Allergies in the air: carry-on pets meet allergic passengers

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Everywhere you go these days, it seems, you see travellers with pets. One thing that’s age-old, though: pet allergies. So perhaps it was inevitable that a flying Fido would come into contact with a severely allergic passenger, as in the following note from a traveller:

‘A few weeks ago I was on a flight from SFO to JFK. We sat at the gate for far too long because there was a bit of a to-do in the front of the cabin. It turns out that there was a person with a small dog in a carrier sitting near a person with severe allergies. Neither would volunteer to go on a later flight, so the airline removed the allergic passenger, presumably because it wouldn’t be safe to allow them to fly with the potential for a severe allergic reaction in flight. In summary: a freeloading dog trumped a paying customer.’

Who’s right in this situation? The answer’s not so simple.

We checked with airlines and allergists, and, much like a pet’s coat, what at first appears black or white has a lot of gradation in color. With advance planning, and an understanding of the needs of other travelers, both pet-toting passengers and the allergic can take precautions to avoid hairy situations.

Frisker is not happy.Frisker is not happy by antigone78. Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike licence (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dr. Paul V. Williams, of the Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center, near Seattle, says, ‘I have heard pet lovers accuse people with pet allergies as being animal haters. Clearly they need to walk in someone else’s shoes.’

It’s hard to fault pet owners for wanting to give little Muffin the love she deserves. Yet for allergy sufferers, ‘Symptoms can be more than a nuisance. They can be life-threatening,’ says Dr. Sakina Bajowala, an allergist in Aurora, Illinois and writer of the website allergistmommy.com. If someone with pet allergies breathes allergens or especially touches them – either on the animal or a place where the animal has been – symptoms might range from swollen eyelids and stuffy nose to hives, facial swelling, throat tightness, wheezing, coughing, and low blood pressure. At worst, the allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis can result in cardiovascular collapse and death, and can only be treated with an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline).

Rules about pets, planes and quarantines vary by country, so consult with your airline directly for its rules. US air carriers generally permit pets in the cabin, with conditions. First, pet owners need to notify the airline when reserving, not least because the number of pets permitted on board may be limited. Then, there’s a charge to carry an animal on board, typically US$100 to US$125 each way.

What’s more, no two airlines do it quite the same. For example, American Airlines charges $125 to bring a pet on board and limits the number of pets to seven per flight. United Airlines allows up to six pets per flight and charges a $100 carry-on fee. Virgin America also charges $100 and prohibits pets from traveling in first class or ‘main cabin select’ seats at the front and exit rows of the main cabin.

One thing all airlines we spoke to have in common: animals – except for service animals – need to be in approved pet carriers at all times while on board. Legally Blonde notwithstanding, a handbag is not an approved pet carrier. ‘Having your pet sit on the seat can deposit large amounts of allergen on the seat,’ says Dr. Bajowala. ‘This can be problematic not only for your co-passengers, but also for allergic passengers boarding the plane for subsequent flights.’ Dr. Williams notes that the allergens might remain in the fabric of a cloth seat for months. The FAA guidelines point out that even prohibiting pets from planes entirely will not eliminate the allergens, which can linger in the clothes of passengers.

Given all that, what are the stakeholders – airlines, pet owners and allergic passengers – to do?

The FAA has a general recommendation that airlines make a good-faith effort to accommodate both allergic and pet-carrying passengers, offering to change seats (Dr. Williams advises at least two rows apart) on the same plane or on another flight, but there are no industry-wide rules.

Airlines, meanwhile, can’t anticipate the problem, so success requires plenty of proactive communication from both pet owners and allergic passengers and an understanding that some accommodations for others may need to be made during travel.

For passengers, preparation is key. Pet owners can shampoo and groom pets within a couple days of departure and clean the pet carrier thoroughly, all of which can minimize allergens in the short term. Allergy sufferers also need to prepare medically, says Dr. Bajowala. She advises them to take a long-acting, non-sedating antihistamine at least four hours before boarding, and carry other medications on board as well as epinephrine autoinjectors (eg EpiPens) in case of severe reaction. Washing hands frequently and wiping down armrests and tray tables can help too.

‘Above all,’ Dr. Bajowala says, ‘treat each other with respect. Everyone deserves to travel safely and comfortably.’

Travel and food writer Andrew Bender writes the Seat 1A business travel blog for Forbes magazine and articles and guidebooks for dozens of other publications from the Los Angeles Times to Lonely Planet. You can always find him on Where’sAndyNow.com.