DEAR DATA DOG: How many pets travel with their owners and in what kind of style?

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While the Airline Transportation Association estimates that more than 500,000 animals take to the skies every year, most pets - likemost pet owners - hit the highway. Automobiles account for 80 percent of trips over 100 miles in the United States, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (www.tia.org). So, unless a lot of pets are booking their own airline and railroad tickets, it's safe to assume that most do their traveling by car. (For those of you who suspect that your cat is indeed trying to make travel arrangements by walking on your keyboard, there are programs to detect and block feline input.)

Most of it is canine travel. In a 1997 AARP pet-travel survey, 48 percent of pet owners reported traveling with a pet at least sometimes, with 72 percent of them being accompanied by a dog (www.aarp.org). (Twenty-four percent of dog owners even take Spot to work). Just 7 percent saddle up with cats, while 2 percent pack a reptile and 1 percent make some sort of rodent their co-pilot. And a full 18 percent of those traveling with pets fall into the "other" category. Judging by the American Veterinary Medical Association's survey of households, "other" is an increasingly popular pet, led by a surge in bird ownership. The number of Americans with feathered friends rose 14.5 percent between 1991 and 1996. Also increasing in popularity were rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, turtles, and hamsters. Given how nicely they fit in the glove compartment, it's not surprising that many of them hit the road.

What about the pets left home alone? Most owners who leave their pets behind depend upon a friend, neighbor, or relative to care for them (66 percent), 15 percent make use of a veterinary facility, 11 percent rely upon a kennel, 10 percent use a pet sitter, and 6 percent use "other." What other? Another animal?

What with all this animal tourism, the AARP survey also asked respondents to list their least favorite public place to encounter someone else's pet. Number one: restaurants, with 66 percent. Number two: beaches (think bare feet and you'll understand). Number three: museums, where 11 percent of respondents wanted neither dogs playing catch in the halls nor (presumably) dogs playing poker on the walls.

Why do so many travelers take the trouble to bring their pets on the road? Guilt, for one thing. A 1997 American Animal Hospital Association survey discovered that 79 percent of pet owners actually feel guilty when they leave their animals at home (www.healthypet.com). A good 48 percent report that they often stay home because of their pets.

Another reason to have a pet riding shotgun might be the scintillating conversation to break up the tedium of driving: A whopping 89 percent of pet owners believe that their pet understands all or some of what they say. Then again, it could be a safety issue, since 53 percent assume that their pet would come to their rescue should they get in trouble. (Run, gerbil, run! Get help!)

Another reason pets are part of the family trip is that they're part of the family. According to AAHA surveys, more than 60 percent of cat and dog owners include news about their pets in their holiday greetings, 27 percent take their pets along for family photographs or to have their pictures taken with Santa, and 79 percent give their pets holiday or birthday presents.

Pets may be seen as members of the family, but they don't yet rate the same benefits. The AAHA reports that although pet health insurance has been around since the early 1980s, only 1 percent of pet owners carry any - the same percentage of companies that offer health coverage for pets as an employee benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2000 Benefits Survey (www.shrm.org). By contrast, 12 percent of British pet owners carry health policies for their animals, reports the veterinary medicine newsmagazine DVM (www.dvmnewsmagazine.com). The AAHA, which puts American participation at 2 percent, found that nearly two-thirds of all pet owners would spend $1,000 or more to save Rover's or Baxter's life. At the same time, the Association reports that those who do carry pet insurance spend an average of $141 annually.

Despite all the research available, there is as yet no answer to the most pressing question about pet travel: How many British dog owners drive around with their pets sitting up front so Americans will think the dogs are driving?

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