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Jet-setting service dog dies on return flight to Salt Lake City

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 8:19 p.m. MDT

Brenda Nelson's service dog, Sofia, plays with students in Lithuania during Nelson's yearlong teaching job.

Brenda Nelson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They had just spent an entire year in Lithuania together and were headed home. But due to unforeseen circumstances and trouble with airline regulations, Brenda Nelson was forced to bring her companion home in ashes.

"It was a horrendous ending to an amazing experience teaching abroad," she said Friday, adding that she has yet to recover from the trauma sustained from a delayed flight on Aug. 14.

Sofia, Nelson's 6-year-old pug, unexpectedly passed away while awaiting takeoff that day, as the air in the plane's cabin became more dense and difficult for the dog to breathe.

Airlines have been under pressure to provide better customer service since new regulations went into effect in mid-2010, forbidding extensive passenger waiting periods on the tarmac and in other situations en route.

With an increase in the number of complaints regarding animal travelers, the U.S. Department of Transportation is also looking at tougher regulations regarding airline treatment of animals and how they're handled on-board.

More than 2 million pets and live animals are transported each year, and the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report lists 17 animal deaths through July of this year. It is similar to previous years in which 35 died in transit in 2011, 39 in 2010 and 23 in 2009. Dozens of other jet-setting pets were injured or lost during air travel as well.

Nelson, a Montessori school teacher, and Sofia, who had enlightened hundreds of Lithuanians during their year abroad, had already endured a long wait to board at JFK International Airport in New York City.

It was the last leg of their journey home, following long flights from Lithuania to Poland, and Poland to JFK, including an extensive layover there.

The JetBlue flight was slated to leave at 8:45 p.m. but incurred a 99-minute delay "due to a customer matter on-board," according to JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young.

Nelson had carefully selected JetBlue, due to their "JetPaws" pet-friendly policy, allowing dogs under 20 pounds to travel with their owners in the aircraft cabin. The airline does not transport animals above that weight, as the cargo area does not have oxygen or pressurized air, according to the JetBlue website.

"The airport plays a recorded message that all animals must be kept inside their carriers while waiting, and I followed that," Nelson said. "I had never traveled with an animal before, and I was doing my best to follow all the rules."

After more than 45 minutes on the plane, the dog began to struggle from a lack of fresh air. Nelson said it was warm in the plane's cabin and "other passengers were grieving."

Pugs can suffer from a variety of health conditions, including breathing and heart problems, due to physical limitations, said veterinary technician Sasha Reid, manager at University Veterinary Hospital and Diagnostic Center in Salt Lake City.

Reid said all dogs are susceptible to heat stroke, which is what is believed to have killed Sofia in August.

"It's definitely an emergency situation," she said. "Heat stroke kills more dogs than any other thing. You have to get to a veterinarian immediately."

Hyperthermia, for dogs, is very dangerous, Reid said, adding that sometimes dogs are given ice water enemas, or surrounded with ice packs to cool them down as quickly as possible.

A temperature increase of just 4 or 5 degrees can shut down a dog's internal organs, leading to death, she said. A lack of oxygen can have similar effects, and pugs have shorter snouts and can struggle to breathe, Reid said.

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