In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation released statistics that showed short-nosed breeds of dogs—such as pugs, Boston Terriers, boxers, some mastiffs, Pekingese, Lhasa Apsos, Shih tzus and bulldogs—are more likely to die on airplanes than dogs with normal-length muzzles. In fact, over the last 5 years, approximately one-half of the 122 dog deaths associated with airline flights involved these short-faced breeds. 25 of the 122 dogs that died over the 5-year period were English bulldogs, followed by 11 pugs, the only other breed in double digits. Although these numbers seem a bit scary, keep in mind that this is a very small number when compared to the hundreds of thousands of animals that fly every year.
Q: Why are these dog breeds more prone to respiratory problems?
A: Veterinarians have long known that short-nosed – the technical term is brachycephalic – dog breeds are more prone to respiratory problems under normal circumstances, and not just during air travel. You see, brachycephalic breeds are prone to respiratory problems because, although they have shortened noses, they still have to pack all of the same anatomical structures in there that dogs with longer snouts do. Just because their snouts are shorter doesn't mean they're missing any parts – they still have to pack nasal passages, sinuses, and a hard palate into that small area. It's sort of like moving from a house to an apartment and having to put the same amount of furniture in the apartment – it's all there, but it can be a bit cramped. The situation is worsened if the dog is overweight or obese.
Q: What kinds of respiratory problems can these dog breeds have?
A: As a result of the tighter space, they are prone to problems such as smaller-than-normal nostrils, a longer-than-normal soft palate, and a narrowed trachea (or windpipe). Because of these abnormalities, they don't breathe as efficiently as dogs with normal-length snouts and can have difficulty cooling off when they're playing or exercising, or if they're stressed or overheated. And when they're stressed, their airway can actually collapse (either partially or completely) and cut off their airflow. It's like breathing through a straw – if you gently suck through the straw, there's no problem getting air. But when you really try to suck hard through the straw, similar to what these dogs may do when they're stressed, exercising or overheating, the straw collapses and you don't get air. This doesn't always cause death, but it can cut off their oxygen supply temporarily and cause the dogs to collapse or overheat.
Q: How do these problems put these dog breeds at higher risk during flights?
A: Because of their anatomical abnormalities, short-nosed breeds seem to be more vulnerable to changes in air quality and temperature in the cargo hold of a plane. Although pets are transported in pressurized cargo holds and get much the same air that the passengers in the cabin do, the air circulation might not be ideal for your pet's individual needs (and remember, your dog is in a crate that could also be affecting ventilation). In addition, remember that there isn't anyone in that hold area that can monitor your pet and provide help if needed – so if there's a problem, you won't know until the plane has landed and your pet has been unloaded.
Q: So, what's a pet owner to do? Should I never fly with a short-nosed pet?
A: We're not saying you should completely avoid air travel with your pet, even with a short-nosed pet. Knowing there are risks is half the battle, and with proper precautions, you can minimize the risks. If you know you're going to be traveling with your pet on an airplane, it really helps to prepare ahead of time.
Q: What can I do to reduce the risks of airline travel for my short-nosed pet?
A: There are many things you can do, including:
Q: What about short-nosed cat breeds? Are they also at risk?
A: Because they tend to be smaller, most cats travel in carriers in the passenger cabin with their owners, so there are less reported deaths in cats. However, there are short-faced cat breeds, and they may also be prone to more respiratory problems than cats with normal-length faces – so be cautious if your short-faced cat needs to travel in the cargo hold.
As always, talk to your veterinarian if you have ANY concerns about your pet's health.
Frequently Asked Questions about Traveling with Your PetTraveling with Your Pet (brochure)
U.S. Department of Transportation "Short-Faced" Dogs More Prone to Death in Flight, According to DOT Data (Press release, July 16, 2010)Deceased canines in transit, May 2005-2010 (data tables)