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Why did taking our dogs on a flight end in such heartbreak?

<span>Photograph: B O’Kane/Alamy</span>
Photograph: B O’Kane/Alamy

When we moved from the United Arab Emirates to Germany, I arranged for the British Veterinary Centre (BVC) in Abu Dhabi to organise the transport of my three bulldogs, Butch, Brutus and Biggie. The vet pronounced them in good health and they were booked on to the same Etihad flight as me. The BVC dropped them at the airport at 9.30pm, and they were kept in an air-conditioned animal lounge for three hours before being transferred to the aircraft. It seems they were then left without air conditioning. Butch was found to have died and Biggie and Brutus were seriously ill and had to be removed from the plane and taken back to the BVC for urgent treatment.

We were on the plane unaware. It wasn’t until we landed in Germany that we found messages from the BVC informing us of what had happened. Etihad never said a word to us, and has never apologised. In the end it offered to fly out Biggie and Brutus for free two weeks later, but no one offered to pay for the costs of their medical treatment or Butch’s cremation. Those dogs are my children and I don’t think I will ever recover.
AJ, Germany

This is a terribly distressing story and I’m so very sorry. I’ve done as much digging as I can, and it looks as though we will never fully know what happened that night. The transfer from the cargo terminal to the hold took half an hour which, according to Etihad, is relatively short, given the distance. During that time, your pets were in their carrier on an open dolly (a flatbed trailer). This was not air conditioned.

It was night, so there was no direct sunshine, but the outside temperature was around 28 degrees. Cool by UAE standards but warm for a large snub-nosed dog in a crate. The dogs never reached the aircraft. Their condition was discovered during a final check before loading, and they were returned to the terminal and then back to the BVC. Etihad suggested to me that stress caused their deterioration.

The BVC say it’s “highly unlikely” anything other than heat stroke could have caused all three to collapse so suddenly at the same time. Snub-nosed – or brachycephalic animals – can overheat within minutes, according to the BVC. This is a crucial factor. These pets, especially English bulldogs, have the highest mortality rate of any animal during flights, because their restricted respiratory system makes them susceptible to changes in air quality.

Many airlines refuse to carry them and Etihad will no longer do so after the end of this year. BVC asked you to sign a waiver stating that the stress of flying could pose a “significant risk”.

One would hope that risk meant extra vigilance on the part of ground and airline staff during what must have been a very noisy, hot, stressful half hour on the dolly.

Etihad insists it handled them in line with the live animal regulations issued by the International Air Transport Association, and is therefore not liable for costs, although it transported the surviving dogs free of charge as a “goodwill gesture”. It did not directly inform you of the incident because you had appointed BVC as your agent.

“Etihad Airways safely transports thousands of animals every year,” it says. “While this incident is very sad and regrettable, Etihad exercised all due care and followed procedure at all times. The incident was entirely beyond Etihad’s control.”

You and BVC also did everything you should, ensuring your pets were properly prepared and vetted before the flight. It’s not possible to prove whether the conditions during the transfer were unreasonable, or whether the nature of the breed led to an unforeseeable speedy reaction.

This hasn’t got you very much further, I’m afraid, and no resolution could compensate for your loss. But at least your ordeal can highlight the risks to other owners. If a brachycephalic pet must fly, the cabin is the safest place and some airlines allow this for pets below a certain size. Check out the options beforehand, avoid flying in extreme heat if possible, and help your pet acclimatise to its crate in the days before departure to minimise stress.

Firms that really are at your service …

My Corby trouser press was not working correctly, so I emailed the firm. Within 24 hours, it replied that it was sending a new one by courier and would book a slot for me to return the old one, all free of charge and within three days.
RN, West Wickham, Kent

My father-in-law accidentally binned the screw top of my fairly old pepper mill and I contacted Le Creuset to ask if I could buy a replacement. Within 24 hours an email offered a replacement free of charge. It arrived three days later. I can’t think of many companies that would offer this level of service for something 100% the fault of the customer (or father-in-law)!
NP, Edinburgh

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