The Problem with Shipping Pets on Aircraft

The problem with shipping pets on aircraft is in the use of the word, “shipping”. I believe we can gauge people’s attitude about something by the words they use. You are handing over a loved companion animal to airline handlers who are, 99% of the time, handling luggage and other inanimate, dead objects.

Shipping Cats. Picture in public domain.

Shipping Cats. Picture in public domain.

I am sure airline handlers receive some sort of training with respect to animal handling and I am sure there are pretty tight rules about carriers and space etc. but you are still “shipping” an animal in the hold of an aircraft with luggage. This must carry risks that are not the sort of risks to a pet’s health that a good pet owner would wish. As an aside, 90% of wild cats, shipped illegally into the USA as pets die, in transit.

How does a good cat caretaker feel when they hand over their cat to an airline employee who takes their cat away from them to the tarmac and out to the noisy uncertainty of the hold of an aircraft? I would bet my bottom dollar (s)he would feel anxious. I know I would. I know I wouldn’t do it unless circumstance forced me to.

Personally, I wouldn’t trust airline staff to handle my cat properly. That is not being unduly critical of airline handlers. It is just that they cannot be expected to handle someone else’s cat as if the cat were their own.  They are going to desensitized to handling animals because they are slinging around thousands of items of inanimate objects every day.

Animals are meant to be placed in a part of the hold that is pressurized and temperature-controlled. But things go wrong. Why did Maggie Rizer’s gorgeous Golden Retriever die of suspected heat stroke in the hold of an aircraft. She was told in a very off-hand way that her dog had died. Then the airline tried to fudge their way out of it. This does not promote confidence in the attitude and systems of airlines.

Elisa has reported on lost cats while being shipped on a couple of occasions. Can you image how you’d feel if your cat was lost in transit? It would be torture for me and very distressing for my cat. How high is the risk to health and welfare of loved companion animals when shipped by airlines?

Well, that is another problem because it appears that accurate statistics are not kept by the airlines or Department of Transport (in this instance I am referring to the United States).

However, thanks to Stanley Coren, Ph.D who researched the matter we do have a clue as to the risk involved. It is low (as expected).  However, he compares pets lost or who died or injured to the number of passengers carried.

The worst US airline on his calculation is Alaska Airlines who lost 64 pets in their care over the period 2005 – 2012 while carrying 18 million passengers per year. However, I’d like to see the number of pets injured, lost, killed to the number carried in the form of a straight percentage and we don’t seem to have that information.

A straight tally of pets lost, injured or who died is as follows:

  • Delta 105
  • Continental 69
  • Alaska 64
  • American 53
  • United 29
  • US Air 4

US Air had the best (lowest) ratio of pet problems to passengers travelled.


Reporting appears to be inadequate.  Mistakes get made. That is to be expected. Each cat owner will have their own feelings about shipping cats in planes. For my part, I wouldn’t do it because:

  1. the reporting is unsatisfactory so we cannot assess the true risks;
  2. putting a cat or dog in the hold of an aircraft is putting the animal truth a pile of stress and discomfort.

I’d try and find a different lifestyle that avoided shipping my cat.

Note: I realise you can give a cat tranquillisers and so on but that doesn’t help me feel better about shipping cats.

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The Problem with Shipping Pets on Aircraft — 7 Comments

  1. There are other serious risk factors than the one’s mentioned.
    These occur when a pet owner is allowed or forced to take the per in cabin. They have to pass through the security control upn arrival at the airport and before boarding. This entail taking the cat out of the carrier in a noisy stressful atmosphere whilst it is passed through the X-ray machine. They always say the cat can go through in the carrier disregarding the damaging affect on the cat especially if destined for a breeding program. There is a high risk of the cat panicking and escaping. There is no stopping a 7 kg Van kedisi male from escaping if it wants to. This security inspection is nothing better than paranoia which puts the welfare of the cat second on account the insane notion that a bomb may be hidden inside a plastic box with walls that are only 2 mm thick and everything inside can be seen at a glance. I am happier when they can be loaded in the hold but incredibly those crazy Airbus planes have no facilities in the hold for pets! Either way you are caught between a rock and hard place. It’s that the airlines and airport authorities don’t give a damn until one day someone makes them pay a high price for their irresponsibility.

