Aug 06, 2009
Aero-medical & Aviation Safety Factors For Pets in General Aviation
By Dr. Arnold L. Goldman,
Great attention has been and is properly paid to the safety of flight with respect to our own health and pilot proficiency, and our aircrafts airworthiness. For those of us who fly with our pets, dogs in most cases, I have seen little to no attention paid to the pet's safety. As pet health is my job, I would urge all of you to begin to consider how to change that fact.
Most aero medical considerations that adversely affect humans in flight, such as hypoxia and carbon monoxide will similarly affect our pets. High altitude flight in a suddenly un-pressurized cabin has the same affect on a pet as it does on a human. While the pet's visual acuity and coordination may not be critical factors to the safety of flight, an older or frail animal may not tolerate low cabin pressures and the resultant lack of normal levels of oxygen well. While some may be trained to accept wearing a cannula, in most cases we are well advised to avoid prolonged flight at an altitude beyond which we need supplemental oxygen ourselves.
The results of carbon monoxide toxicity are similar in all mammals and are a concern for us all. Appropriate monitoring and maintenance are the only way to avoid this hazard. This holds true for our traveling pet as well.
In the typical general aviation aircraft, sound and vibration are issues that must be dealt with. These cause fatigue and when prolonged and repeated, will result in permanent hearing loss. We purchase and use noise-canceling headsets to more easily communicate with ATC in the high noise environment, but also to protect our hearing. For our four-legged passengers often nothing is done. A very simple solution to this problem can be found using cotton balls and a tweezers or haemostatic forceps. Simply place an appropriately sized cotton ball into the vertical portion of a pet's ear canal, gently packing with a fingertip until it is well seated, but still visible. That is enough to protect the pets hearing. Upon landing the cotton can be removed with the tweezers or forceps and discarded. Simple!
Temperature extremes are a concern with respect to flying pets. While comfortable in the same temperature range as we are, pets are more likely to be left in the aircraft for extended periods and be subject to extreme temperatures. In winter, when stopping for that $100 hamburger, at the least most pets should be brought indoors, away from wind and icy temperatures. When that's not possible, in many cases, especially with shorthaired animals a pet coat is necessary to conserve body heat. If it is necessary to leave a pet in a parked aircraft, your ground time should be limited.
In the summer months, pets must not be left in an aircraft at all. Just as in a parked car, temperatures rise rapidly to 150 degrees or more in minutes. Pets should be brought to a shaded area and offered water. Unable to sweat, pets cool themselves by panting alone, thus evaporating saliva to lose heat. It is an inefficient method at best, as panting increases the work of breathing and that in itself creates more heat. Thus pets are ill suited to extreme high temperatures. This is especially true when it comes to the short faced breeds such as Pugs, Boston terriers, English Bulldogs and Himalayan cats to name a few. These breeds pant especially inefficiently due to their altered appearance (through selective breeding) and respiratory anatomy.
Known, pre-existing medical conditions may increase the risk to pets at altitude. These include: unstable heart or lung disease, dehydration from any cause and ear infection. Avoid flying with a pet that has these until they are managed or corrected. Remember that altitude tends to increase the loss of "insensitive" body moisture through evaporation. This can promote dehydration.
Occasionally motion sickness occurs in pets, as with people. It is most commonly seen in young puppies during their first few car rides. Fortunately with maturity and with experience, the problem resolves in the vast majority of cases. This is likely to hold true with flight as well.
A number of non-medical hazards put flying pets at risk and should be mentioned here. Most significant of these includes unrestrained impact with aircraft cabin interior bulkheads or fittings in turbulent air or upon landing. Several well-constructed harnesses are available from pet suppliers to properly restrain your pet in flight, and these are designed to tie into a general aviation seat restraint to safely secure your pet in flight. A further advantage is avoidance of control interference by unpredictable pets. Speaking of unpredictable pets, it should be obvious to you that not every pet is ready to undertake flight. They must be trained to be calm and not to interfere with the PIC. You can judge your pet's level of flight readiness by observing their automobile behavior. If they sit calmly and leave the driver alone in a car, they will likely do so in an aircraft. The harness will offer some additional insurance in this regard. Obviously, fractious pets are inappropriate flight companions.
Finally, some additional hazards in and around the airport may pose risks to your pet. These include: Falls from cabin or wings, contact with other moving aircraft or vehicles, sharp objects or debris and system fluids such as fuel, oil, hydraulic fluids, antifreeze, deicing fluid or contaminated water. Another hazard may be another pilots or airport personnel's dog. Dogs are territorial and if kept frequently at an airport may not take kindly to your "intruder." The simplest solution for all of these hazards is already in your hand...a leash or other restraint device. Use them!
In summary, flying with your pet is a rewarding and fun experience that I highly recommend. Dogs especially treasure time with their masters and enjoy going anywhere. They have no fear of heights or small spaces, love whatever food you give them and don't complain. If only all our passengers were so accommodating!
Dr. Goldman is the founder of Canton Animal Hospital LLC in Canton, CT, and is president of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Foundation. He is also a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings.