The Transportation Security Administration has a PSA for travelers with pets: If you are traveling with a furry, feathery or leathery companion, do not send it through the X-ray machine. Take the animal out of its carrier, as you would a baby in a stroller or sensitive film in a camera bag.
"We are seeing more people traveling with their pets and too many people are leaving them in the carrier case and sending them through the machine," agency spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "No living creature, human or animal, needs to be exposed to X-rays they don't need."
To address the problem, the agency demonstrated the correct screening procedure Feb. 24 at Dulles International Airport. Pablo, a 12-year-old Chihuahua owned by a TSA officer, played the role of jet-setting pet.
First step: Place the carrier on the belt that leads to the scanner. Next, remove the animal. Walk through the metal detector carrying your pet or guiding it by leash.
Upon exiting, an officer should swab your hands, checking for explosive material. Then you may return the pet to its accommodations. You are now free to go to your gate or to the pet relief area, whichever is more urgent.
"Show a little puppy love to your pet and take it out of the carrying case," Farbstein said.
For felines, Farbstein recommends a private screening room. "Cats can wriggle, scratch, hop down and run away," she said. A cat recently escaped at Dulles but was quickly cornered and caught.
The private screening room requires a few additional steps. The traveler will either hand the carrier to the officer and walk through the metal detector or will stroll through the machinery toting the pet in its enclosure. An officer will escort the pair to a room and inspect the animal visually or physically.
If the animal is wearing a coat or sweater, the officer may subject the pet to a pat down, but disrobing the animal is not necessary. An employee will run the carrier through the screening machine and return it to the owner before they are cleared to go.
Farbstein said the private screening room is also a good option for pets that are anxious, aggressive or have a penchant to fly off, such as parakeets.
In the screening line, TSA employees try to cut the carriers off at the pass, but with thousands of passengers screened per day, they sometimes fail to catch them all. (One successful save: a box of turtles). If the animal goes through, the passenger must redo the screening the proper way.
"If you think you're saving time, you're not," Farbstein said.
Recently, a few pets have become cause celebre when their X-ray images went viral. In November, a TSA officer discovered an orange tabby cat trapped in a piece of checked luggage at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The following month, a four-foot-long boa constrictor appeared on a security screen at the Tampa airport.
Fortunately, there would be no remake of "Snakes on a Plane." The airline banned the reptile from boarding.
In addition to TSA's protocols, passengers must follow individual airline rules for pet travel. For example, many carriers will not permit certain types of animals in the cabin, such as rodents, reptiles, spiders, hedgehogs and ferrets. The pet's travel case must fit under the seat and be roomy enough for the animal to stretch out.
The Feb. 24 demonstration focused on animals, but Farbstein said problems have also cropped up with babies in security lanes. Parents have placed their infants on the belt, where they are at risk of toppling off the table or going where many dogs and cats -- and at least one boa constrictor -- have gone before.