By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 7/1/2008 11:52:58 AM ET 2008-07-01T15:52:58

More than a half a million dogs and cats are transported on commercial airlines each year. And 99 percent reach their destinations without incident, according to the Air Transport Association. That’s a small consolation if your pet was part of that remaining one percent.

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Besides the usual dog or cat in-flight, I’ve flown with lizards, snakes, fish, chickens, pigs, monkeys, ferrets, a fox, several birds, and even a rat (although he was a stowaway).

I remember a few times when the animals have either escaped from their cages, had bouts of explosive diarrhea or were involved in onboard pet fights.

The most memorable was a parrot named Fluffy. Because she was great at repeating phrases, we allowed the owner to take her out of the carrier and let her hang out in the back galley with the flight attendants.

We taught Fluffy how to repeat all the flight attendant sayings like “chicken or beef,” “seatbelt sign is on,” and “coffee, tea or me.”

If a passenger came back and asked for two or more drinks, Fluffy would let out our favorite phrase of “high-maintenance flier,” which had all of us in hysterics. We stationed Fluffy at the door after we landed and as people deplaned, she squawked “buh-bye” to every passenger.

Many people consider their pets as important family members. I know, because I have five cats and sometimes wonder where I fit in my wife’s pecking order.

There are many dos and don’ts out there when it comes to traveling with pets. The following is a list I have compiled for a better pet flight experience this summer.

1. Never sedate your pet without the explicit permission of your vet. High altitudes and sedatives are usually a dangerous combination. While many of us choose to anesthetize ourselves in flight, it’s not a good idea for your animal.

2. Contact your airline before flying with your pet. Write down all of your questions ahead of time, and remember that there are no stupid questions. OK, maybe you can leave out the one about pet parachutes.

3. The carry-on option is by far the best if your animal is small enough. You have to book early though, as there are limits on the number of pets allowed in the cabin at one time.

4. If it is possible, book a non-stop flight or at least one with minimal time layovers between flights. Most animal fatalities take place on the ground.

5. Make sure your pet has some type of identification collar or tag with all necessary details, since there have been times when pets have escaped from their kennel. Bring a leash for walking and a scooper just in case.

6. Check all conditions regarding flight and health. If there is supposed to be a heat wave or a blizzard where you are going, then put it off for a couple of weeks. Same goes for your pet’s health; if it is ill, then delay. Better safe than sorry.

7. Choose a carrier designed for air travel and familiarize your pet with it well ahead of time. Consider length, width and height.

8. Don’t feed your pet too much before a flight, for obvious reasons. You may think that guy with foot rot is cabin enemy No. 1, but just wait till your precious Fifi clears her intestines and creates a smelly morsel half her size. Instead, get a calorie supplement from your local pet store or vet.

9. If your pet is too big to bring onboard, have some compassion. Your pet has to go into a dark scary place filled with weird noises and unfamiliar motion. Lessen the trauma by adding his favorite blanket and a chew toy or two.

10. Ask about getting frequent flier points. I am serious, because many people don’t know that if you have to pay extra for your pet, most airlines will accept them as bona fide frequent flier club members.

Most of all, ask your veterinarian for any special instructions.

There is a new Federal Aviation Administration travel regulation that gives passengers the right to bring along any animal. Yes, if a doctor approves an application stating that an animal provides a certain level of emotional comfort, the airline is required, by law, to provide transportation. This was the case of the in-flight pig that caused a ruckus not so long ago, and the Shetland pony who is now a frequent flier on SkyWest.

There is a flight attendant I know who has a second job transporting pets. The money is secondary as she has a real passion for animals and would rather see a reunited pet as opposed to a newly inducted member of the animal shelter.

What was her most embarrassing moment? A snake that got out of its carrier in-flight and was spotted slithering down the toilet. This was after the blood curdling screams from a rather large half-dressed woman who came rushing out of the lav.

Luckily, for the pet courier, the snake was recovered alive, albeit blue and smelly, during the emptying of the septic tanks.

There is a well known story in the airline industry about a bizarre pet occurrence. One day as the baggage workers were offloading bags from a flight, they discovered a dog kennel containing a dead golden lab puppy.

They felt awful about it and noticed that it was connecting on a flight more than three hours away. A couple of the men went out on their lunch break, purchased a new puppy and substituted it for the dead one. Their hope was that some small boy waiting for his beloved pet would not notice the switch and be happy at their reunion.

At the final destination, great cheers rang out, along with “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.” The family of the golden lab was convinced of a higher being’s intervention.

Apparently, the puppy had died during their vacation, and they were merely transporting it home to be buried.

An investigation quickly followed. This was mainly to prevent the misconception that transporting dead animals at 40,000 might bring them back to life.

The responsible workers were at first given two weeks suspension with pay, but which quickly became a “Reward for Honorable Service,” after the airline received a great deal of positive press for their deed.

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “Flying High With A Frank Steward: More Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.

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