Air Canada Cargo specialized service for equine transportation utilizing the main deck of Boeing 767-300 freighters.

Animal transport has come a long way from two-by-two loading and a wooden ark. These days much care is taken to get animals to their destination, from customized stalls to wide body cargo aircraft to temperature-controlled waiting rooms. 

A number of factors are fueling the systematic advancement in moving animals around the world, developing countries’ desire for protein sources, the growth in domestic pets of all shapes and sizes, and a worldwide equine fervor particularly in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries. 

On any given day, cargo aircraft fill international freight lanes with a diverse payload of animals - livestock, domestic dogs and cats, prize horses, aquarium fish, and exotic zoo inhabitants. 

“We expect to see continued growth globally in the animal transport business. The introduction of our (767-300) freighters has allowed us to target many new areas of this growing market and move beyond the traditional business that we carry today,” said Matthieu Casey, Managing Director - Commercial, at Toronto-based Air Canada Cargo. “…Air Canada Cargo is positioning itself to be the carrier of choice for large AVI transport [Air Live Animals] to and from the Americas, including but not limited to Canada.”

Air cargo provides the speediest and safest travel option for high value live animals, especially horses, which are a premium cargo product carrying not only prestige but higher freight rates. 

Analysts’ forecasts on the expected growth of the animal transport market vary but all predict a significant uptick. Research firm Technavio is quite bullish estimating the animal transport industry will experience a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 5.07% between 2023 and 2028. Technavio says the growth of the market depends on demand for animals from slaughterhouses and the dairy industry, growth in the global pet population and decline in fuel prices increasing profit margins of LSPs [Logistics Service Provider].” 

Horses prepare to fly with Equitrans.

Specialized Service

Less than two years ago, Air Canada Cargo introduced a specialized service for equine transportation utilizing the main deck of Boeing 767-300 freighters. For domestic pets, the company often employs narrowbody lower decks.

In April Qatar Airways Cargo unveiled its 5,300 square meter state-of-the-art Animal Centre in Doha. QR Cargo handled more than 550,000 animals in 2023.
The Animal Centre features full temperature control for optimal animal comfort. Other highlights: 140 dog kennels and 40 cat kennels, 24 horse stables distributed in 4 zones with separate airflows for proper segregation. Custom spaces designed for day-old-chicks, birds, fish, reptiles and exotic animals.

David Robson, Managing Director at Dubai-based Equitrans Logistics, said his company is involved in globally transporting horses of all disciplines including flat racing, polo, jumping, endurance racing and show Arabians. 

Robson said the growth of the industry is pushing technology. He said tech companies are now conducting trials to monitor horses’ temperatures and heart rates whilst travelling that is non-invasive and will be a great resource for competing horses. 

Robson acknowledged the continued expansion of basic pet transport. 

“The small animal business has grown post covid with many people having acquired a four-legged furry friend,” Robson said. “A lot of this business has moved to air freight due to the current safety issues with sea freight in the Middle East.” 

Durango, CO-based Instone USA provides chartered aircraft for livestock.

Flying Fish Big Business

But furry pets aren’t the only pets filling up lower decks. 

The $172 million Florida tropical fish industry ships colorful aquarium fish via 737 MAX all over the United States from Tampa and Orlando. The business grew significantly during the COVID crisis when people were looking for companions “that didn’t bark or meow,” said David Rawlins Jr. of Rawlins Tropical Fish in Lithia, FL. Plus, wholesalers couldn’t source product from Indo-Pacific fish farms. 

Rawlins said the sale and shipping of tropical fish is still strong post COVID.

Southwest Cargo has a firm hold on the majority of tropical fish shipping business due to its understanding of the Florida aquaculture industry, cargo capacity and vast network – more than 4,000 flights a day to one hundred destinations. This bodes well for fish producers who need to get the time sensitive orders to wholesalers and retailers within 48 hours. 

To prepare for travel, producers place the fish in two-gallon bags filled with saltwater and welding grade oxygen. They are then put into a cardboard box lined with Styrofoam. The goal is to keep the water between 65 and 85 degrees and sometimes shippers need to use frozen gel packs or heat packs to help. 

Passengers have no idea that boxes full of angelfish, tiger barbs, tetras, African cichlids and gouramis swim below them as they buckle in for a flight. 

“The belly is full of fish and the main deck is full of people,” Rawlins said. 

As far as livestock goes, Giles Instone, president of Instone USA, said the export cattle market via air has softened over the past decade because several ocean cargo liners have improved their handling methods for heifers and bulls. But pigs, which tend to be fragile and sensitive to time, temperature, and ventilation, still constitute a key market for air cargo transport, he said.  

“Three weeks versus a few days travel time is worth the upcharge,” Instone said.

When Pigs Fly

Durango, CO-based Instone USA provides chartered aircraft for livestock.

 South America and China provide solid markets for U.S. and Canadian swine exporters, Instone said. Exporters utilize spacious wide-bodied 747s to transport the livestock to their destination. The planes then return with general cargo. Each load is around 1,000 pigs arranged in crates of 15-20 each. 

Instone said most of the boars and sows are for breeding purposes as farmers look to propagate and establish herds for long-term use and eventually the production of pork products. 

Sean Harding, president of the Animal Transportation Association (ATA), told attendees at the ATA’s 50th Annual Conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia that animal transport is a growing, dynamic industry.

“Technology and digitization are transforming animal transportation. GPS tracking systems, climate-controlled transport units and real-time health monitoring are a few examples of advancements making a significant impact,” Harding said.

He said new regulations are setting higher standards for transport conditions, including stricter requirements for temperature-control, space allowances, and mandatory rest periods.

The International Air Transport Association” (IATA) Live Animals Regulations (LAR) is the worldwide standard for transporting live animals by commercial airlines. 

“The globalization of markets has significantly increased the demand for animal transportation services. However, this also brings complexities, such as navigating diverse regulatory environments, ensuring biosecurity, and managing logistical challenges across borders,” Harding said.