The four-star chief of Air Mobility Command publicly apologized to military families Friday after three pets died while moving abroad in the last two weeks.
“We will hold ourselves to a high standard,” Gen. Mike Minihan wrote to pet owners using Air Force-operated “Patriot Express” flights to head to new jobs overseas.
“AMC is reviewing all aspects of Patriot Express pet travel, including actions that are beyond our responsibility, to further strengthen pet safety,” it said, calling the deaths “unacceptable.”
The military was quick to reconsider its pet travel policies after Kolbie, a 10-year-old Pomeranian mix from a Marine Corps family, died of heat stroke on a Patriot Express flight on July 1. through Japan.
An Air Force investigation has so far found no evidence of willful neglect, and airmen working at the military airport followed established protocols for transporting pets, the Air Mobility Command said.
“Unfortunately, these protocols did not adequately account for the extremely high temperatures and humidity that Yokota experienced over the July 4 weekend,” the Air Force said.
The remaining 10 dogs aboard Kolbie’s flight from Yokota Air Base to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni made it safely to their destination, according to AMC.
However, since that incident, two other animals have not made it to their new homes.
On Monday, the nonprofit organization Leave No Paws Behind USA wrote on Facebook that, in addition to Kolbie, another pet had died on another foreign Patriot Express flight.
“Military families have to execute orders in a certain time. … They have to pack up a house, prepare children for new schools, sell a car or store it, and then prepare to live out of suitcases for weeks and even months,” the organization said. “Pets are not on the military radar like [they] It should be.”
AMC then announced Thursday that it had learned of the death of another animal on a Patriot Express flight, but did not say where the pet was traveling.
“The pet was inside an air-conditioned terminal space during the entire pet transport process, except for a 10-minute period when the boxes were loaded onto the plane,” the command wrote on Facebook. “During this loading process, an air port aviator noticed that the dog was not breathing and initiated emergency procedures to quickly unload the cage and notify the on-call veterinarian.”
The squad notified the family of their dog’s death and promised to send his remains to them.
Sixteen animals have died in Air Force care since Air Mobility Command began transporting pets around the world in 2017. The command said it has transported nearly 46,000 pets in the past five years.
Fourteen of the pets that died were dogs belonging to snub-nosed breeds, such as bulldogs and pugs, whose compressed snouts make them more prone to respiratory problems. At least two deaths this year, including the incident announced Thursday and another dog that died en route from Guam to Alaska earlier this summer, were of brachycephalic breeds, the Air Force said.
“AMC is working diligently to improve our current procedures and policies, to ensure that service members are informed about the inherent risks associated with transporting certain breeds and are aware of the general health conditions of their pets at the time of transport,” the service said.
The federal government has known for more than a decade that dogs with short noses are more likely to die on airplanes than those with normal noses, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
In 2010, the US Department of Transportation found that about half of the 122 flight-related canine deaths over a five-year period involved brachycephalic breeds, the association said.
“Because of their anatomical abnormalities, short-nosed breeds appear to be more vulnerable to changes in air quality and temperature in an aircraft’s cargo hold,” the AVMA said. “Although pets are transported in pressurized cargo holds and get the same air as passengers in the cabin, air circulation may not be ideal for your individual pet’s needs (and remember, your dog is in a crate that is also in a cage). could affect ventilation).”
Minihan said it would be easy to change military pet travel policies to match those of commercial airlines, which ban short-nosed breeds. But that would “severely restrict, and in substantial amounts, eliminate travel for specific races, health conditions and climate settings,” he said.
“Doing so would leave thousands of military pet owners with limited and expensive travel options,” the general said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force allows pets in its temperature-controlled terminals when the outside heat reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher during the hectic summer moving season.
The 730th Air Mobility Squadron in Yokota is getting an aircraft air conditioner cart to help keep pets cool while being loaded onto a plane, the service added.
“Ongoing construction and altercations involving pets required keeping animals outdoors,” the command said. “The recent completion of a new AMC passenger terminal at Yokota Air Base provides the space needed to house pets in a climate controlled environment. All other passenger terminals operated by the 515th Air Mobility Operations Wing throughout the Indo-Pacific region store animals in a climate-controlled environment while awaiting Patriot Express flights.”
Amber Panko, owner of Kolbie, has pushed for all military installations involved in live cargo transportation to designate air-conditioned rooms and pet aid stations for families and their animals.
A local chapter of the American Red Cross has offered puppy pads and wipes for dogs to relieve themselves at the Yokota passenger terminal, the Air Force said.
Still, Minihan warned pet owners to consult their veterinarian before sending animals on planes.
“In addition to the heat and stress of air travel … pet health, age, breed and sedation appear to be contributing factors,” he said. “Your veterinarian is the expert on these factors and should also consider the length of the trip, number of layovers, number of transfers, and weather conditions along the way when approving and recommending your pet’s trip.”
Flying with pets will never be risk-free, so consider delaying your trip if necessary, the Air Force has warned.
“As a pet owner with five foreign tours, I am intimately aware of the risk, expense and extreme concern when dealing with these important members of our families,” Minihan said. “We will continue to implement additional improvements as the review process matures.”
Rachel Cohen joined the Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.