Close X

Home » Lifestyle

Was Airline Responsible for Death of Puppies?

DD sent posted a link to a very sad story in the comments section of my recent article on health certificates. The story describes the...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Aug 12th 2010


DD sent posted a link to a very sad story in the comments section of my recent article on health certificates.

The story describes the death of seven puppies on an American Airlines flight from Tulsa, Okalhoma to Chicago’s O’hare Airport. The puppies were scheduled to transfer to other flights at O’hare. Five of them arrived dead. Two others were lethargic and were taken to a local veterinarian where they later died. Seven other puppies on the flight did not die. The flight left Tulsa at 7:30 am and arrived at 9:00–before peak blazing summer tarmac temperatures.

American Airlines is investigating the matter. The Animal Legal Defense Fund thinks the Federal Aviation Administration and US Department of Agriculture also should look into the incident.

Human beings love to find fault. I’ll bet a lot of people are wondering whether American Airlines is to blame for this tragedy. I have some thoughts on that matter, based on a recent personal experience.

It turns out that those seven puppies weren’t the only pups to die on a flight last week. An eighth puppy died on a flight from a southern city to San Francisco on Friday night. He was brought to me for an autopsy.

The nine-week-old Yorkshire Terrier had no sign of bruising or trauma to his skin. The skin of his hind quarters was not contaminated with urine or feces. Examination of his oral cavity revealed normal development of deciduous (puppy) teeth and no evidence of oral bleeding or congenital problems such as cleft palate. There was no foreign matter in the mouth or throat. The lungs appeared unremarkable. The heart had only small quantities of blood in it, implying possible circulatory collapse (although I could not rule out the possibility that this irregularity developed after death). No organic or hereditary heart defect was found. The abdominal organs, including the liver, spleen, intestines, and kidneys appeared normally developed. However, the stomach, intestines, and colon were all completely empty. The bladder was normally developed but completely empty.

There was no evidence that the airline mishandled the puppy.

No definitive cause of death was found. However, I have a theory. The absence of food in the gastrointestinal tract and feces in the colon (combined with the absence of feces on the hindquarters or in the carrier) implied that the puppy had not eaten prior to or during the flight. The absence of urine in his bladder, combined with the absence of urine in the carrier or soaked onto his hind quarters implied he had not consumed water prior to or during the flight.

Yorkshire Terrier puppies are prone to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Hypoglycemic crises can lead to coma, hypothermia, circulatory collapse and death. I suspect that the puppy died in this way. Dehydration may have contributed to the death.

The puppy’s death was not, in my opinion, the fault of the airline. I reiterate, this is just a theory. I was not able to identify a definitive cause of death.

There are a lot of puppy mills in the south. And when someone mentions the word Oklahoma (the origin of the American Airlines flight on which the seven puppies died) an image of puppy mills immediately comes to my mind.

I don’t know how any of the eight puppies were handled by the airlines. I don’t know the provenance of any of the puppies, but I am suspicious that their breeders might not have provided them with ideal developmental situations before the flight. If I had to point a finger of blame at anyone it would be at the breeders who decided to ship young puppies across the nation, and at the people buying those puppies from areas where puppy mills are common.

If incidents like this happen often enough the airlines may simply refuse to transport animals. I’ll bet some hyperlitigious person somewhere is lawyering up to sue one of the airlines over these incidents right now. Nobody likes getting sued. Transporting animals isn’t terribly profitable for airlines. Sooner or later they may decide that shipping animals isn’t worth it.

I think there is an easier and better way to prevent these types of tragedies. Adopt puppies and kittens from the local shelter. If you want a purebred animal, use a local, reputable breeder. If you want your puppy to fly across the country, fly with him in the passenger compartment.