Navigating the pitfalls of pet air travel

AVMA, airlines working to improve the process for owners, veterinarians when it comes to animals flying
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When pet owners want to fly with their animals, veterinarians are asked to sign off on the animal's fitness to fly, rather than its health status. But airlines' requirements can change suddenly and can differ depending on the carrier, making it hard to keep up with what documentation is required and when.

The AVMA is working with U.S. airlines, including United, American, Delta, and Southwest, to look at adopting a transport policy that taps into the expertise of veterinarians and to evaluate plane rides from an animal's perspective, including the unique stresses an animal faces when flying. Together, the AVMA and the airlines are hoping to ensure the best possible experience and outcomes for animals, their owners, other passengers, and the airlines. In the meantime, veterinarians would do well to better educate themselves about pet air travel, so they can give their clients the best information possible.

Cleared for takeoff

Air transportation systems were not specifically designed for the carriage of animals. Yet, over 2 million pets and other live animals are transported by air every year in the United States, according to the Department of Transportation. Only in very rare instances do animals not make it to their destination safely and instead are lost or injured or die (see charts).

Pets can travel on commercial airlines in three ways: in the cabin, as checked baggage, and as manifest cargo.

Virtually all U.S. airlines accept pets as manifest cargo except for Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, and smaller commuter airlines that do not have the facilities for them.

There are so many different obstacles for someone trying to transport their pet that the everyday veterinarian may not be completely up to date on things. That's where things can fall apart. People go to take the animal, and they (the airlines) say you don't have this document, so they come to our door crying, and they've either missed their flight or left the dog behind.

Elizabeth Schuette, managing director, The Ark at JFK

Leashed dog in front of Ark Pet Oasis in NYC
The Ark Pet Oasis at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City is one of the first facilities of its kind in North America. It works with airlines, pet shippers, and pet owners 24/7 to help in-transit companion animals receive rest and care on arrival, at departure, and during layovers between domestic and international flights. (Courtesy of The Ark at JFK)

Although cargo aircraft typically are large enough and have adequate environmental control systems in place, the belly holds of passenger airliners can sometimes present a challenging environment for animals. That said, most planes have special compartments in the belly of the plane for live animals where the temperature and pressure are the same as in the cabin.

Rapid acceleration and quick stopping, the sensation of lift, and pressure changes can create stresses on animals during transit. Plus, there are additional challenges: the requirement that animals be checked in as live cargo as long as four to six hours before a flight, movement to and from the aircraft, transfer between flights, and delivery at the ultimate destination.

Most airlines have special handling crews that only deal with animals. They meet the plane to make sure there is minimal time sitting on the tarmac and in the holding area. How the animal is handled depends on the circumstance of where the animal is going to or coming from and whether any unexpected conditions (eg, weather delays) might have changed the itinerary. For example, most cargo facilities have a temperature-controlled area for holding animals in their travel crates before and after a flight. But, if animals have to be held for several hours, there might be a special area in a warehouse where they can be kept until someone picks them up or they are shipped again.

What could go wrong?

Elizabeth Schuette is managing director of The Ark at JFK. The facility provides medical, quarantine, and general care services for animals coming into or out of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City as well as boarding services for animals whose owners travel without them. Airline passengers who don't want their pet to stay in a crate for extended periods of time before, after, or between flights can also bring their pets to The Ark.

On any given day, employees work with passengers, cargo operators, government agencies, airline executives, and the public on issues such as equipment malfunctions or stranded pets.

Different-sized animal crates at The Ark
Some airlines have started to ban certain crates, particularly larger ones, because animals have been ingesting pieces of crates or breaking out of them. As of March 1, Delta Cargo would not accept any crates taller than 24 inches, for example. (Courtesy of The Ark at JFK)

In fact, Schuette has seen a fair number of people who have checked in an animal, even on an international flight, thinking the animal will get transferred to their next flight, only to find that the airline says a crate of that size can't fit on the plane or the airline doesn't have temperature control on that type of plane. When this happens, the owner often isn't aware until it's too late.

