Despite all that's happened in the last year, I'm not a nervous flier -- once I'm on the plane. Before I get to that point, however, I'm a basket case. Did I pack everything I'll need? Am I in the right line? Did I remember the reservation details for the rental car? Do I know how to get to the hotel? Because of my nervous-nellies, I was a real mess while preparing for a recent flight because of an additional source of concern: I'd be taking a show dog cross-country with me, as a favor to a friend.
In truth, I was glad for the company, even as I worried about the dog's comfort, the paperwork and how, exactly, does one put a pet through the X-ray machine? (I'm kidding, folks: You don't!) But I knew the dog was going to have it easy, compared to others. Since she was small enough to ride in the cabin with me, she'd never be left alone.
I also knew there wasn't really much to worry about, even for dogs in cargo. Even though the flying experience is now more difficult overall -- and more costly these days if you're flying with a pet -- the fact is that the overwhelming majority of pets get through the experience just fine. The keys to making it all work: Play by the rules, plan carefully, and be prepared to be a little pushy on your pet's behalf.
If you're contemplating air travel with your pet, here's what you need to know to make the trip go more smoothly:
-- Talk to the airline well in advance. Some carriers don't take animals at all, and even those that do have limits on the number of animals on any given flight. You also need to know where and when your pet has to be presented, and what paperwork you need to bring. If your animal is going into cargo, especially as unaccompanied freight, be sure to get details on how he's to be picked up after the flight.
-- Be sure your pet is in good health. Travel in the cargo hold isn't recommended for elderly or ill animals, and is likewise ill-advised for short-nosed pets such as pugs or Persians. 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. For those pets who'll travel below, the crate should be of high-impact plastic and 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. For small pets who'll travel in the cabin, choose a soft-sided bag designed for animals.
While your pet cannot wear a collar in his crate -- it's not safe because 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. Your home number will be of little use if you're not there.
-- Consider travel conditions. Don't ship your pet when the weather is extreme, or when air traffic is heaviest. 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. Direct flights eliminate layovers, and short layovers reduce the time on the ground.
Remember, finally, that your pet's life relies on the attentiveness of airline personnel. Most of these employees are excellent and caring, but mistakes do happen.
Be prepared to pester airline personnel to confirm that your pet has been loaded and has made the same connections you have. If your pet is flying unaccompanied, talk to freight-handling personnel at every airport your pet will visit.
PETS ON THE WEB
Animals are on the move all the time, and there's an industry that works at getting them there safely. The members of the Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association International (www.ipata.com) specialize in getting animals to their destinations, whether they're show dogs, movie or TV animals, or pets moving with their relocating families. Services vary (as do fees) but may include boarding and grooming as well as getting pets on and off planes. The organization lists members on its Web site, along with the services each provides.
Pet lovers often assume that they'll need to tranquilize their animals before putting them on a plane. Not true! Veterinarians believe that sedation increases the risks of air travel, and so is not recommended for most traveling pets -- and can, in fact, kill an animal. The combination of high altitude, stress and limited oxygen in the cargo hold is a challenge your pet's body is better prepared to meet if he's not sedated. Still, there are exceptions, so discuss the issue with your veterinarian when you're getting your pet's pre-flight health certificate.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We just wanted to lend our wholehearted support to your article about the benefits of adopting adult dogs. We have three "rescues," and it's the most satisfying experience to save these guys, train them, and enjoy having them as part of our family.
We do agility with our sheltie, our collie is a certified therapy dog, and the collie/Lab mix just loves to go for hikes with us.
As rescue dogs, they quickly learn the routine. Taking them through obedience training has certainly been worthwhile.
We're thinking of adopting a fourth dog, but we feel as if we have our hands full already. Is there any rule of thumb on how many dogs is enough?
By the way, we enjoyed your reminiscing about your dog, Andy, loving tomatoes. Murphy, our sheltie, will eat ripe tomatoes right off the vine if we're not careful, and he's been known to steal freshly picked peaches right out of the bucket! -- L.A. and R.A., via e-mail
A: I heard from tons of readers following my column on adopting adult dogs. Love changes everything, and it's wonderful to read about dogs who've had a rough start blooming into happy, self-confident pets when they finally have a family of their own, for keeps.
I've had big dogs, little dogs, males, females, dogs I adopted as puppies and ones I took in as adults. I've loved them all, and cried when I've had to say goodbye to each of them. Maybe I'm imagining things, but the "second chance" dogs seemed to know how good they had it with me, where ones I'd raised from pampered pups took their happy lives as their due.
Should you add a fourth dog? Although I currently have two (soon to be three), I've had up to seven dogs at one time -- my own, plus some long-term guests and fosters. For me, dealing with the larger numbers meant not having as close a relationship with any one dog as an individual. I treated them more like a single entity -- the pack. I much prefer keeping the numbers down, and I think we're all happier as a result.
If you think you already have your hands full, then follow your instincts. It's hard to say no when so many great dogs need homes, but you've done your part already. You'll know when you're ready to add another.
Q: My husband and I want to adopt two young adult cats from a local shelter. The shelter has approved our application, but for declawed cats only, as our two previous cats (now deceased) were declawed.
We have told them that we have researched this issue and have decided not to declaw our new cats. But they may not allow us to adopt. I miss not having a cat in the house. Is there anything you can suggest? -- G.W., via e-mail
A: I wasn't clear from your letter if you have two particular cats in mind, or if you haven't settled on which cats you want to take home. If you're still looking, the answer's easy: Go to another shelter. Policies vary widely, and I'm sure you'll find one delighted to place cats with you.
If you are set on two cats at that one shelter, ask to speak with the director. With your history of responsible pet keeping and your change of heart on the controversial topic of declawing, I can't imagine why your application wouldn't be acceptable.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600