death or injury is absolutely unacceptable. With that said, assuming your dog or cat is in very good health (as confirmed by your licensed vet) and assuming you properly prepare your pet for cargo travel (i.e. ensure he or she knows how to eat and drink from the kennel’s bowls), cargo travel should be a safe travel option for your four-legged family.

Tips for flying pets in cargo.

1. Ensure your cat or dog is in good health.

To minimize the risk of harm to cats or dogs during air travel, it’s important for pet owners to take certain precautions. For example, they should be in good health and have up-to-date vaccinations before traveling.

Given the level of stress cargo travel places on pets, most airlines require an up-to-date health certificate from a licensed veterinarian to confirm your pet is in good health. Additionally, as mentioned above, many airlines also prohibit brachycephalic dogs and cats from flying in cargo. 

2. Select a reputable airline.

It’s important for pet owners to choose reputable airlines that have experience transporting pets. Some airlines have specialized programs for pet air travel that prioritize the safety and well-being of animals.

Before booking a flight for a pet, it’s a good idea to research the airline’s policies and procedures for pet travel. This can help owners make an informed decision about whether air travel is the best option for their pet and what steps they can take to ensure their safety and comfort during the flight.

3. Fly direct whenever possible.

Flight transfers may create a lot of potential problems for your pet. A transfer means more time in the cargo hold and more variation in the climate. For example, you may take off from a cold climate and land in a hot climate, causing stress for your pet.

Not to mention that a pet carrier can get misplaced just like a piece of luggage, meaning there’s a possibility that your pet may miss the connecting flight.

4. Crate train your pet.

A flight is a highly stressful situation for any animal, and this will be far worse if your dog or cat already associates their crate as a scary place. It’s a good idea to start crate training well in advance. The aim is to spend time to make them feel like the crate is a safe and comfortable space. This will help keep them calm during this stressful situation. 

Start off by letting your pet explore the crate on its own, without forcing it in. Use plenty of treats. It’s important not to immediately close the door as soon as they walk in, as this will cause it stress. Instead, take your time and allow your furry friend to spend time in there with the door opening, before closing it. This may take some time!

5. Trim your dog’s nails.

As mentioned earlier, some pets injure themselves during plane travel while attempting to get out of their carrier. This is another reason to properly train your dog and to make sure your dog’s nails are trim. Freshly trimmed nails will be less likely to get caught on the crate if your pet tries to scratch their way out.

6. Consider using natural relaxers.

At the recommendation of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), many airlines will not accept household cats and dogs that have been sedated or tranquilized. This is because pets that have been given sedatives or tranquilizers are at a higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems at high altitudes.

Some veterinarians recommend herbal stress relievers, like lavender and chamomile, to ease your dog’s anxiety. Please make sure to ask your veterinarian if using these natural alternatives is safe for your pet.

7. Ensure your pet’s crate is comfortable.

For extra comfort, pack your dog or cat’s favourite blanket and toy. 

So pets get food and water in cargo?

Yes, you are permitted to provide food and water for your pet in cargo. However, pet cargo policies differ between airlines.

The USDA also requires that you give your pet food and water within 4 hours of check-in, but not within 4 hours of the actual flight. Most airlines will provide water to your pet during the flight, while others require that you provide food and water in the carrier or attached to it. In either case, we recommend that you ask your chosen airline about their specific services and requirements.

For water, we recommend using a clip-on bottle as opposed to bowls. With water bottles, there is less chance of spillage and therefore dehydration. It’s best to attach the water bottle to the outside of the container for pets so they can’t knock it off or chew on it. Just be sure to check with your airline about their specific requirements and whether they’ll allow a bottle attached to the outside of their crate. Of course, take some time to ensure your pet knows how to drink from the water bottle.

Pet owners are usually required to provide enough food for at least 24 hours just in case your flight is delayed, cancelled, rerouted, etc. 

What is the temperature in the pet cargo hold?

When flying in cargo, pets will travel in a climate-controlled, pressurized compartment below the aircraft cabin and kept separate from luggage and other cargo. Although they will usually be on the same flight as you, airlines may reserve the right to ship your pet via a different flight or route.

Reputable airlines also enforce seasonal restrictions and temperature-related rules. For instance, American Airlines will not transport animals when ground temperatures are higher than 85ºF or less than 20ºF. This applies to origin, connection, and destination cities. Although the cargo area is climate-controlled, your pet may need wait outside the aircraft before being boarded. 

Where will pets go toilet in cargo?

Pets are not permitted to leave their crates during flights. Most airlines require that you line the base of your pet’s travel carrier with absorbent material, i.e. pet-friendly potty pads.

Can two pets fly together in the cargo?

Many airlines will allow customers to send up to two dogs or cats in the same kennel in cargo. This is as long as you follow these conditions:

  • Only fully weaned puppies or kittens from 12 weeks to 6 months can be placed together in the same kennel.
  • Both animals must be of the same species.
  • Two pets travelling in one kennel are counted as two pets regardless of combined weight.

When traveling with two pets, you will need to contact your airline in advance. Usually, no more than 30 days or less than 7 days prior to your anticipated travel date.

In conclusion, the safety of pets flying in cargo depends on a variety of factors. These include the regulations set by organizations like IATA, the specific airline’s policies, and precautions taken by pet owners. While there are risks associated with pet cargo travel, many pets are able to fly safely with the proper preparation. It’s up to each individual pet owner to ensure their pet is fit and well prepared for travel.

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