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Think Twice Before You Check Your Pet

I know lots of travelers who like to have their pet dog or cat with them, even on vacations, and dog-show entrants sometimes need to move their animals quickly. But a recent report exposes the danger in shipping a pet by air: It claims that animal deaths are a lot more frequent than government records indicate.

A story posted on the NBC Bay Area website claims that more than 300 animals have died, have been injured, or have been lost by airlines over a period of six years. Moreover, says the story, the government figures apply to pet misfortunes only when the pet is shipped as checked baggage by an owner who is on the flight: If not, the animal counts as ordinary cargo and misfortunes are not counted.

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As far as I can tell, the serious problems arise with animals shipped as checked baggage or cargo. If your pet is small enough to fit under an airline seat, you can likely take it into the cabin as carry-on baggage. (There are some breed exceptions to this.) But that doesn't work well with a 100-pound Labrador, for example, or even a 40-pound standard poodle.

Both small airlines specializing in secure pet transportation—Companion Air and Pet Airways—seem to have disappeared. That leaves you with just the regular airlines, or with ground shipment. For more information about pet shipment, check PetTravel and Pet Express.

Overall, I've observed lots of dog shipments—I even picked up a friend's pooch at an airport—and it seems obvious that air shipment is, at best, extremely traumatic to a dog. And I've seen dogs get loose on the tarmac or in the cargo area. I firmly believe that airlines sincerely try to do their best with pet shipments. But their best may just not be good enough. My suggestion: Don't ship a pet in an air cargo/baggage hold unless you have no other viable alternative. Boarding during a vacation is better than risking death or loss just to have the animal with you for an extra week or so. 

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