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A Dog Made a Disgusting Mess on a United Flight. But Who Should Clean It Up?

Short answer: it’s the passenger.

Last week, a chihuahua traveling on a United flight relieved herself while on a passenger’s lap, soiling the seat and the armrests and causing a stink.

According to passenger interviews, the dog’s owner took out the pet from the carrier–which isn’t allowed. The owner admitted to not taking the dog to the bathroom before the flight. After the chihuahua relieved herself on the flight, the dog’s owner didn’t deal with the mess herself, but someone alerted the crew. It allegedly took the crew 10 minutes to respond.

“The lady was reluctant to move or to deal with it, and the flight attendants were slow to come,” a passenger told WGNTV.

Ultimately, a crew member in a hazmat suit cleaned up the area. The passengers were offered sanitizers and bags of coffee to deal with the odor. They were also given vouchers by the airline. In a statement, United said, “Our inflight crew thoughtfully cleaned the area shortly after customers brought it to our attention. We provided sanitizing wipes and offered travel vouchers to those in the surrounding area.”

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But this incident begs the question: who is supposed to clean up after pets on flights?

Passengers Are Responsible for the Mess

Susan Fogwell, a former flight attendant who worked with United for over two decades, shared that it’s not a flight attendant’s job to clean up after pets. “If a passenger vomits in a seat, flight attendants don’t clean up the vomit, so a dog mess is no different,” she wrote in an email to Fodor’s.

Fogwell theorized that there could be multiple reasons why the flight crew could have taken 10 minutes to respond. They may not have encountered this situation before and may have needed to check the flight attendant handbook. As per the witness accounts, the dog-owner refused to rectify the situation, which Fogwell said is inconsiderate, especially in such tight quarters. “The flight attendant that did clean up the dog mess would have needed 10 minutes to get the Hazmat-style garment and gloves out of storage and put it on,” she added. 

The attendant took care of the mess in the end and Fogwell hopes that the other passengers were grateful to this voluntary service of the crew member. 

Furry-ious Debates

Pets on board have ignited many debates in the past. Until 2021, airlines allowed emotional support animals to fly for free with passengers, and there was no definition of what pet a person could take with them—peacocks and rodents were also companions to nervous fliers back in the day.

In 2018, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) released a report highlighting that 61% of flight attendants worked on a flight where an emotional support animal caused a disruption. More than half admitted to aggressive or threatening behavior by the animal. In 2019, an American Airlines flight attendant needed five stitches after an emotional support animal bit him.

The survey also found that a quarter of the disruptions included the animal defecating or urinating in the cabin. In one incident, a middle seat passenger’s pet had diarrhea, soiling passengers on both sides, as well as the seats.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) revised its animal carriage rules on flights in December 2020 after receiving more than 15,000 comments. Service animal was defined as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” Emotional support animals were no longer considered service animals. 

The airlines followed by changing their guidelines, and emotional support animals are now treated as pets—they can either go as cargo or in the cabin as carry-on pets (depending on the airline) and it costs a fee.

Related: Airlines Rules for Emotional Support Animals Have Dramatically Changed

Cabin Rules

United makes it clear that only service animals are allowed on board without pet carriers. It explicitly mentions that on the flight, there’s only one rule: the pet must stay in their carrier with the door closed, and under your seat at all times. There are pet relief areas at airports that passengers can locate through the United app. The passenger failed on both accounts—she took her little partner out of the carrier and she hadn’t taken her to the bathroom pre-flight.

Alaska Airlines also has tips for pet travels: avoiding overwatering or overfeeding and taking the pet to a relief area before the flight are some of the suggestions.

Fogwell added: “Bottom line, if the dog had been contained in its pet carrier, and made a mess in the carrier, the mess would have been contained and easy to clean up by taking the pet carrier into the lavatory. There is a reason for pet carriers on airplanes and there is a reason to abide by certain rules on an airplane.”

Related: Flying With Pets Is Scarier Than Ever. Here’s What Travelers Are Doing About It

StarfireZephyr February 18, 2024

The passenger with the defecating dog is disgusting. I would be livid were I near such an incident. Animals, except for genuine service dogs, do not belong in passenger areas of planes trains or buses. 

nickiliadis5202 February 18, 2024

It must have been gretagonzalez1637 who's dog deficated in her lap!  That's why she believes it's the flight attendants' job to clean up her dog's poop.  She probably expects them to change baby diapers, also!

albishop1957 February 18, 2024

Passengers insisting on taking their dogs on board the plane should ride down below with them!

marybergin6709 February 18, 2024

Sorry but its totally ridiculous. If you need to have an animal with you go by train or boat. I would never want to sit by someone with an animal. The smell and noise particularly if its urinating or defacating would be super annoying at best and downright disgusting if they poop or pee in the air. Since when did we start being such wooses about making rules that serve the majority? And if course , absolutely the selfish passenger should clean up her dogs mess, how dare she expect the the stewdess to do it.

fouDor February 18, 2024

This passenger should be hugely fined!  She did not take the pet to its "toilet" facility and she did take it out of the pet carrier during flight If she were advised up front at check-in and at the gate that any misbehaviour by her animal will be stiffly penalized I am sure she would have thought twice about taking the dog out of its bag.
Now about the clean-up… Whatever infight clean-up could be attemted it is absolutely not sufficient! Wiping out any residues or blotting liquids will not sanitize the fabric cushion of the seat or the carpeting or “clean” in any way neigbouring passenger’s clothing… The airlines are also at fault allowing a menagerie of animals on board of an aircraft. If they do, they have to have a policy in place regarding such on-board cargo and obvious “accidents” caused by irresponsible individuals.  There should also be a charge for the carriage of a pet on board - similar to the checking in a kennel. Why should the animal travel as free carry-on, if they become such a liability, so often? And lastly, cleaning after the dog’s souvenirs, would be much easier if the dogs were forced to wear some kind of a diaper even while in their bag and a muzzle, so they do not shred the diaper before its use.