I was quoted yesterday in a Fox News article commenting on the latest crummy decision by United Airlines with regards to dog transport. While I’m happy with the article, I thought it was worth breaking the United policy down in a little more detail because it is confusing.
When United merged with Continental, they adopted Continental’s PetSafe program, lauded by many for its regard for animal welfare. And on most counts, it’s a good program, save the one inexplicable part where they ban nine breeds of dogs from travel on the airline with no explanation as to why.
So let’s look at PetSafe a little more closely:
First, the health issues.
As a veterinarian I’m often asked to write health certificates for pets traveling as baggage (in the cabin) or as cargo, in the cargo hold. And despite the outraged responses from the occasional person who wants to ship a pet in cargo under conditions I don’t think are safe and gets angry when I say so, I will refuse to write the health certificate in those cases. Because the truth of the matter is, airline travel can be dangerous for dogs and cats. There are risk factors that we know make a pet more likely to suffer a problem during flights:
1. Age of the pet. The very young and the very old can react more strongly to the stress of travel.
2. The weather. Though cargo holds are temperature controlled, the tarmac is not. During delays, pets may be left outside in inclement weather for long periods of time.
3. Conformation. Brachycephalic pets are more prone to respiratory distress and overheating during flight due to their anatomy. This is a clear, consistent truth that no one argues with.
The PetSafe policies address these valid concerns in a reasonable manner. There are restrictions on travel for brachycephalic breeds during certain times of the year, high temperature conditions, as well as a complete embargo on English bulldogs over 20 pounds and/or 6 months of age. I get that. This policy keeps dogs from dying.
There are additional safeguards in place for all animals that are also reasonable and in the best interest of the pet:
- Dedicated 24-hour live animal desk
- Confirmed booking prior to departure
- Weather conditions constantly monitored at all points
- The ability to track and trace the animal from its origin to its destination
- Personal handling in climate-controlled vehicles for connections over United’s hubs when the animal will be exposed to temperatures above 85°F (29.5°C) degrees for more than 45 minutes
- United recommends (but does not require) that senior dogs and cats (more than 7.5 years old) receive a more extensive health examination (i.e., liver and kidney screens).
These are the reasons the PetSafe program is applauded. These policies are based on experience and done with the health and well-being of the pets in mind.
But then, there’s this
Hidden between a section about flying to Kuwait and another section on policies about shipping poultry is the paragraph that’s getting everyone worked up:
United will not accept the following breeds of dogs once they have reached either 6 months of age or 20 pounds (9 kg) in weight (whichever comes first). This includes mixed breeds of these dogs. No exceptions to this embargo will be permitted.
- American Staffordshire Terriers
- Ca de Bou
- Cane Corso
- Dogo Argentino
- Fila Brasileiro
- Perro de Presa Canario
- Pit Bull Terriers
- Presa Canario
- Tosa (or Tosa Ken)
Determination of breed, age or weight of the animal is to be confirmed by the animal’s Health Certificate (dated within 10 days of transport). Additionally, United reserves the right to refuse any animal that displays aggression or viciousness at the time of tender.
Ah yes, BSL rears its ugly head once again. I’m not going to go into a huge dissertation about breed specific policies here because I think most of you already know this, but here’s the bottom line: these types of policies are ineffective in reducing dog bite injuries and serve no useful purpose.
For those who are curious, here’s a great summary about why BSL is a bad thing. The Humane Society, ASPCA, AVMA, and CDC all agree. I also highly recommend the AVMA Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions report to anyone who wants the in-depth breakdown of why BSL doesn’t work. Feel free to link to it in the comment section of any article about dog bites where the usual cavalcade of mouth-breathers come to yell about how pits are terrible and need to go away. But in abbreviation, the short-short version comes down to two key points:
1. Dog bites are caused by a multifactorial confluence of factors. Individual assessment of these risk factors, as opposed to generalizations based on breed, are a much more accurate predictor of aggression.
2. People are consistently unable to accurately identify a dog breed based on looking at the dog.
So anyway, back to United. No one can really figure out why they chose these particular dogs to ban, and United’s not talking. It’s not like there has been a glut of stories about Fila Brasileiros getting out in cargo holds and mauling the guy riffling through your luggage in the baggage handling area. The only other time an airline tried banning ‘dangerous’ breeds was American back in 2002, after a pit bull got out during a flight and chewed some stuff in the cargo hold, in which case I think they should also be banning labradors. (That ban was short-lived, by the way.)
Banning bulldogs because they have a nasty tendency to die during flights is something I can live with. It’s a decision made with the animal’s welfare in mind. Banning Cane Corsos because someone, somewhere decided, based on zero evidence, that they were scary and were going to randomly go Cujo on the hapless airline employees is just nonsensical. So just to be crystal clear: A 9 week old Boston, A-OK. Puppies under ONE POUND, also OK, as long as they are a) over 10 weeks and b) not a pit bull or the other 8 breeds.
You can’t tell me that this breed ban has anything to do with the welfare of the pets, because it doesn’t. While the airlines are not exactly known for their stellar customer service to begin with, they’ve always made decisions with the bottom line in mind. Why get dog owners angry over something so ridiculous and useless that at the end of the day doesn’t make anyone safer? I can fly Delta just as easily as United.
So what say you? Would this make you change your travel plans? Anyone have stories about the travails of traveling with a pet?