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Travel With Pets : Tips Before the Fur Really Flies

October 16, 1994|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

In the recent saga of Tabitha the cat, who disappeared in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet for 12 days after a transcontinental flight, pet owners could well understand the anguish of Tabitha's mistress. Lost luggage is a recognized hazard of air travel, but a missing pet can be a tragedy. Fortunately, Tabitha turned up safe.

The incident could give dog and cat owners reason to doubt the ability of the nation's airlines to transport their pets safely. But tens of thousands of animals--show dogs and cats, zoo-bound creatures and pets--fly annually as cargo without harm, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. American Airlines alone reports it carries 100,000 animals a year. Among all U.S. carriers, injury or death involving animals flying as cargo is very low. Nonetheless, there are risks.

"In the past 10 years, there's been a drastic improvement in the way animals are being shipped," said Kathi Travers, the society's director of exotic animals and animal transportation. Currently, she is providing animal-care training for cargo crews of two major airlines. "My dogs fly all the time," adds Priscilla Benkin, a spokeswoman for the American Dog Owners Assn., many of whose members, like Benkin, raise show dogs. Her organization also has pushed for improvement in animal transportation procedures.

But both organizations, as well as the Humane Society of the United States, urge pet owners to ship their animals by air only when necessary. "If you don't absolutely have to do it, don't," said Humane Society spokeswoman Rachel Pancik. Shipping a pet is reasonable when you are moving permanently to another location or will be away for several weeks or months, the three groups agree. But a pet is better off at home with a pet-sitter or in a good kennel when you are taking a short vacation.

"Flying is the most stressful thing for animals," Travers said.

But the effects of stress aren't the only reason to think seriously before sending your pet into the belly of a jet. Lots of things can--and sometimes do--go wrong if you have not properly prepared your pet or if an airline makes a mistake. TWA recently was fined $60,000 after 51 puppies in a shipment of 100 destined for pet shops died a year ago in a closed cargo hold. The plane was delayed on the runway for 90 minutes in 100-degree summer heat, according to Stephen Smith of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture, the agency regulating animal shipments.

Smith and the animal welfare groups note that the cargo holds of many types of jet aircraft are poorly ventilated while the planes are on the ground. Normally, this is not a cause for undue concern, but when flight delays occur during hot weather, the animals inside may suffocate. Rachel Lamb, another spokeswoman for the Humane Society, advises pet owners to let the pilot know when they have a pet traveling in the cargo hold. Sometimes the pilots are not aware they are carrying animals, she said, a lapse in communication her organization is trying to remedy by pushing for legislation to require such pilot notification.

Unlike older planes, such as 727s and 737s, "newer model aircraft . . . have a system that forces air through the compartments, which helps keep them cool in the summer months while the aircraft are on the ground," says the Air Transport Assn. of America, an organization of major U.S. airlines, in a brochure "Air Travel for Your Dog or Cat."

At least two things went wrong when Tabitha got loose in the cargo hold of a Boeing 747 operated by Tower Air, a small New York-based carrier. Benkin contends the carrier in which the cat traveled--a container Benkin is familiar with and recognized from TV news coverage--was outmoded and inadequate. Doors often pop open on poor-quality containers, she said, and the animals escape. At the same time, Tower Air should never have accepted Tabitha for transport, since the carrier is not registered with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as required by the federal Animal Welfare Act, Smith said.

At present, the federal government does not collect statistics on animal deaths, injuries or disappearances while being transported by air, but Smith said his agency is looking into the possibility of doing so.

Another reason to leave your pet at home is that shipping animals is a complex procedure that can require weeks of advance planning. Among the difficulties:

Shipping a pet is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Animal welfare groups and pet experts strongly advise giving a pet that is flying for the first time a chance to become acquainted with the carrier in which it will be transported. At some point, the pet should be placed inside the container and taken on a car ride so it becomes accustomed to motion. Some animals are susceptible to motion sickness and should not fly.

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