Canadian medical journal: No pets in airline cabins

When veterinary professionals consider the question of pets traveling on airplanes, the first thing that comes to mind may not be human allergies.

But that is a major concern for the authors of a recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). According to the article, Canadian air travelers “lost their access to dander-free flights in July 2009,” when Air Canada did away with a ban on small pets in the cabin.

“It’s understandable that owners prefer to keep their small pets close when travelling and that airlines are keen to compete for their business,” the article reads. “But about 1 in 10 people have allergies to animals. Many will have an allergic reaction when they’re trapped in an enclosed space, often for hours, close to an animal.”

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) said it recognizes that pet allergies can be a serious health concern for some people, but it does not have a position on pets in airplane cabins.

“The article states that passenger complaints are being reviewed to determine whether people with allergies to pets should be considered having a disability,” said Warren Skippon, B.Sc. DVM, CVMA’s manager for National Issues and Animal Welfare. “This needs to be done in a manner that analyses the risks to human health from allergic reaction to pets and weighs them against the need to have service animals in airplane cabins along with the risk to animal welfare if sick or infirm animals are placed in cargo holds.”

Neither the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) nor the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have clear-cut guidelines on the issue of pets traveling on planes.

“The AVMA has not officially adopted a policy regarding travel in the cabin versus the cargo hold,” said Gail Golab, DVM, PhD, head of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division. “Obviously, the owner has more control over what happens to the animal in the cabin, and the dog will also always be in a temperature-controlled environment when travelling in that fashion (i.e., no time on the tarmac or in baggage areas).”

The AVMA does have a brochure that provides travel tips for pet owners, including air travel, but it does not recommend one way over another.

However, the CMAJ editorial says decisively that pets should not be allowed in the cabin at all, with the exception of service animals.

“The preferences of pet owners should not supersede the well-being of their fellow passengers,” the authors said. “Pets can be accommodated comfortably and safely in airplane cargo holds, which is where they belong. Airlines must choose to put the needs of their human passengers first, or be forced to do so.”

Several U.S. airlines allow small pets in the passenger cabin. In fact, Southwest Airlines allows pets only in the cabin, and not in the cargo hold. The airline allows up to five pet carriers per flight (with up to two animals in a carrier). Southwest’s website does not mention pet dander, but there are several restrictions and disclaimers, for example: “In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask may not be available for the cat or dog.”

The CMAJ editorial was penned by two of the journal’s executives, Deputy Scientific Editor Matthew B. Stanbrook, MD, PhD; and Editor-in-Chief Paul C. Hébert, MD, MHSc; along with Thomas Kovesi, MD, of the University of Ottawa’s Department of Pediatrics.

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