The four-star head of Air Mobility Command publicly apologized to military families on Friday after three pets died while moving overseas in the past two weeks.
“We will hold ourselves accountable to a high standard,” Gen. Mike Minihan wrote to pet owners who use Air Force-run “Patriot Express” flights to head to new jobs overseas.
“AMC is reviewing every aspect of Patriot Express pet travel, including equities beyond our responsibility, to further strengthen pet safety,” he said, calling the fatalities “unacceptable.”
The military has rushed to reconsider its pet travel policies after Kolbie, a Marine Corps family’s 10-year-old Pomeranian mix, died of heat stroke on a July 1 Patriot Express flight across Japan.
An Air Force investigation has so far found no evidence of intentional negligence, and airmen working at the military airport followed established pet transport protocols, Air Mobility Command said.
“Unfortunately, these protocols did not adequately factor in the extremely high temperatures and humidity Yokota was experiencing 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 all arrived safely at their destination, according to AMC.
Since that incident, however, two other animals didn’t make it to their new homes.
On Monday, the nonprofit Leave No Paws Behind USA wrote on Facebook that, in addition to Kolbie, another pet had perished on a different overseas Patriot Express flight.
“Military families have to execute orders in a certain amount of time. … They have to pack a house, prepare children for new schools, sell a car or put it in storage, and then get ready to live out of suitcases for weeks and even months,” the organization said. “Pets aren’t on the military’s radar the way [they] should be.”
AMC then announced Thursday it had learned of another animal’s death on a Patriot Express flight but did not say where the pet was traveling.
“The pet was inside an air-conditioned terminal space for the entirety of the pet transport process except for a 10-minute period when the crates were loaded onto the aircraft,” the command wrote on Facebook. “During this loading process, an aerial port airman noticed the dog was not breathing and initiated emergency procedures to promptly unload the crate and notify the on-call veterinarian.”
The squadron notified the family of their dog’s death and promised to ship them its remains.
Sixteen animals have died in the Air Force’s care since Air Mobility Command began ferrying 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, like bulldogs and pugs, whose compressed snouts make them more prone to respiratory problems. At least two fatalities this year, including the incident announced Thursday and another dog that died en route from Guam to Alaska earlier this summer, were brachycephalic breeds, the Air Force said.
“AMC is working diligently to improve our current procedures and policies, to include ensuring service members are informed of the inherent risks associated with transport of certain breeds, and knowing their pet’s general health conditions at the time of transport,” the service said.
The federal government has known for more than a decade that short-nosed dogs are more likely to die on airplanes than those with normal snouts, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that about half of 122 flight-related canine deaths in a five-year period involved brachycephalic breeds, the association said.
“Because of their anatomical abnormalities, short-nosed breeds seem to be more vulnerable to changes in air quality and temperature in the cargo hold of a plane,” AVMA said. “Although pets are transported in pressurized cargo holds and get much the same air that the passengers in the cabin do, the air circulation might not be ideal for your pet’s individual needs (and remember, your dog is in a crate that could also be affecting 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 numbers, eliminate travel for specific breeds, health condition and climate environments,” he said.
“Doing so would leave thousands of military pet owners with expensive and limited to no travel options,” the general said.
In the meantime, the Air Force is allowing pets in its temperature-controlled terminals when the outdoor heat reaches 85 degrees Fahrenheit or higher during the hectic summer moving season.
The 730th Air Mobility Squadron at Yokota is getting an aircraft air-conditioning cart to help keep pets cool while they are loaded onto a jet, the service added.
“Ongoing construction and altercations involving pets had necessitated keeping animals outdoors,” the command said. “The recent completion of a new AMC passenger terminal at Yokota Air Base provides the space necessary to house pets in a climate-controlled location. All other passenger terminals operated by the 515th Air Mobility Operations Wing throughout the Indo-Pacific region store animals in a climate-controlled environment as they are awaiting Patriot Express flights.”
Amber Panko, Kolbie’s owner, has pushed for every military installation involved in transporting live cargo to designate air-conditioned rooms and pet relief stations for families and their animals.
A local American Red Cross chapter has offered puppy pads and wipes so dogs can relieve themselves at the Yokota passenger terminal, the Air Force noted.
Still, Minihan warned pet owners to consult their veterinarian before shipping animals on airplanes.
“Besides 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 must also consider length of travel, number of layovers, number of transfers and en route climate conditions when approving and advising your pet travel.”
Pet flights will never be risk-free, so consider delaying their travel if necessary, the Air Force cautioned.
“As a pet owner with five overseas tours, I’m intimately aware of the risk, expense and extreme concern when it comes to these important members of our families,” Minihan said. “We will continue to implement further improvements as the review process matures.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.