Snickers, a darling 11-week-old blue-eyed Sphynx (above), froze to death this week while waiting over an hour in 10 degree weather to be moved from the freezing tarmac to Delta Airline’s terminal.
Heather Lombardi had paid nearly $300 to fly Snickers, a 3-pound kitten, from Utah to Connecticut in climate-controlled air cargo.
By the time kitten and her owner were united, Snickers was icy cold and had limited mobility, Lombardi said. Snickers died a short time later.
“I feel so guilty. We sat there for nearly an hour. If I’d known, I would have thrown a fit,” said Lombardi, who was flying Snickers home from a breeder. “We just sat there. We had no idea she was dying.”
The Department of Transportation keeps tabs on the number of animal deaths in transit, but no one tracks how many die of cold or heat elsewhere as a result of temperature extremes on the flight, said veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City.
Lombardi’s $289.94 cargo ticket on Delta Air Lines included $70 to ensure that Snickers was taken off the plane expeditiously. But Lombardi said it took 50 minutes to get the cat off the plane.
The flight arrived at 8:40 p.m. Saturday, when the National Weather Service said it was 10 degrees.
Delta spokeswoman Susan C. Elliott said she couldn’t talk about specifics because the cat’s death was under investigation.
Lombardi and her two daughters wrapped Snickers in a coat and ran for the car, where they turned on the heater and sped to the emergency vet. During the trip, Lombardi said that Snickers let out a “bloodcurdling cry” and went limp.
Veterinarian Caroline Flower said Snickers was dead when she arrived at the Connecticut Veterinary Clinic in West Hartford.
The cat was cold and bleeding from the mouth and nose, all symptoms of extreme hypothermia.
According to the Department of Transportation, more than 2 million pets and other live animals are transported by air annually in the United States, .
Between November of 2009 and October of 2010, 33 animals died, 11 were injured and five were lost while being transported, according to the DOT. Of those, Delta reported 12 deaths, four injuries and one loss. American Airlines reported eight animal deaths, while Continental Airlines and United Airlines each reported four and Alaska Airlines three. Hawaiian Airlines and American Eagle had one each.
“We carry hundreds of thousands of animals a year,” Elliott said. “Among the different animals we carry, we have zoological institutions that entrust us with some rare species and we transport all sorts of unique animals. It is unusual to have this happen.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will also investigate Snickers’ death, according to spokesman Dave Sacks.
“We ensure the humane treatment and transport of animals. Our sole focus is to ensure airline personnel humanely cared for those animals while they had them,” Sacks said. “We look into each and every death and hold the airlines accountable.”
Penalties for violations of the Animal Welfare Act range from a letter of warning to revocation of an airline’s license to transport animals, but Sacks said he didn’t know of any airline operating with a revoked animal transport license.
According to the USDA, Delta is one of several carriers that refuse to accept pets as checked bags during the summer when temperatures go over 85 degrees because the heat may threaten the lives of the animals.
Heat deaths can happen very quickly, while hypothermia takes much more prolonged exposure to the cold, Murray said. But she said pets being shipped in cold weather are at risk, not only on the plane, but on the runway. Even if cargo holds are climate controlled, runways are not.
The impact of cold on pets depends on body type, health, coat, where the breed was developed and for what purpose, she said. “For example, a greyhound will get colder faster than a cocker spaniel.”
On most airlines, passengers can bring a small pet on board instead of putting the animal in cargo.
For the money she paid to put Snickers in cargo, Lombardi said she could have flown to Utah to pick her up: “I could have bought a seat on the plane and carried her on my lap.”
She hopes what happened to Snickers will help other pet owners.
“People need to know there are risks when flying your animals. If maybe one other animal doesn’t die because someone knows, I’ll know she didn’t die for nothing,” Lombardi said.
After the jump: How to prevent your cat from dying on a flight.
Pet Airways seems like the best choice. All passengers are pets and they fly in the cabin. However, destinations and flight times are limited. More importantly, unless your cat is really comfortable with dogs, it’s not a good choice. Dogs dominate the passenger list, and subjecting your cat to a 5-hour flight with a hoard of barking dogs is introducing a lot of stress, and stress can lead to illness.
My recommendation: ride with Fluffy in the cabin.
Last year, Petfinder released their list of the most pet-friendly airlines:
My 2 cents? Never ship a cat in cargo. Just don’t. Even if there are no mishaps in the cargo hold, Fluffy will be sitting on the luggage trolley on the tarmac twice during the trip, her eardrums pounded with the sound of jet engines, but without the safety of those fancy OSHA-approved earplugs. Would that not be a nightmare for most any cat?