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Tips for flying with your pet

By Eva Vasquez, Special to CNN
A secure carrier is key to safe air travel for pets.
A secure carrier is key to safe air travel for pets.
  • From May 2005 to May 2010 there were 144 reported deaths of pets during air travel
  • "Some pets just don't travel well," says veterinarian Kimberly May
  • The most important thing you can do is have a safe and reliable pet carrier, she says
  • Veterinarian says do not sedate your animal before flight

(CNN) -- Pet owners may be rethinking flying with their furry companions after seven dogs died this week after traveling in the cargo hold of an American Airlines flight to Chicago.

A veterinarian's No. 1 one piece of advice? Ask yourself if it is really necessary to take your pets at all.

"Some pets just don't travel well," said Kimberly May, a veterinarian with the American Veterinary Medical Association.

From May 2005 to May 2010 there were 144 reported deaths of pets during air travel, according to data from the Department of Transportation. Of those, 122 were canines.

The number of dog and other pet fatalities during flight is an "extremely small percentage of the total number of pets carried each year by the airlines," the DOT said in a July news release.

To safeguard against such a tragedy with your family pet, May urges pet owners to plan ahead and consider these tips before flying with your animal.

Get a safe pet carrier

Many people assume climate conditions, which may have been a factor in the recent American Airlines incident, are the biggest threat to animals, but May says the quality of your pet carrier plays a bigger role in your pet's safety. (American said the incident is under investigation and it has drawn no conclusions on what happened.)

"People focus on the health problems like heat, but one of the best precautions they can take is a secure carrier," May said. "One of the first things a dog will try to do when it's stressed is escape."

If you do not have a reliable carrier, it can be a very dangerous time for your pet when it is being transferred from airport to plane.

"The biggest problems we hear about is escape or injury from the carrier they are in," May said. "If the carrier is not secure and a pet escapes in that open area, you might never see it again."

The AVMA has a brochure on pet travel, which contains guidelines to choosing a good carrier.

Let the carrier be your pet's safe place

An airport is a very overwhelming place for a pet with sights and smells it has never experienced before.

To reduce anxiety, May suggested allowing your pet to get comfortable with the crate before trying to fly. This will reduce the amount of scary and new experiences for your pet on the day of travel.

"The animal doesn't understand what is happening to them, so even if they are being handled well it can be stressful for them," May said.

Make sure your animal is healthy enough for travel

Pre-existing conditions play a huge role in how smoothly animals travel. A pet that is ill will not travel well, May said.

Animals crossing state lines must have up-to-date vaccines, May said. Owners should obtain a certificate of veterinary inspection; many airlines will require one that is issued within 10 days prior to departure.

It may also be in your pet's best interest to get an acclimation certificate from a veterinarian, which is basically a statement from your vet saying the animal is healthy enough to travel and can withstand the temperatures it might face doing so.

Although not all airlines require this, May predicts recent events might put pressure on them to change current policy. "I think airlines are going to become more strict," she said

Do not sedate your pet

Unless your veterinarian says it is absolutely necessarily, May strongly recommends against sedating your animal before flight.

"Sedatives work in a bunch of different ways and have other effects besides calming animals down," she said. Sedatives can cause both cardiac and respiratory depression.

Know the risks

The DOT found that short-faced dogs such as pugs and English bulldogs are more prone to death in flight. Their anatomy makes it harder for these dogs to breathe effectively, May said. Dogs cool off by panting, so short-nosed dogs struggle to keep cool.

"If it is small enough, it is better to put it in the cabin with you," May said. She recommends talking to your vet before putting these breeds of dogs in cargo.

Other than the transit through the airport and onto the plane, the most risky time for your pet is when the plane is stuck on the ground.

A plane's climate controls are not fully functioning when you are on the ground.

So that hot, muggy feeling that creeps into the passenger cabin when you are parked at the gate for too long is likely to be even more unpleasant for a confined animal wearing a fur coat in the cargo area.

While there are risks to traveling with your pet by air, sometimes it is unavoidable, and the vast majority of pets do arrive safely.

Making an educated decision with your vet and planning ahead can greatly improve your pet's travel experience.