Imagine the excitement of reuniting with your beloved dog after being separated by 2,000 miles, only to be greeted by an unrecognizable canine. That’s what recently happened to Kathleen Considine when she entrusted her healthy, seven-year-old Golden Retriever named Jacob to the United Airlines PetSafe program.
What should have been a routine flight from Detroit to Portland with a one-hour layover, ultimately ended with Jacob losing his life.
The tragic chain of events began at the airline gate in Detroit, where Considine says the agent confirmed that the crate provided would be adequate to hold 80-pound Jacob for both flights. But that information was incorrect—a point that Charles Hobart, spokesperson with United Airlines, doesn’t dispute. He says the employee has since been “spoken to.”
Once Jacob arrived in Chicago to change planes, he was unable to board the next flight because the carrier was too small. While the airline looked for a new flight, Jacob had to spend 20 hours in United’s O’Hare Airport Kennel Facility in Chicago, a service supporting United’s PetSafe program. The kennel, located within United’s cargo facility, is a pick-up and drop-off area for pet owners. The facility claims it operates like a normal kennel—it houses 28 individual, ventilated enclosures, and provides services like dog walking and pet grooming.
In an emotional Facebook post that Considine wrote describing the events leading up to her dog’s death, she says that the airline did not allow food to be sent with Jacob due to the scheduled short duration of the flight. She wrote: “United Airlines 'PetSafe' program is cruel. They treat animals like baggage. They did not care if Jacob had food or water or any time out of his cage.”
Considine says Jacob was non-responsive when he arrived in Portland. She explains that the United gate agent said her dog may have been medicated—something Considine did not give the airline carrier permission to do. Hobart denies the claims that Jacob was medicated. “We even have pictures of him, and he was happy,“ says Hobart. Jacob died at an emergency vet in Oregon, a few hours after he arrived at the airport in Portland. United Airlines disputes it had anything to do with Jacob’s condition or his subsequent death.
In spite of her loss, Considine says she appreciates the attention her Facebook post received (it has over 380,000 shares) and hopes to see a change happen in the airline industry. “I’m thankful for the way this issue has blown up, and for the great feedback I’ve received,” she tells petMD. “At the very least, I want to see changes made to United’s PetSafe” policies.”
United Airlines Pet Safety: How Often Do Problems Happen?
Of the thousands of animals who fly via the PetSafe program, “The rate of incident,” Hobart maintains, “is extremely low.”
In 2016, the “Air Travel Consumer Report” issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, reported that there were 2.11 incidents for every 10,000 animals transported by United. Reasons for incidents range from an animal dying due to cardiac arrest, to one who started bleeding because he chewed through metal bars.
These numbers are indeed, relatively low. Except when it’s your pet – then one death or incident doesn’t seem acceptable.
Whether United played any part in Jacob’s death, the event is a tragedy for Considine. “Jacob was a happy, healthy seven-year-old Golden Retriever who loved me and every single being he met unconditionally,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “[United Airlines has] shown no sympathy for my dog's death. I would have received the same responses if they were to have broken my guitar in baggage.”
What You Need to Know Before Traveling with Your Pet
Even though the number of reported deaths and injuries is relatively low, there is no guarantee your pet won’t encounter problems while traveling. There are some things you can do, however, to help ensure your pet’s safety.
Zenithson Ng, a board-certified vet and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, recommends ground pet transportation services. “I would personally advise this option over having an animal travel in airline cargo.“
If you must travel by plane, he says you should do your research before the flight to make sure you’re adhering to regulations. “Ensure that your pet and carrier meet the airline regulations and you have the necessary paperwork. Typically, you should have a current rabies certificate as well as health certificate signed by your veterinarian. Be prepared with doggy-bags, paper towels, bowls, water, and whatever your pet may need for the trip. If you have layovers, contact the airport to determine specific areas permitted for dogs to relieve themselves. “
Dr. Ng also offers the following tips:
Make sure your pet can easily be identified. Attach a collar and tag with your contact information, or make sure your dog’s microchip is up to date. “Microchipping your pet is highly recommended, and be sure that the microchip is registered with your current contact information,” says Ng. “This will be the best way to find your pet if he/she gets lost or separated.“
Consider stress-reducing products. For pets that become easily distressed during travel, Ng suggests trying non-invasive, stress-reducing options such as wrap shirts that apply pressure or pheromone collars and sprays.
Ng says mild sedation is safe and appropriate for some pets, but reiterates that if pets require sedation to travel, “the better alternative is to leave them safe at home if possible.”
If your vet has approved a sedative, keep in mind that pets may react differently to sedation. Ng suggests asking your vet to try sedation prior to your trip when the animal can be observed. “Different animals react to medications variably, with some requiring much more or much less than the labeled dose, and some animals may react adversely or not react at all to some drugs,” he says. “It’s always better to know how your pet will react beforehand rather than during the trip. Be aware that some medications have a shorter duration of action and may need to be re-dosed on longer travels.”
Use vet-approved anti-nausea medicine. If your pet suffers from travel sickness, ask your vet to prescribe anti-nausea medications. “It is advised that pets do not eat a full meal prior travel unless there is a medical reason they need to eat,” says Ng.
Image courtesy of Kathleen Considine via Facebook