In August, a 5-year-old golden retriever named Cleo was found dead in her kennel upon arrival at Newark-Liberty International Airport after a flight from Seattle, according to a report filed by United Airlines.
The dog died of injuries from chewing on her crate, according to the report, submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her cause of death was listed as “natural, resulting from the self-inflicted behavior.”
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Cleo is one of 29 dogs, cats and other animals who died on commercial flights in the first 10 months of this year, according to the most recent data from the DOT, which tracks reports of animal deaths, losses and injuries aboard planes.
That total compares with 17 deaths reported in all of 2014. Except for this year, pet deaths had dropped annually since a record 39 fatalities were reported in 2010.
The spike comes as the DOT has changed its reporting rules to include more animals, but still represents a small fraction of the 2 million pets the department estimates are transported on commercial flights each year.
Those rules went into effect Jan. 1 and require airlines to report incidents involving all cats and dogs, and not just household pets, that travel by air. Animal activist groups, led in their charge by the Animal League Defense Fund, pressured the DOT to change its reporting rules.
“Previously they only required reporting lost, injured or dead animals that were traveling with a human owner, and the DOT extended that to cover all cats and dogs,” said Chris Berry, an Animal League Defense Fund attorney, adding dogs bred for biomedical research or shipped by breeders are now included in the reports.
Cases like Cleo’s, where nervous and stressed pets hurt themselves, sometimes fatally, while trying to escape their crates are the most common in DOT data.
From 2005, when animal air death reports were first compiled, to the end of October, 301 pets and other animals died on commercial airplanes, according to the DOT data.
While a small proportion of the total number that fly, it’s extremely traumatic for passengers who learn upon landing that their beloved animals died while they were in the air.
“The problem fundamentally is there may be a couple extra bells and whistles, but for the most part dogs and cats are treated like baggage,” Berry said. “They fly with the baggage, they’re handled like baggage, so we shouldn’t be surprised when the things that happen to baggage sometimes happen to cats and dogs as well.”
Airlines say that compared with the hundreds of thousands of animals they transport each year, the reported number of deaths and other incidents is infinitesimal.
“Between 2005 and 2014, we flew nearly 1 million dogs and cats,” said United spokesman Charlie Hobart. “So if you think about the percentage ... sometimes we see things in the media about someone flew their dog and the dog didn’t make it, but that happens at .00005 percent, in terms of that time frame.”
Changes in the DOT’s rules for reporting animal deaths also enable it to track more airlines: As of Jan. 1, all U.S. carriers with regularly scheduled flights and at least one aircraft with more than 60 seats have to report all incidents involving pets and all those involving cats and dogs, whether they’re being shipped as pets.
Berry said his group initially petitioned DOT to make airlines broaden their reporting several years ago after a group of puppies being shipped from a breeder were found dead once they arrived in Chicago.
“The airline was not required to report deaths of the puppies because they were part of a commercial shipment to pet stores,” Berry said.
Since 2010, Delta has reported the most pet deaths, at 59, and the most combined deaths, losses and injuries, at 90, according to DOT data. In that time, United has reported 45 deaths and 71 total incidents, Alaska Airlines has reported 23 deaths and 74 incidents, and American has reported 22 deaths and 33 incidents. These four airlines are some of the dwindling few that still fly pets as checked baggage.
As of Oct.31 this year, United had reported 13 deaths and 20 total incidents. The carrier has led in animal deaths since 2012, but Hobart said the airline flies 125,000 pets per year, the vast majority of which arrive at their destination safely.
American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said that airline had flown more than 50,000 pets this year as of Nov. 30 as cargo and checked baggage in the belly of the plane, and has reported six incidents, including one death.
Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the airline has started requiring veterinary health certificates for pets that fly and added zip-ties to crates, so animals can’t break out.
“One of the biggest issues for animals who fly are when they get nervous and escape their kennels and then injure themselves. This new policy is helping reduce injuries,” Egan said. “Anecdotally we believe our animal transport volumes are up this year in part due to [our network has] grown, and also because we’re one of the most affordable and easiest airlines to transport pets.”
Most airlines still allow passengers with small cats and dogs — usually less than 20 pounds — to fly with them stowed under their seat in the main cabin for a fee.
JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and Frontier are among the growing number of airlines that refuse to fly pets as checked baggage or cargo, and will only fly pets as carry-on luggage in the cabin, if they’re small enough. Starting March 1, Delta announced it won’t fly pets in checked baggage anymore and will only fly them via cargo.
Though they’ll still fly in the same pressurized area of the plane, pets will have to be booked through Delta Cargo, and dropped off at a cargo facility separate from passenger check-in, instead of being dropped off at the ticket counter. Owners will be charged per weight and size of the kennel, instead of being charged a flat fee.
After the flight, owners will pick their animal up from a cargo facility instead of in the baggage claim area, and this policy change means an owner and their pet could end up on different flights and arrive at the airport at different times. Delta declined to answer questions about the changed policy or about their pet-flying program.
Some airlines have restrictions on short-nosed breeds, such as pugs and bulldogs. Delta, Alaska and American airlines are among those that won’t fly them, and United usually restricts these breeds from flying as checked baggage during hot summer months, because they are prone to suffocating and overheating.
Those guidelines apparently aren’t always followed: According to a report from July 2014, a 9-year-old Boston terrier arrived dead in Indiana after a flight from Hawaii. “Boston terriers of this age and weight are currently restricted,” the report reads, “however, United Airlines reserved and accepted the animal for transportation.”
While flying a pet as checked baggage is rarely seen by owners as an optimal choice, some in the transportation industry argue that a five-hour flight is safer and less stressful for most animals than a multiday drive cross country.
“It’s not the dark underground of the plane with suitcases flying at their head,” said Kim Cunningham, communications director for the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, a group that works with airlines and transportation companies to freight animals worldwide. “It’s dimly lit, it’s pressurized, it’s actually very relaxing ... it’s temperature controlled. They’re the last on the plane and the first ones off, and they’re not allowed to fly under heat embargoes.”
After her friend’s cat, Jack, got out of his crate at Kennedy Airport’s Terminal 8 in 2011 and went missing for 61 days before being found and ultimately euthanized, Mary Beth Melchior created Where is Jack?, a nonprofit watchdog group that advocates for safe air travel for pets. Melchior says she hears from two or three pet owners every month who seek her help after their animal has wound up dead, hurt or lost while traveling.
“My ultimate position is people should not place pets in checked baggage or cargo,” Melchior said. “Our organization’s position at this point is if you wouldn’t do it with a 3-year-old, don’t do it with a dog or cat.”