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Owners, airlines, doctors debate ban

Confining pets to cargo hold on the table

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Janice Rosen says she'll never fly anywhere without her pet by her side after a traumatic experience 13 years ago when she could hear her dog howling from the cargo hold.

"I could hear her because it was a small plane, where all the luggage was stored at the back, not underneath," the Winnipeg woman said Tuesday. "I had flown with my dog before but I didn't realized until then how much of an absolute nightmare it was for her."

But if the Canadian Medical Association has its way, owners will have to part ways with their pets before takeoff. A push from doctors could keep animals from travelling inside aircraft cabins on all Canadian passenger planes after the CMA voted in favour Tuesday of all pets being banned from cabins.

The ban would exclude service animals such as guide dogs.

Doctors argued federal regulations allowing major national airlines to accept household pets in the cabin pose a serious threat to people with allergies.

Dr. Mark Schonfeld of B.C. presented the motion at the association's annual assembly in St. John's, NL., where delegates voted 93 per cent in favour of the ban.

The motion comes one year after the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an editorial criticizing airlines for favouring the convenience of pet owners to the well-being of other passengers who suffer from severe animal allergies.

"While airlines argue that this is a great convenience for pet owners, the practice actually exposes our patients, and their passengers, to significant allergens that can make the journey very difficult -- and occasionally quite seriously ill as a result," Schoenfeld said.

But Rosen doesn't buy it. In 1998, when she heard her pooch crying during the flight, she decided to get off the plane when it made a stop in Saskatoon. She rented a car and drove the rest of the way to Calgary with her furry companion in the front seat.

"I don't travel with pets anymore, but if I did, I would definitely have them next to me," said Rosen, whose dog has since died.

She believes the "allergy excuse" is usually blown out of proportion.

"You just never know what can happen to your pet down in cargo or how they're being handled" she said. "I don't think a total ban is fair. I understand some people have allergies but they can always be seated farther away or they can take an antihistamine."

In statements to the media, both Air Canada and WestJet seemed to support that sentiment, noting animal allergy-related problems on flights are rare.

"In the past 18 months, we have flown roughly 25 million guests on more than 243,000 separate flights, with 58,000 pets in the cabins of our aircraft. During that period, our flight crews have been made aware of only a handful of allergy-related incidents where pets were present in the cabin," said the WestJest statement.

A spokesman for Air Canada wrote: "Over our 70-year history we have had an infinitesimally small number of allergen-related medical emergencies."

The proposed ban doesn't sit well with other animal activists.

Susanne Williams of the Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter said giving travellers the only option of locking up their pets in cargo holds is a drastic measure.

"From an animal health perspective, having them near their owners is less stressful for them," Williams said, adding there are many cases where dogs have been left in their own filth for hours or lost during connecting flights

"If something were ever to happen to them, there is no way of knowing," she said.

Janelle McLeod, an animal activist who works with several dog rescue centres in the city, said "the excuse of allergies is over exploited."

"People see animals onboard as an annoyance, much like a crying child," McLeod said. "But as long as people keep their pets in their kennels, I couldn't see there being any problems with dander and other allergens flying around."


-- with files from Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2011 A6

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