While international travel is one of the most fun and rewarding things a person can do, there’s always a downside: having to leave your beloved pets behind. But increasingly, more people are taking their pets overseas with them. While it’s true that travel can be a stressful experience for both you and your pet, with a little advance research and preparation, having your pet join you on your European jaunt or long-term overseas move is easier than ever and, in most cases, surprisingly affordable. If you’d like to travel with your pet, here are the steps you can follow to get your pet a US “pet passport.”
1. A pet passport is not an actual passport.
Unlike the European Union’s pet passports, which feature adorable photos of your pet and allow EU-based pets to travel around other EU nations with ease, in the United States, there is no such thing as a “pet passport.” When you hear the term, it’s referring to the collection of documents that are needed to transport your pet out of the country. At the bare minimum, these documents need to include a certificate of health from a veterinarian that’s been accredited by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (a division of the USDA) and proof that the pet is up-to-date on their rabies shots.
2. Research the specific requirements for the country you’re traveling to and for exiting the US.
Every country will have its own requirements for allowing a pet entry. Sometimes just paperwork is necessary but other times pets are required to be held in quarantine or to have additional immunization records. You can check the requirements for each country on the USDA website.
But let’s take a step back: Before your pet can become an international jet setter, it first has to be cleared to leave the US.
Taking a pet out of the US is actually quite easy. Generally, all you need is a health certificate from an accredited vet and current rabies vaccination. You can find a list of accredited vets on the USDA website, as well as checking if the animal you’re traveling with qualifies as a pet (dogs, cats, rabbits, hedgehogs, pet birds, ferrets, reptiles, amphibians, and rodents all qualify). But some states may have their own exit requirements, so check the department of agriculture for your state (or the state you will ultimately be departing from).
While getting the health certificate is overall a fairly easy process, there is one caveat: Most countries and airlines require that your pet’s health certificate be issued no more than 10 days before travel. So be sure to plan that into your final days of prep before travel.
While there are easy online resources to guide you through the process, your vet is also available to help. It’s also best to start the process well in advance of travel (several months at least) to allow ample planning and processing time. The USDA website also has this handy list to help guide you through the process.
3. Check travel requirements for your airline.
You also need to check the requirements for the airline you’re traveling with. While shipping pets overseas via boat is possible, by air is the most common method and is the one we’ll focus on.
There are two reasons you need to check the airline rules. The first is that some airlines may have requirements for pet travel that are not required by the US or the destination country. The second is that each airline has its own rules about the size and weight of animals that can travel in the cabin versus need to be checked as cargo.
Most people (understandably) hate the idea of subjecting their pets to flying in the cargo hold alone, so many owners will try to have the pets fly in the cabin with them. Some airlines have rules against allowing pets to fly in the cabin on flights longer than 12 hours. Contact the airline you’re flying with or check its website to find information about flight times for pets in the cabin and to determine appropriate crate or carrier sizes, associated fees (it generally costs a couple hundred to take a pet on a plane), etc. Rates and rules vary by airline, so shop around before making a decision.
If you have the cash to spare, there are also services, like Happy Tails Travel or Air Animal, that specialize in pet relocation and will arrange all the logistics for you. These services can cost thousands of dollars, but it does ensure that the pet is given the highest quality of care.
4. Make sure your pet is up-to-date on all vaccinations, shots, etc.
Once you’ve confirmed the requirements for your destination and airline, go to your vet to update necessary shots or work out a schedule for getting the required shots and the issuing of documents. You shouldn’t leave this to the last minute, as your pet may need more vaccinations and you’ll want to monitor their reactions under normal circumstances. As mentioned above, you should also make sure they’re microchipped for ID purposes.
5. Get your pet ready.
It’s also important to start emotionally and physically prepping your pet for the trip. For most pets, travel — even under the most accommodating circumstances — is a stressful, anxiety-ridden ordeal, but there are steps you can take to help them feel more comfortable.
Start by talking with your vet. Sometimes they’ll prescribe some natural remedies that can help them relax (rarely do vets prescribe sedatives for traveling animals as it can cause health issues).
Acquainting your pet with their crates, carriers, or travel harnesses is also important; start by gradually introducing them to the crate, carrier, or harness in a calming environment, with treats and encouragement, and without trying to zip or lock them at first. Otherwise, they’ll associate the item with stress and will resist it. Slowly, they’ll become adjusted to the feel of the carrier or harness and will feel more at ease on the day of travel.
Then there are steps that can be taken on the day of travel, like making sure they go to the bathroom before traveling (some airports have pet relief areas as well) and packing plenty of food, treats, and water to keep them hydrated and placated.
To sum up the process:
- A few months before departure, check the entry requirements for your international destination, as well as exit requirements for the US. Schedule any missing shots, immunizations, blood work, etc. with your vet, and get your pet microchipped.
- Check airline requirements and research the best travel carriers for your situation. Purchase a ticket and make sure the airline knows you’re traveling with a pet so arrangements can be made.
- Start training your pet to be comfortable with their travel carrier.
- Find an APHIS-accredited vet to issue a health certificate within the window of validity. In some cases, you will also need documents to be endorsed at your local APHIS office.
- On the day of travel, make sure you keep all of your pet’s documents ready and accessible.
Here are some important starter links from APHIS, the CDC, and the US State Department to help guide you:
- CDC on international pet travel
- APHIS (USDA) on pet travel
- US State Department on international pet travel