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Column originally published Jul 14, 2009

Air Travel Can Be Hazardous Because Of Cat Dander

Question: Our son has severe asthma. We have had many visits to emergency rooms and several admissions to hospitals. In the last few years, with the help of our family doctor and paediatrician, his asthma has become much better. He takes medicine and inhaler every day to keep it under control. Two years ago, we found out that he was extremely allergic to cat when we visited a friend who has a cat in the house. Within minutes after we got there, he started sneezing and coughing, and he couldnʼt breathe. He was admitted to the hospital for several days. Since then, we have been much more careful when we visit family and friends. We are planning to go to Disney World this fall. We just heard that both Air Canada and Westjet are allowing pets on the plane. We are terrified, and donʼt know what to do. We donʼt want to cancel the trip because our children have been looking forward to it. However, we donʼt want to take a chance on our sonʼs health either. Please give us some suggestions.


You are right to be worried. Ever since these airlines announced that they are allowing pets in the passenger cabin, many doctors and the Canadian Lung Association have been raising concern about the danger of this policy for those who suffer from asthma and other lung conditions. For the benefit of other readers, let me explain briefly about asthma and allergies before giving you suggestions on how to keep your son healthy and safe on the plane.

Asthma is an allergic condition of the lungs. Those who have asthma have very sensitive bronchial tubes that react to triggers like dust mites, molds, pollens, animals, cigarette smoke, and chemicals. When they breathe in these triggers, their bronchial tubes become swollen and mucus begins to fill the lumen. In addition, the muscle surrounding the bronchial tubes also starts to tighten, restricting the flow of air into and out of the lungs. The end result is an asthma attack: coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

It is hard to imagine why airlines would allow pets on the plane. As always, there are different perspectives to every situation. Over the years, there have been reports of pets traveling in the cargo compartment died or suffered serious injuries. As a result, many pet owners have avoided bringing their pets with them when they travel. They have lobbied airlines to allow them to carry their pets in the passenger compartment, not realizing that this can endanger those who have allergy to these pets.

Although pets are required to be kept in their cage under the seat throughout the flight, their dander (the skin flakes and the petʼs hair) can come out of the cage and travel throughout the passenger cabin. The air inside the plane is compressed and recirculated. As a result, the dander is not restricted to the immediate surrounding of the cage. As a matter of fact, the pet dander can stay in the airplaneʼs cabin even after the pet is gone and the cabin has been cleaned, although the amount of dander may be small. For someone who is extremely allergic to the pet, his lungs can still react and he can get sick if the pet has been there in a previous flight.

This does sound scary. Whether a person is going to have a reaction depends on how much dander is around, and how allergic the person is. It is not possible to predict, or completely prevent, this from happening if pets are allowed in the passenger cabin. However, if you follow the suggestions here, your son may be able to enjoy a fairly safe trip to Florida.

First of all, you have to make sure that his asthma is under the best control before you begin the trip. You should discuss with your family doctor and paediatrician and make sure he takes all the preventative medications, including puffers, to keep his bronchial tubes in the best condition. When the bronchial tubes are healthy, it can withstand bigger challenge than those that are already unhealthy. Your doctor may advice you to increase his normal prevention medicine because of the possibility of exposure to cat dander that he is known to be allergic to.

Before the trip, inform the airline that your son is extremely allergic to cats, and find out whether there are pets on board. If possible, request for a flight without cats. If that is not possible, ask to have your son sit in an area as far away from the cat as possible. However, the cat dander can still get to him.

Make sure you bring along all of his asthma medications, including emergency medicine that your doctor has prescribed, as carry-on luggage. If your son starts to show early signs of congestion or cough, give him inhaled bronchodilators and steroids more frequently, according to your doctorʼs advice, and donʼt wait until he gets sick.

Donʼt forget to get flu shot for your whole family this fall, especially because of the H1N1 influenza (also called swine flu) pandemic that has recently started in Mexico and undoubtedly will strike our country hard in this winterʼs flu season.

In the meantime, you can lobby the airlines to change their pet policy. Airlines have to listen to their customers. Call them and raise your concern about your sonʼs health. You can also contact Members of Parliament to express your concern. The government has a role in regulating airline policy. If they hear from you, the voters, they are more likely to consider rules or legislature that will force airlines to change their policy.