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On the Spot: A pet peeve

A cat owner who is relocating to Hawaii has safety concerns about transporting his pet in a plane's cargo hold.

May 28, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Question: We're moving to Honolulu next year for our jobs and are curious about how to get to the islands with our cat, Ana. None of the airlines will allow you to travel with a pet in the cabin, only in the hold. We're scared this will be too much for our cat to handle. What can we do?

Anthony Amend

Laguna Beach

Answer: The options are limited for Ana, Amend's 14-year-old pound cat whom he describes as "old but spry." Because Hawaii is a rabies-free state, the regulations on importing animals are strict, although not as strict as they used to be. There's a five-day quarantine for all animals if certain other conditions are met. You can find out the particulars — and they are very particular — at http://hawaii.gov/hdoa/ai/aqs/info/.

The airlines' none-in-the-cabin rules arise because Hawaii does not want anyone sneaking off the plane with a purse dog or a small cat stashed in a carry-on. The only animals allowed in the cabin are service animals or "comfort" animals. "A physician needs to write a letter [that the animal] serves some purpose in providing comfort for mental or other psychological conditions," said Inga Gibson, Hawaii state director of the western regional office of the Human Society of the United States. "We don't want to encourage people to abuse that service," she said.

If Ana is headed for the cargo hold, her owners probably will have some concerns about her safety. Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement makes available reports on animal deaths, injuries and losses aboard aircraft at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm. The numbers seem alarming, but they are compared with nothing, so you can't divine how large an issue this is. Nonetheless, you may want to peruse the numbers to see whether some airlines' names pop up repeatedly. A friendly piece of advice to animal lovers: You will not want to read the redacted reports on these incidents.

The argument continues on whether the cargo hold is safe for animals. We know, based on reports, that it is not for some, and we also know that snub-nosed animals, such as Persians or bulldogs, can be problematic because of their respiratory oddities. We also know that temperatures pose a big issue, especially in summer; many airlines will not transport pets if the temp is over 85 degrees or below 20. You also need to be wary of tarmac delays; it may be 84 when you board, but if you sit on the runway for any length of time, that temperature can climb quickly.

Murray Bolno of Animal Transporters in Los Angeles has dealt with shipping hundreds of pets on planes and has "never had a problem," he said. Bolno notes that LAX usually doesn't have an issue with temperatures because it's usually cooler than airports at inland cities.

"Shipping a pet in the cargo area is extremely safe," Sally Smith, president of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Assn. as well as owner of Airborne Animals, said in an email. "The law requires commercial aircraft cargo areas to be pressurized and climate controlled. Air circulates so pets are breathing the same air as the human passengers. Pets are not thrown in with the luggage, but held in a separate area. The area is also dimly lit — not completely dark — so that animals will feel calm." Speed is the key to minimizing stress on the animal, which means nonstop flights are preferable (and if you're going to Honolulu, definitely preferable).

Like all trips, this one comes with risks, but the reward is great. Because the only thing that could make paradise better is having a purring cat on your lap.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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