  2. My blood runs cold at the word ‘shipping’ of cats, it’s as if they are cargo!
    I imagine cats are absolutely terrified at airports and on planes, most cats hate being away from home and travelling, even short journeys.
    Again they have no choice but to accept what their caretakers put them through, but I know I would never ever put our cats through as much trauma and stress as sending them abroad by plane must do.

  3. You don’t ‘ship’ your granny back home after she visits you so I don’t see why you should ship your cat or dog. It’s pretty simple actually. I would never do it unless there absolutely no other option and then I would use tranquillisers if it was safe and possible to in order to reduce the whole stress for the cat. The hold of an airplane must be an impossible experience for any animal. I think it’s a terrible betrayal of their trust too. I wouldn’t put anyone through something like that basically. Not my cat, not my granny, not me. I’m sure the sound is so loud their ears are ringing for the next 2 weeks. Thats just for a start. What about the temperature. What about the fact that it is probably dark. This is a hell on earth experience for an animal. Nor would I take my cat out of a box anywhere in the airport unless I had at least 2 secure collars and leads tied around it’s neck so even if it ran it couldn’t get far because I’d tie the leads to the box or something. I won’t do any such thing unless it is secured to my own personal needs/requirements.

    I don’t think I would move – simple as that. I’d turn down the moving idea because I have cats. With cats you stay put. You don’t drag them around in cars or planes to different places unless you don’t care about how they feel and think it’s ok ‘because they are used to it’ some such nonsense. Way to give a cat a bad time.

    On a more positive note I like the picture you found. It’s much better the way the picture depicts it. One would have to assume any humans would be in the hold whilst the cats enjoy things up on deck 🙂

  4. When my wife emigrated from Europe to the USA to get married to me, after much soul-searching she carefully searched for good homes for her two beloved cats in her homeland rather than bring them along with her. One of her cats in particular, a rescue cat, was extremely nervous and timid. As hard as it was for my wife to give them up, she knew that a transatlantic flight followed by a potentially lengthy period of quarrantine would be much too traumatic for them to endure.

    Again a year ago, when we found it necessary to move some 2,200 miles across the USA to our present home, we had to carefully consider our options regarding our cats Robin and Bobbie. We quickly ruled out the option of shipping them as luggage in the manner described in this article. Some people we talked to had taken their cats in pet carriers into the passenger cabin of the airplane, but we didn’t feel that was a good idea, either.

    Finally, we decided the lesser of all the ‘evils’ would be to bring Robin and Bobbie with us in pet carriers in the front of the moving van (lorry) with us as we drove it the 3 1/2 days to our new home. We gave them tranquilizers (prescribed by the vet) as needed, and my wife comforted them by talking to them and petting them when they were especially upset. At times Robin wanted to see what was going on, so occasionally my wife held his pet carrier up so that he could look out of the (closed!) window. This seemed to reassure him. We stayed overnight in pet-friendly motels, bringing the litter box along and letting them loose to roam freely about the room as we slept.

    The first day, they were furious at being confined in the pet carriers. The second day, they were frightened at what was happening to them. The third day, they resigned themselves to the experience. And the fourth day, they accepted the arrangement as though it were a new lifestyle that would continue on for the rest of their lives. At last we arrived at our new home, where they quickly adjusted to their new environment.

    None of the options were really ideal, but we were satisfied with the results of our choice, and I think that Robin and Bobbie would agree.

    • I think you did a perfect job. I would have done it the same way. I couldn’t stand the plane thing. I would have definitely taken the long but more controlled way as you did. I think it’s very commendable to make the effort – there are so many people out there who wouldn’t dream of driving for a few days for their cats welfare.

  5. I was at an airport once recently going through security. In the line ahead about ten folks, was a man with a cat hanging on his shoulder just watching all the people. The cat didn’t seem stressed at all. I was shocked and amazed. I imagine that cat had traveled before. And, I’m sure it is rare to see that.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to travel cross country bringing my “cat”. Of course, I cannot move from where I am until Marvin and Yellow go over the rainbow bridge…but Bigfoot would travel nicely. Not that I would move anyway, but you never know.

    All that said, just today I saw this website in Texas that specializes in transporting pets. I haven’t poured over it yet, but seems to me there is a need for this kind of service.

    If you want to check it out, dot com

  6. I agree most cats don’t like travelling especially a long journey so I will be staying right where I am with my gang,so many things can go wrong on journeys and my motto is East West home’s best.

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