The mysterious death of a giant rabbit on a United Airlines flight has highlighted the potential dangers of traveling with pets.
Simon, a 3-foot-long Continental Giant Rabbit, had been bought from his British breeder by a group of investors who had hoped to enter him into a “world’s largest rabbit” contest at the Iowa State Fair.
But Simon didn’t survive to receive the honor, as he died during the trip after the London-to-Chicago flight in April. Lawyers for Simon’s new owners allege Simon was somehow placed in a freezer for 16 hours, then his body cremated without the owners’ consent in a bid to destroy the evidence surrounding his death. United has disputed that version of events, however, and the case is making its way through the court system.
It’s the latest in a spate of bad news for United and the airline industry in general. United is still reeling from the backlash after a man was forcibly removed from his seat after refusing to give up the seat for an airline employee and for the now-infamous “leggings” incident. Hardly a day goes by without some new scandal affecting not only United, but other airlines as well.
While we may never know the exact chain of events that led to Simon’s death, it does highlight the risk people take when flying their pets. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, of the more than 2 million pets transported in the U.S. on planes each year since 2005, airlines have reported more than 300 incidents of pets dying in cargo holds. Many more animals are injured or lost during travel, as well.
The DOT requires all airlines to provide a pressurized cargo hold for transporting animals, but some airlines won’t transport pets in the cargo hold. Often, holds are subject to extremes of temperature, noise and stressful situations. The DOT’s website publishes monthly reports of animal-related incidents at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-consumer-reports.
The cause of the animal’s death (if known) is listed on the reports. In many cases, baggage handlers found the animals “unresponsive” after a flight, but it’s difficult to say whether the deaths had anything to do with the conditions in the cargo hold or some other factor. In some cases, animals escaped their carriers and were hit by baggage “tugs” or other vehicles on the busy tarmac, or in other cases, were attacked by other animals or died of causes unrelated to the trip (such as heart disease or stroke).
Short-nosed dogs were particularly susceptible to deaths on planes, accounting for more than half. Dogs such as bulldogs, boxers and pugs can have particular respiratory problems, which can be worsened in a tight cargo hold with little ventilation. The American Veterinary Medical Assocation has a page on its website with advice on this issue at https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Short-nosed-Dogs-and-Air-Travel-FAQs.aspx.
If you plan to travel with your pet, it’s a good idea to check with your veterinarian. He or she can help answer questions about travel and may be able to help with ways to make travel less stressful for your pet. In addition, the DOT has some additional tips on its website at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/plane-talk-traveling-animals:
- Before traveling, accustom your pet to the kennel in which it will be shipped. Make sure the door latches securely.
- Don’t give your pet solid food in the six hours prior to the flight, although a moderate amount of water and a walk before and after the flight are advised.
- Don’t administer sedation to your pet without the approval of a veterinarian and provide a test dose before the trip to gauge how the pet will react.
- Be sure to reserve a space for your pet in advance and inquire about time and location for drop-off and pick-up.
- Try to schedule a non-stop flight; avoid connections and the heavy traffic of a holiday or weekend flight.
- When you board, try to tell a pilot and a flight attendant that there is a pet in the cargo hold. The airlines have a system for providing such notification, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it yourself.
- For overseas travel (including Hawaii), inquire about any special health requirements such as quarantine.
- Write your name, address and phone number on the kennel, and make sure your pet is wearing a tag with the same information. Consider purchasing a temporary tag showing your destination address and phone number. Bring a photo of your pet, in case it is lost.