Allergic to cats or dogs? Read this before you fly

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By Christopher Elliott

Some airline passengers are more equal than others, as Michael Morris found out when his daughter and two-month-old granddaughter visited him from Los Angeles this summer.

On their first flight on Sun Country Airlines, they shared the cabin with two small dogs.

“My daughter suffers from pet allergies,” says Morris, who lives in Minneapolis. “As you can guess, she had an allergic reaction.”

Her dog allergy acted up again on her flight home

“Across from her, the same passenger with her dog were also returning to L.A.,” Morris remembers. “My daughter told the flight attendant about her allergies, and they moved my daughter to a seat in the very back row.”

Morris wants to know — and so do other passengers who contact me regularly — who should be moving: the pet or the passenger?

Fortunately, human-animal conflicts on planes appear to be relatively rare, at least when it comes to allergies. The Department of Transportation recorded only 12 complaints about pets on aircraft in 2021, the last year for which numbers are available. (And those numbers were probably low because of the pandemic.) The government used to collect complaints on service animals but no longer appears to do so.

Airlines are concerned about the welfare of passengers who suffer from allergies. For example, Delta Air Lines in 2012 adopted a new policy for passengers with peanut allergies, and, when notified of an allergic passenger, will refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products aboard the flight.

But pet allergies are more complicated. Pets generate sizable revenue for airlines in the form of extra fees and are unlikely to be removed from a flight just because another passenger complains. What’s more, the Transportation Department requires that they allow service animals on flights.

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“Carriers should do their best to accommodate other passengers’ concerns by steps like seating passengers with service animals and passengers who are uncomfortable with service animals away from one another,” it says in a 2009 rule on nondiscrimination and air travel.

A closer look at the federal regulations about pets on planes and allergies

My advocacy team and I took a closer look at the federal regulation. We uncovered a few potential loopholes that could assist passengers, such as Morris’s daughter.

First, there’s no requirement that all pets be allowed in the cabin, only service animals, although many airlines allow pets small enough to fit in a carrier under the seat. Airlines must accept service animals in the cabin as long as they don’t “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others” or cause a “significant” disruption in cabin service. The DOT lists as examples an animal that would display threatening behavior, such as “growling, snarling, lunging at or attempting to bite other persons on the aircraft.”

Incidentally, the DOT recently changed its rules on emotional support animals, declaring that “Animal species other than dogs, emotional support animals, comfort animals, companionship animals, and service animals in training are not service animals.”

Some passengers believe pets don’t belong on planes

Air travelers say pets should stay home. They’re particularly negative when it comes to air travelers who choose to vacation with their cat or dog. I happen to agree, as I noted in a recent commentary on vacationing with pets.

“I’m not allergic myself but am of the opinion that there is a time and place for pets, and people are really pushing those limits,” says Scott Hassel, a San Francisco marketing executive. “I love animals, but they don’t need to be inserted into everyone else’s lives. I see people bringing pets on airplanes, trains, into grocery stores and restaurants. No one has any consideration for those around them anymore. Just another symptom of the ‘me, me, me’ culture we live in.”

Unfortunately for allergy sufferers, it usually doesn’t matter why the animal is in the cabin. Chances are, unless it’s growling, hissing or biting other passengers, it’s staying on board.

That means allergy sufferers must take sensible precautions. Reaching out to the airline before your flight to disclose your allergy is a good first step. Nonetheless, it’s essential to recognize that this proactive step doesn’t ensure a pet-free environment during your flight. Carrying an EpiPen or allergy medication is a must, particularly when you’re in an enclosed cabin. (Here is our guide on booking an airline ticket).

According to a DOT insider, if a passenger’s allergy severely restricts a major life activity, it qualifies as a disability. In such cases, airlines are required to make a “reasonable accommodation,” which might involve relocating the animal. That’s an argument you should make long before your flight by calling the airline’s special services desk.

How do you avoid an animal encounter on a plane if you suffer from allergies?

So how do you avoid a sneezing fit on your next flight? You can do what Morris’s daughter did on her return flight, and ask to be moved. That’s what Debi Rivkin, an accountant from Las Vegas, does when she travels by plane.

“I’m allergic to most dogs,” she says. “I once was seated next to someone who had a dog with them, and I simply asked to be reseated. It was no issue.”

If the airline won’t act, ask a passenger for help. It’s advisable to contact the airline before your flight to inform them about your allergy. Anne Nelson, a government researcher from Chevy Chase, Md., did that when she found herself sneezing uncontrollably on a recent flight from Atlanta to Washington. The culprit? A long-haired cat under her seat.

“The plane was full, and there was no place to move me,” she remembers. “But a nearby passenger saw my predicament and offered to switch seats.”

However, doing so doesn’t guarantee a flight without pets.

If your pet allergies are severe, you’ll want to have the proper documentation on hand. “Get a doctor’s note about the pet allergy to avoid change fees,” says a spokeswoman for Airlines for America (A4A), an airline trade group.

When it comes to the conflict between pets and allergy sufferers, pets seem to have a little edge. The A4A spokeswoman suggests complaining to the Transportation Department. Which could prompt it to review its rules on pets and service animals in the future.

But probably not in time for your next flight.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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