We (veterinarian, owner, and airline) all want the same thing—an animal that arrives at its destination in good shape. Sometimes, as difficult as it may be to tell a client no, the veterinarian is going to need to refuse to sign a health certificate. Doing otherwise has potential consequences for the animal and may also create liability concerns for the veterinarian.

Dr. Gail Golab, AVMA chief veterinary officer

"So, the airlines, they are not the bad guys, they are not trying to harm your pet, just the opposite. They're trying to limit their potential liability associated with a missed connection or delay," Schuette said. "At least at JFK, they can send the animal here, and we'll take care of the animal. So, if an animal can't make a connecting flight or there's a delay in arrival, they will call us, usually at their own expense, and we'll take care of the animal and interact with the owner, if possible, and will get the pet on the next available flight, but most people freak out when they get there (to their destination) and their pet is not there."

Another common source of frustration for owners trying to fly with their pets is not being aware of the documentation they need beforehand or the restrictions in place on what kind of animals can and can't fly, to which destinations, and when.

For example, on June 18, 2018, United Airlines implemented several new policies and customer requirements following a comprehensive review of its PetSafe program. PetSafe is the country's largest program for pets that travel in the cargo compartment and was developed in partnership with American Humane; it moved over 130,000 pets in 2017. The changes included no longer accepting reservations for four cat breeds and over 25 pit bull–type breeds, including Pit Bull Terriers and Pugs—essentially anything considered strong-jawed or snub-nosed. Also, United said it would transport only cats and dogs, no other pets or animals; would not accept crates taller than 30 inches, thus ruling out many larger dog breeds; and would not sell or provide crates at airport facilities anymore.

More recently, American Airlines has said that when veterinarians fill out a certificate of veterinary inspection, "If the words 'mix' or 'mixed' are used to describe the pet, then the predominant breed must be referenced."

Schuette said The Ark recently saw a dog rejected by an airline because the veterinarian had written "Lab mix." The cargo agent hadn't been trained and told the customer that "Lab mix" wasn't a breed. Eventually, the dog was allowed to fly.

"There are so many different obstacles for someone trying to transport their pet that the everyday veterinarian may not be completely up to date on things," Schuette said. "That's where things can fall apart. People go to take the animal, and they (the airlines) say you don't have this document, so they come to our door crying, and they've either missed their flight or left the dog behind."

She continued, "The other extreme is they (the owners) decide to check a pet as excess baggage, and the attendant or baggage person doesn't realize they need to check for XYZ, and the animal has all these problems. So, when the person picks up the animal, it has injured itself by trying to escape the kennel or other things that can go wrong."

Schuette especially sympathizes with veterinarians dealing with owners who think it's a good idea to take an animal that's largely homebound, putting it in a crate for the first time. Overall, she says, more needs to be done to improve pet travel, not only from the perspective of animal welfare and public outreach to help everyone understand the process better, but also from a security perspective.

Coming to consensus

Improving the process for pets traveling by air is what the AVMA and the major airlines are working on. The Association first became involved with the airlines after United issued a form in 2018 for emotional support animals flying with passengers who asked veterinarians to vouch for the health, behavior, training, and need for these animals. Other airlines soon followed suit. The AVMA, along with the AVMA PLIT, reached out to United and worked with the airline on revisions to ensure that veterinarians were asked to evaluate only what was appropriate for their role.

"We figured out quickly that the best way to ensure a good process with good results was to identify what expertise was needed from whom and then to get everyone on the same page with understanding their responsibilities," said Dr. Gail Golab, chief veterinary officer for the AVMA.

Then, the AVMA hosted a roundtable last October with five major airlines; the airlines' trade association, Airlines for America; and the Department of Transportation. The meeting's purpose was to improve assessments of animals' readiness for transport both above and below the wing. From that came two working groups—one addressing appropriate and uniform documentation and the other addressing continuing education.

