Whatever your reasons for traveling or relocating overseas, if you have a four-footed family member, you’ll likely want to bring them along too. That’s certainly something you can do, but there are some details you’ll need to take care of before you leave.
Three Ways for Pets to Travel
Pets generally travel in one of three ways:
- In-cabin. In this scenario, your small dog or cat travels with you on your airline ticket and goes under the seat in front of you, like a carry-on. Airlines will have a size limit, and often pets are not allowed in cabin on international flights. All destination country requirements still apply, and the pet clears customs with you and your bags. Speak with the airline passenger reservations department about booking, size limitations, and acceptance. Costs vary, but this is the least expensive option.
- Excess baggage. In this case, your pet travels on your ticket and checks in with you at the counter, but then flies in the aircraft belly. Size restrictions may apply for large pets. If the destination country mandates pets as manifest cargo, this option will not be accepted. Costs are higher than in-cabin, but less than manifest cargo freight rates. The passenger must make the arrangements in advance when the ticket is purchased from the airline and ask about any restrictions and cost.
- Manifest cargo. In this case, the pet flies on its own “ticket,” and flies whether the owner is on the plane or not. Some countries will require pets to travel as manifest cargo (Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the Republic of Ireland are among them). Quite a few airlines will no longer allow the pet owner to book cargo and require an authorized agent (pet shipper or a freight forwarder) to reserve the space and tender the shipment at the freight office.
This is the most expensive option, as not only are the airline freight rates higher than either in-cabin or excess baggage travel, but the costs of the pet shipper or freight company are added on for their time, working knowledge, travel, and other services.
Professional Pet Shippers
Airlines have a relationship with pet shippers.The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IPATA, see: Ipata.org) was incorporated in the U.S. in 1979. Today, over 450 members exist in 90 countries, serving over 700 airports. Airlines have a working relationship with these agents, and often require an IPATA member to handle the booking and tendering of the pet for shipment as manifest cargo.
Pet shipping is a niche industry, and members in the association have contacts all over the world to assist with a pet move, making door-to-door moves seamless.
Each country has its own rules and documents. One of the best places to start research is at the USDA Pet Travel website (see: www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel), which covers requirements for dogs, cats, ferrets, and sometimes exotics (i.e. birds and reptiles). The USDA website not only lists requirements but often offers downloads of the actual health forms used. Not every country has listed information, but the majority are included.
All countries will require a veterinary exam, and all require a valid rabies vaccine. Most will also require a microchip, which must be placed prior to the rabies vaccine being administered. There is usually a waiting period after the initial microchip and rabies vaccine is done, often 21 or 30 days. It means planning in advance of at least a month, prohibiting a last-minute shipment.
Island countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Japan) require planning much further in advance. It may take six to eight months to prepare a pet for travel in their case. In addition to the microchip and rabies vaccine, a rabies titer blood test must be done, and a wait of up to 180 days after the titer test results. These countries also require additional tests and parasite treatments prior to shipment and quarantine upon arrival.
Veterinary Exams and Health Certificates
The health certificates included on the USDA pet website will outline all the owner and pet information, as well as vaccines and testing requirements if needed. The veterinarian completes the form, signs, and dates it. A health certificate is usually good for 10 days, but there are countries that require it be issued in a shorter timeframe. Commercial shipments of animals for sale, bird shipments, or pets traveling alone may be required to have the exam and USDA endorsements done within 48 hours of travel.
There are two steps to obtain an endorsed international health certificate for travel out of the U.S. First, the veterinarian must be accredited by the USDA—meaning the individual veterinarian has taken the USDA training.
Second, after the accredited veterinarian signs the health document, the USDA Veterinary Medical Officer at the state or regional office must endorse with his/her signature and apply raised seals over all the signatures. The original documents must travel with the pet. The USDA also has an electronic system for endorsements, if your veterinarian chooses to set up an account, and if the destination country accepts digital signatures.
Booking Travel: Using a Pet Shipper
As already mentioned, many airlines will not accept an international booking from a pet owner, and often refer pet owners to an IPATA member to act on their behalf.
