"Continental has transported approximately 550,000 pets over the past five years," company spokeswoman Christen David said in an e-mail. "Our PetSafe program is regarded as one of the best in the business and we've made a substantial investment to ensure the safety and comfort of animals that we transport."
Continental says it takes pride in its pet program, offering a separate check-in area, air conditioned vans to keep them cool on the way to and from the aircraft and additional training for staff to handle dogs. Several airlines refuse to fly pets in cargo during the hot summer months when they are most susceptible to extreme heat. Continental however doesn't have such a prohibition.
The airline had the most dog incidents of any carrier in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, but after climbing for three years, the number of incidents started to decline in 2008 and continued in 2009, with Continental coming back into line with other carriers.
"It's not a question of how to do it. Just don't do it," Perkins said. "Drive instead or leave the pet at a kennel or with a friend or a sitter."
Continental's improved record could be at least partially attributed to the company's "bulldog embargo." Short-snouted breeds like bulldogs accounted for roughly half the purebred dog deaths on airplanes during this period, according to the DOT.
Of the 122 deaths on U.S. airlines, 25 were English bulldogs, 11 pugs, 7 golden retrievers, 7 Labradors and six French bulldogs.
Dr. Marty Becker, a veterinarian who has co-authored more than 20 pet books, said those smaller-snouted dogs have "a lot difficulty breathing, and that's when they aren't under stress." If the pet is obese, that makes breathing even more troublesome.
Beginning in July 2009, Continental completely embargoed all types of bulldogs, including French, English and American bulldogs, and adult pitbulls and adult American Staffordshire Terriers were later added to the embargo list.
By late October 2009, after consulting with a veterinarian and other industry experts, the company relaxed it a bit to enable puppies under 20 kilograms and less than 6 months old to travel when the temperature is below 85 degrees.
An American Airlines spokesman said that its 33 deaths, injuries and lost dogs need to be put in perspective. The airline flies more than 100,000 pets a year -- about 600,000 since the DOT started keeping track of deaths, meaning those 33 incidents represent 0.0055 percent of all dogs that fly American.
"While we never want to have an incident with any animal, that fraction means the likelihood of it happening is quite literally nil on a statistical basis," spokesman Tim Smith said in an e-mail. "That does not mean we do not take seriously any problem that does occur. We do."
American also asks owners of deceased animals for permission to perform autopsies.
"In the overwhelming majority of cases where that happened, the autopsy report clearly showed a pre-existing medical condition on the animal that the owner either did not know about, or chose not to tell us," Smith said. "We are confident that pet owners can, and do, count on us to provide good care and safe transportation for their pet."