Elizabeth Schuette
Elizabeth Schuette, managing director of The Ark at JFK, said owners often don't know about all of the restrictions in place on what kind of animals can and can't fly, to which destinations, and when. (Courtesy of The Ark at JFK)

The former is working to integrate airlines' desires for additional documentation with existing elements of certificates of veterinary inspection. Drs. Linda Ellis, director of Trust veterinarians for the AVMA PLIT, and Warren Hess, an assistant director of the AVMA Division of Animal and Public Health, are leading the group, which is working in concert with airline representatives, the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials, and members of the United States Animal Health Association and American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians' Joint Committee on Animal Health Surveillance and Information.

CVIs were originally designed to facilitate transportation of livestock. As a result, some of the information airlines need when flying dogs and cats, such as mode of transportation, detailed information on animal type, and detailed identifying marks, wasn't part of the original design. Another concern is that the form should only contain statements that a veterinarian would be willing to attest to. Unsurprisingly, a major sticking point has been developing a form that will cover brachycephalic dog and cats. Brachycephalism has been identified by the airlines, on the basis of physical examination findings and necropsy data, as a risk factor for development of respiratory issues during transport.

Dog in holding cage
Pets can travel on a commercial airline in three ways: in the cabin, as checked baggage, and as manifest cargo. Typically, fully trained service or emotional support animals may fly in the cabin at no charge if they meet the requirements. The Department of Transportation is looking to update the Air Carrier Access Act, which regulates the transportation of service and emotional support animals, but any proposed changes have yet to be released. (Photo by Malinda Larkin)

"From their (the airlines') perspective, they need their staff to have clear direction and straightforward, defensible decision-making. The easiest way, in their view, to do that is have a definitive list of breeds. Unfortunately, whether or not a dog or cat is of a particular breed doesn't always correlate with respiratory health," Dr. Hess said.

Instead, the AVMA is advocating for a statement—attested to by a veterinarian—that indicates whether the animal exhibited any evidence of breathing problems during a pre-travel examination.

The hope is to have agreement on the contents of a standard assessment document by late summer or early fall.

A long-term goal is for the airlines to use electronic CVIs, which are more secure and would allow veterinarians to write a certificate with all required statements and send it immediately to the airline and to the office of the state veterinarian in both the sending and receiving states. However, that would require the airlines' computer systems to work with veterinary eCVI software to facilitate data exchange.

Initially, airlines were leery about the concept of eCVIs, Dr. Hess said, yet they were accepting a form—APHIS 7001—that could be downloaded by anyone, mostly because that is what they had been accustomed to.

"The solution is a secure, well-thought-through process that provides the needed information to properly evaluate the health of the animal, combined with education about the transport process and what might affect animals going through it, so those filling out the forms understand what they are being asked and why," he said.

An ounce of prevention

That's why the goal for the second working group is to encourage collaborative education that helps veterinarians and airline personnel do a better job evaluating animals for transport, handling them during the trip, and communicating with their owners.

"Veterinarians can help ensure animals arrive safely by first obtaining more information about what is happening to them on the plane, in any holding areas, and during transport between the two," Dr. Golab said. They also should conduct a deliberate physical examination that considers what that animal will be experiencing and seeks to identify risk factors that could make it less able to cope with the stressors of a trip. Finally, she said, practitioners should be straightforward in sharing information about any identified risks with the owner.

"We (veterinarian, owner, and airline) all want the same thing—an animal that arrives at its destination in good shape. Sometimes, as difficult as it may be to tell a client no, the veterinarian is going to need to refuse to sign a health certificate. Doing otherwise has potential consequences for the animal and may also create liability concerns for the veterinarian," said Dr. Golab, who is coordinating the group.

Ambient temperature, typically while the pet is on the tarmac waiting to be loaded or unloaded, is one area that's often misunderstood.

