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Cats on a plane? Allergy sufferers can't escape

Holiday travelers with cat allergies may find the best advice is beware in the air, according to a new study that says it’s nearly impossible to avoid feline fallout at 30,000 feet.

Whether it's residue from cats actually on board, or detritus carried by pet-loving passengers, the most common feline allergen was detected in 100 percent of aircraft seats tested — and in high enough amounts to trigger serious reactions in sensitive people, according to a report by Swiss scientists.

“After take-off, at high altitude and isolated from access to full emergency medical care, the consequences for an allergic passenger can be even life-threatening,” wrote Dr. Matthias Möhrenschlager, a dermatology professor whose research is published in the latest issue of the journal Allergy: European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

An estimated 10 percent of people are allergic to cats and other animals, and there's a good chance many of them will encounter a feline in flight, Möhrenschlager found. Of the top 10 major airlines that haul the most passengers, only two keep cats out of the cabin. The rest allow as many as seven, eight or 10 cats per flight — and possibly more.

Be prepared for allergy exposure

Prudent cat-allergic air travelers would do well to keep their EpiPens and other drugs handy, concluded Möhrenschlager, a researcher at Hochgebirgsklinik in Davos, Switzerland.

His work follows a debate in Canada, where two major airlines recently agreed to allow cats in plane cabins. The decisions by Air Canada and WestJet were met by howls of outrage from animal lovers and allergy-sufferers alike. Even the Canadian Medical Association Journal weighed in, decreeing that pets on planes posed an “unnecessary allergy hazard.”

In his study, Möhrenschlager cited previous research that found traces of Fel d 1, the major cat allergen, on all of the aircraft seat covers reviewed. He also studied the cat cabin policies of the top 10 airlines, noting that Southwest, which flies nearly 102 million passengers a year, allows a maximum of five carrier boxes with two small cats per box per flight.

Even one cat on a plane is too many, say allergy and asthma sufferers like Erich Vieth, a 54-year-old consumer lawyer from St. Louis. Vieth was on a flight to Minneapolis buffeted by a terrible storm two years ago in which it became uncomfortably apparent a cat was in the row in front of him.

Not only did the cat trigger Vieth's asthma, requiring him to use an inhaler later, the animal, scared by the storm, also lost control of its bowels.

"The other passengers (including me) had to endure that smell (which was so bad that it was nauseating) while the pilot made a 20-minute detour around the storm in order to try to land the plane a second time," Vieth recounted on his blog, Dangerous Intersection.

Cats in the cabin or in cargo?

Sometimes, taking a cat on a plane — and in the cabin — can’t be avoided, said Chris Gray Faust, 41, who recently moved from Philadelphia to Seattle and had to fly her tabby cats, Jiggs and Zane, to their new home.

Poll: Should pets be banned from airplane cabins?

“I didn’t feel comfortable having them in the cargo,” she said, noting it was a nearly six-hour flight. Animals sometimes suffer from heat or cold or lack of pressurization.

She made sure to ask her seatmates if they objected to the cats, especially after a woman approached her in the boarding area and said she was highly allergic. In the end, it was a stressful experience all around, said Faust, who writes a travel blog, Chris Around the World.

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“One of the cats, Jigs, started meowing about 90 minutes before the landing,” she said. “It took us a while to get off the plane and they both started a little chorus.”

Despite all those cats in the air, there are few recorded reports of serious allergic reactions. MedAire, a Tempe, Ariz., firm that responds to about 18,000 in-flight health emergencies on airlines each year, logged only 25 cases in which plane passengers reported allergies between 2008 and 2010.

Allergy sufferers: You're on your own

Dr. David Streitwieser, medical director for the MedLink Global Response Center run by MedAire, said while none of the reactions was life-threatening, it's good for allergy sufferers to understand that they're responsible for their own safety.

"I think the fairest situation would be to let passengers know at the time they book their ticket that companion pets may be on board — similar to a peanut allergy warning," he said by e-mail. "Then it is up to the allergic person to be prepared, or get on a flight that does not allow companion animals.”