While I know it's a little unusual, the fact remains: I met two of my three dogs for the first time at the baggage counter of my local airport. One had flown from East Coast to West and changed planes once en route. The other had come on a relatively short flight. Both were grown "career change" dogs ready for a loving new home -- mine -- and like the vast majority of animals transported by air, the trip was more nerve-wracking for me than dangerous for them.
The Air Transport Association estimates that more than a half a million dogs and cats are transported on commercial airlines each year, and 99 percent reach their destinations without incident. That's nice, but it's small consolation if your pet is in that remaining 1 percent.
If your pet is a bird, cat or small dog whose carrier will fit under an airline seat, you have the best option of all: Choose an airline that will allow you to bring your pet in his carrier into the passenger compartment as carry-on baggage.
The carry-on option is by far the best, but you can do a great deal to keep your pet safe even in the baggage hold -- the way most will travel -- by doing your homework, knowing your pet and being prepared to be politely pushy while your animal's in the care of an airline. Here are some things to remember:
-- Talk to the airline. Some carriers, especially the no-frills companies, don't take animals at all. Even those that do have limits on the number of animals on a flight because a set amount of air is available in the sealed cargo holds. You also need to know where and when your pet has to be presented, and what papers -- health certificate, and so on -- you need to bring.
-- Be sure your pet is in good health. Air travel isn't recommended for elderly or ill animals, and is likewise ill-advised for the pug-nosed breeds of dogs. These animals find breathing a little difficult under the best of circumstances, and the stress of airline travel may be more than they can handle.
-- Choose a carrier designed for air travel. The crate should be just big enough for your pet to stand up and turn around in. Check and double-check that all the bolts securing the halves of the carrier are in place and tightened.
While your pet cannot wear a collar in his crate -- it's not safe since it can get hung up -- put an ID tag on a piece of elastic around his neck. Be sure the crate has contact phone numbers for both ends of the journey prominently displayed.
-- Consider travel conditions. Don't ship your pet when air traffic is heaviest. Choose flights that are on the ground when the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, not only at the departure airport but also at the connecting and arriving airports. In summer, a night flight is likely better, while the reverse is true in the winter.
-- Choose a direct flight; if that's not possible, try for a route with a short layover. Most animal fatalities occur on the ground, when pets are left in their crates on the hot tarmac or in stifling cargo holds.
Remember your pet's life relies on the attentiveness of airline personnel. Most of these employees are excellent and caring, but mistakes do happen. You should be prepared to pester airline personnel to confirm that your pet has been loaded and has made any connections.
Contrary to popular belief, it's generally better that your pet not be tranquilized before flying. The combination of high altitude and limited oxygen is a challenge your pet's body is better prepared to meet if he's not sedated. Still, your pet may be an exception. Talk to your veterinarian about this issue.
Pets on the Web: Sandra Loosemore is a serious frog fan, and her Froggy Page (http://frog.simplenet.com/froggy) is the delightful result. Bright, well-organized and jam-packed with information from the silly to the dead serious, the Froggy Page is a real treat. Don't miss the collection of frog sounds. Ribbit!
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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