Veterinarians have sometimes been told that an airline won't ship an animal unless they sign an acclimation statement. At the same time, some practitioners aren't familiar with the purpose of these statements, and owners don't understand that many dogs shouldn't fly in certain conditions, Dr. Hess said.

Incidents With Pets Flying in Cargo on Major U.S. Airlines, 2015-18 - Source: Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Reports

Acclimation statements pertain to the shipment of dogs and cats when the airline cannot guarantee compliance with Animal Welfare Act regulations—specifically, compliance with the minimum temperature allowed by the regulations, which is 45 degrees F.

Further, ensuring an animal traveling in cargo is familiar with being in a crate for an extended period—and is in the right crate—before the trip is crucial. If not, it's not uncommon for dogs to become stressed and damage crates that aren't structured to hold them correctly, Dr. Golab said.

The result can be broken teeth or other oral injuries, broken nails and bleeding toes and pads, gastrointestinal issues if the animal ingests crate material, suffocation or impalements if the animal gets caught up in the broken crate, or an escape if the damage to the crate is sufficiently severe, she said.

Deadlines are another critical area for practitioners to understand when it comes to transporting animals. Many states have a 30-day window, starting from the date of the examination of the animal, within which travel needs to be completed for the CVI to be valid. Animals whose transport is covered under the AWA must be examined within 10 days of travel. To simplify things, some airlines have decided to create policies that uniformly adopt the 10-day window.

The kickoff for the educational effort will take place during AVMA Convention 2019 this August in Washington, D.C., (see sidebar) with additional opportunities offered via AVMA Axon, the Association's new online CE platform, and in-person veterinary meetings.

Dr. Golab said, overall, the conversations happening among the stakeholders have been enlightening for all.

"This is an opportunity to not only help airlines out but to better connect the pieces of the veterinary profession thinking about the health of animals and how they are moving around," she said.

AVMA Convention 2019 this August in Washington, D.C., will feature a handful of continuing education sessions dedicated to educating the veterinary team about the process of animal transportation and how to work with clients who are traveling with their pets. They are as follows:

  • "What in the World?!: International Movement of Live Animals, Including Pets;" 9-9:50 a.m. Friday, Aug. 2; Dr. Shanna Siegel.
  • "USDA's Veterinary Export Health Certification System (VEHCS): Online Generation and Submission of International Health Certificates;" 10-10:50 a.m. Friday, Aug. 2; Drs. Jayme Hennenfent, Shanna Siegel, and Courtney Williams.
  • "International Movement of Live Animals: Health Certificate Completion," 11-11:50 a.m. Friday, Aug. 2; Dr. Mary Kate Anderson.
  • "Flying Peacocks: Understanding and Supporting the Appropriate Use of Service and Emotional Support Animals;" 3-3:50 p.m. Friday, Aug. 2; Dr. Gail Golab.
  • "Companion Animal Transport by Air, Above and Below the Wing;" 1-1:50 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5; Gina Emrich, Sue Kazlaw-Nelson, and Dallas Thomas.
  • "Plane Ride! from the Animal's Perspective;" 2-2:50 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5; Drs. Nelva Bryant and Shannon Stewart.
  • "Are You Sure That Pet is Ready to Fly?—CVIs and Acclimation Certificates;" 3-3:50 p.m., Monday Aug. 5; Drs. Warren Hess and Linda Ellis.

The AVMA has resources for pet owners traveling with their pets available at the AVMA website.

Related JAVMA content:

Tips for advising owners about to fly with pets (July 1, 2019)

States shift from travel health form with no one clear alternative (June 1, 2019)

Pet travel website updated for pet owners, veterinarians (March 15, 2019)

AVMA, United reach agreement on form for assistance animals (May 1, 2018)

Now available: model certificate for domestic travel of pets (Jan. 15, 2010)

USDA proposes end to acclimation certificates (Feb. 1, 2008)

Board revises acclimation certificates, other forms (May 15, 2006)