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Think Twice Before Flying Your Pet In Cargo

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By Vjosa Isai

The festive transformation of storefront windows and winter drink menus are already in motion, signalling this year's holiday season is upon us once again. While it may be too soon for Christmas shopping, anyone thinking of a holiday getaway would benefit from an early start to planning, especially if you're bringing along a furry friend.

Airlines have pet policies in place to designate which animals are permitted in the cabin versus cargo hold, a vital consideration for pet owners. These guidelines are often based on the pet's weight, age, carrier size, and whether the flight is international or domestic.

Breed is also a major consideration. Some airlines, including WestJet, recommend that travellers with snub-nose (or brachycephalic) pets consult with a veterinarian before flying. According to WestJet's pet policies, "These types of pets suffer from respiratory problems that increase with stress and heat, and may not be suitable for travel in checked baggage."

Unfortunately, the whole experience of travelling with your pet can be rendered much more stressful with airlines that don't allow pets in the cabin (British Airways, Emirates, Air Asia, Air New Zealand, or Qantas to name a few, although some make exceptions for service animals). This restriction can force a pet owner's hand at making a decision that may leave them ill-at-ease during the flight, knowing their pet is in a pressurized and cooler-temperature part of the plane, with no access to them for the duration of the flight.

But is this fear warranted?

"Travelling in cargo isn't necessarily unsafe," said Get Leashed Magazine's veterinarian-in-residence, Dr. Sheldon. "If it's a onetime thing, and you're flying internationally and this is the only way, flying your pet in cargo is most likely going to be safe."

However, Dr. Sheldon strongly suggests avoiding having your pet in the cargo hold for for more frequent trips, saying it could increase health risks to your pet.

"If it's constant type of travel, I would never suggest you bringing your pet back and forth in cargo. You're increasing the risk and your pet would be much better off left in someone's care instead."

Echoing WestJet's recommendation on snub-nose breeds, Dr. Sheldon said dogs like pugs and bulldogs are not suited for the cargo hold due to breathing problems. Stress caused by noises, the cool temperature, and confined space in cargo can aggravate respiratory and cardiac issues, he said.

Other breeds without the "pushed-in" facial appearance, including poodles and Yorkies who have a tracheal collapse, can also be negatively affected by travelling in cargo.

"If the pet has a breathing problem, or an underlying condition you are unaware of, you could end up with a deceased pet on arrival," Dr. Sheldon said.

This frightening reality has pushed airlines like Delta to change their pet policies.

Delta Airlines banned all pets from travelling in its cargo hold as of March 1, 2016, after a total of 74 pet deaths were reported between May 2005 and September 2015.

According to MarketWatch, Delta banned snub-nosed dogs and cats from being checked in with baggage in 2011 due to respiratory issues. However, even after this initial ban, the airline experienced another 24 deaths leading up to the ban on all pets in cargo.

Another 14 animals went missing during this 10-year period.

"If an airline can lose luggage, they can lose your pet," Dr. Sheldon said. And as with any type of travel, delays can cause stressful situations for both pet and owner.

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Elizabeth Taylor & Chance always fly in cabin

"Operations do not always run smoothly; you're sometimes delayed waiting for hours on board and you may not know what's going on. That situation alone is concerning."

If you're anything like me, the very thought of a beloved pet under my care being just beyond reach when they might need me most is enough for me to call a no-go to cargo hold travelling.

I can't control when the flight will land, how long it will stay on the tarmac, or who will handle my pet. I can't be there to comfort them during turbulence, or make sure they don't go missing in between flights. While it may not be high-risk to every animal's health, there are too many factors that I would rather find an alternative for in order to avoid a potentially stressful trip for myself and my animal.

But as much as I would rather avoid it, there could be a time when my pet has to travel in cargo. And the best person to go to if you're experiencing travel anxiety for your pet is your veterinarian.

Dr. Sheldon recommends seeing a vet before travelling to make sure your pet receives a clean bill of health. 

The holidays see some of the busiest travel days of the year with the heaviest luggage. So be sure to get started early on planning your pets travel itinerary or holiday accommodations.

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