Why do we talk about genetics when we’re discussing air travel for dogs? Because your pup’s medical condition can significantly affect his comfort level in the air and even his actual fitness to fly. Some 2 million animals fly annually, in the US alone, yet instances of injury or death are extremely rare. Nonetheless, there are certain dog breeds for whom the risks are higher than normal.
As a pet parent, you want all the facts so you can make a smart, safe decision about your beloved companion’s overseas move. That includes considering his ancestry as well as his current health.
Unfortunately, some of the most common genetic disorders in dogs can exacerbate the inherent rigors of flying. Some breeds are at risk for multiple genetic problems. And your dear Charlie doesn’t have to be a purebred to have inherited one or more of these problematic predispositions.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says there are several facets of air travel that can be stressful to dogs:
- Rapid acceleration and deceleration
- Sensation of lifting
- Pressure changes (despite pressurized cargo space)
- Long waits inside their travel crate before departure or between flights
- Ambient temperature (heat or cold) on the tarmac awaiting loading or after unloading
The following genetic disorders are the most common among dogs, so they are potentially the most problematic:
Technically, this term means “short-headed,” but most of us describe these dogs as snub-nosed or flat-faced. They may look cute and make funny noises, but the breathing difficulties caused by their abnormal nostrils, palate, throat, and windpipe are serious. These dogs are at higher risk of dental problems, eye problems, and skin conditions, and they are more vulnerable when the weather is hot and humid, making them more prone to heat stroke. For all these reasons, concerned airlines are increasingly limiting when and where snub-nosed pets can fly.
The list of dogs who can inherit brachycephalic traits is so long we won’t include it here, but you know if Charlie has a short or flat snout. If he’s a mixed breed and you’re suspicious about his ancestry in this regard, you can have his DNA tested. It’s important to note, though, that not all brachycephalic dogs have equally limited breathing and other function.
This is a degenerative nerve disease which progresses slowly until the dog loses control of his hind legs. It’s one of the diseases that usually waits till later in life to appear, and there is no treatment to stop disease progression. In order to fly, dogs must be able to stand, sit, and lie down normally in their travel crate.
German Shepherds are notoriously affected by this disease, but numerous other breeds that can inherit this disease, include:
- American Water Spaniel
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Welsh Corgi (both Cardigan and Pembroke)
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- Kerry Blue
Abnormal brain activity triggers seizures, in which dogs can go rigid or suffer uncontrollable muscle movements, drool, or even accidentally void their bladder or bowels. Often veterinarians aren’t able to pinpoint a cause, but epilepsy is known to be genetic in certain breeds. Anticonvulsant drugs can help reduce the incidence and severity of seizures, but not eliminate them. What if Charlie were to have a seizure in transit?
Breeds associated with epilepsy include:
- Belgian Tervuren
- German Shepherd
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
Some dogs are genetically predisposed to valve disease that allows pressure to build within the heart, ultimately causing heart failure. In some dogs, malformed muscle causes the heart to be dilated and weak. Some dogs suffer from heart muscle disease that results in irregular heartbeat. Some breeds such as boxers can inherit more than one of these heart problems, which cause serious symptoms from fainting to fatal heart failure. Treatment typically involves various medications.
Besides, boxers, common breeds at risk for heart disease include:
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Doberman Pinscher
- Great Dane
Over time the hip joints degenerate, making it increasingly difficult for dogs to stand up or lay down, navigate stairs, jump, or even walk or run any distance. Surgery is often possible, but most dogs wind up on pain medication. Timing of meds can be an issue when it comes to scheduling Charlie’s flight(s), and the long period of inactivity in transit could cause uncomfortable stiffness.
Commonly affected breeds include:
- German Shepherd
- Great Dane
- Neapolitan Mastiff
- Saint Bernard
Consult your vet
The AVMA notes, “We (veterinarian, owner, and airline) all want the same thing—an animal that arrives at its destination in good shape. Sometimes, as difficult as it may be to tell a client no, the veterinarian is going to need to refuse to sign a health certificate.” They emphasize that vets “should conduct a deliberate physical examination that considers what that animal will be experiencing [during air travel] and seeks to identify risk factors that could make it less able to cope with the stressors of a trip.
As a pet parent, knowing which genetic disorders can be potentially dangerous for Charlie will help you have the most effective discussion with your vet about Charlie’s fitness to fly.