Although all final details of a shipment happen in the last week or so, it’s best to start working with an IPATA agent at least three or four weeks in advance. The pet shipper is going to need information about you and your pet, a signed contract or service agreement, copies of pet documents like rabies vaccines, payment (or partial payment) upfront, and your own travel arrangements and passport details.
Most cargo shipments are only booked one or two weeks in advance. Cargo bookings are not purchased months in advance like a passenger ticket; air carriers usually give priority to pets whose owners are traveling on the same flight.
With advanced planning, your pet shipper can also provide an International Air Transport Association (IATA) compliant shipping kennel, assist with the veterinary exam and pet documents, and collect the pet from you. Your IPATA agent will tender the pet shipment and prepay the freight charges. Frequently, IPATA members work together to handle the arrival and customs clearance upon landing at the destination. All of these services are in addition to the airline cost.
Pet shippers can only book travel in their country of departure, and pet travel is only booked one-way. A pet shipper may work with an agent in another country to coordinate the return to the U.S. but cannot buy a round-trip ticket.
Agents do not have control over the airlines and have to follow all guidelines and legal requirements, which may not always coincide with the pet owner’s plans.
Restrictions and Embargoes
Each airline has its own restrictions, the most common concerning snub-nosed (brachycephalic) breeds. Brachycephalic pets have anatomical changes that can inhibit normal respiration during travel. The list of breeds varies by airline, but always includes various bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, and Persian cats. Other common dog and cat breeds with short noses are often embargoed as well.
Frequently prohibited are the “fighting” or “dangerous” dog breeds. These lists differ by airline too but include the “pit bull-like breeds”—Staffordshire terriers, American pit bull terriers, and bull terriers. Dangerous dog lists may include a variety of other large breeds.
This is not to say brachycephalic or “dangerous” pets may not be shipped. A pet shipper will know which airlines accept which breeds and special crate requirements.
Lastly, airlines may also restrict pet shipment based on the size of the kennel, by temperature, or by overall length of travel. The airline may require a layover for a pet rest stop at the airline animal hotel during a long trip or when flights with transit do not allow for a same-day connection.
Temperature embargoes are usually put in place on extreme temperature days, when stays in the holding areas or movement between the freight building and the aircraft cannot be accomplished within governmental regulations. This is for the safety of the pets, and shipments may have to be postponed during extreme weather.
Pet shipments can be a worry, but planning well and hiring a reputable agent can smooth the process considerably.
SHIPPING PETS TO COSTA RICA AND MEXICO
Both of these countries have very specific requirements for shipping pets as manifest cargo. While Mexico allows a little latitude, Costa Rica does not and will confiscate pets (and dispose of them) if requirements are not met.
Most airlines will require an agent to both ship the pets and handle the arrival and clearances on your behalf because of all the difficulties that may happen. This must be set up in advance so the airline documents can be completed as needed for the agent; it’s a good idea for your U.S. agent to forward a copy of the airline documents in advance to make sure the destination agent reviews and corrects as needed. This helps prevent any issues upon arrival.
Mexico and Costa Rica both operate similarly. Local agents know who and how much to pay out to get things done, in addition to whatever governmental fees are in place.
One of the most important things is to make sure all documents are in the same name. For instance, if your spouse usually takes the pets to the vet and the rabies vaccine certificate is in his name, but the health certificate lists only your name, that would be an issue. Rabies vaccines must be given at least 30 days prior to entry, but not over a year—the three-year rabies vaccines common in the U.S. are not accepted. Microchips should be used as an identification, and also yearly distemper (canine DHLPP or a feline FVRCP) vaccines should be current.
For pets being shipped as manifest cargo to Costa Rica, an import permit must be obtained prior to shipment. The destination agent will get one on your behalf from a licensed broker. It is not something the pet owner can do on their own.
Both countries will require parasite treatments prior to travel, and the health certificate must be issued no more than 10 days in advance for Costa Rica or five days in advance for Mexico. Both require USDA endorsements, though the accredited veterinarian can sign and submit the forms electronically to USDA.