Working for an international animal rescue organization, one of the things I get called about the most is people who have found a dog or cat while traveling in another country and they want to know how to bring it home with them.
There are no exact guidelines because each airline and each country will have their own rules and regulations, but it usually can be done. That said, the United States has developed very strict guidelines for importing animals that have to be followed.
CDC Guidelines for bringing a dog to the USA:
The CDC has strengthened their rules for importing dogs since the pandemic. This is because rabies is over 99% fatal and is 100% preventable. If your paperwork is not in order or you try to break a rule, the dog will be denied entry and sent back to the last country of departure at your expense. Cats have different rules and they are bit more relaxed.
For the most up to date information about importing animals, visit the CDC website by clicking here. This will be your best source of information.
The first thing you should do is determine if the dog is coming from a high-risk country for dog rabies. The CDC is extending its temporary suspension of dog importation from high-risk dog rabies countries until July 31, 2024. To see the list of high-risk countries, click here. If the dog is coming from one of these countries, it will not be allowed entry.
Next, you should contact your airline, as they will be able to tell you what their requirements are for bringing a dog to the USA. Each flight only allows a certain number of dogs on it, so they will need a reservation.
What you will need:
1. Health certificate– a simple exam by a veterinarian that says that the animal is healthy enough to travel. It usually cost about $20 USD. The health certificate usually has to be done within 7-10 days of traveling. Paper work is known to get lost in the shuffle, so make copies. Tape one copy to the carrier and keep one copy on you. Take pictures of the paperwork so you have an electronic copy.
2. Vaccinations– usually the only legally required vaccination is rabies. The USA has a requirement that the dog has to have a rabies vaccination at least 30 days prior to travel. Puppies cannot be vaccinated until they are 3 months old. The youngest a puppy can be to travel is six months. If you are traveling from a rabies-free country, the dog will be exempt. Check here to check the list. I would also recommend getting a distemper vaccination, as well as treating the dog for fleas and parasites (de-wormer).
3. ISO-compatible Microchip– The animal must have a microchip implanted that can be read by a universal scanner. The microchip number must be listed on the rabies vaccination and microchip record. I would also have the dog’s name as well as your contact information on the collar at all times.
Don’t forget a leash. Most airports will have a designated pet area for dogs to go to the bathroom outside- although if you have a young puppy who hasn’t had all three distemper vaccinations, I would not suggest bringing it there. You don’t want to expose the puppy to disease especially when their immune system is not fully developed. Rescues suggest going into a family size bathroom stall and putting newspaper on the floor for the pup.
4. Appropriate carrier– this is dependent on the dog’s size and where it will be placed on the plane. If a dog is under 20 pounds, many airlines will allow the dog to count as your carry-on. A soft-sided carrier is typically the best since the dog has to be able to fit under the seat in front of you for take-off and landing (generally 17″L x 12.5″W x 8.5″H, but they usually allow larger carriers than the stated size as long as they fit under the seat). Some airlines, such as Jet Blue, will even sell you an inexpensive carrier to use. If the dog travels as cargo, a hard plastic vari kennel will have to be used. The dog has to be able to stand up and turn around in the kennel.
5. Food and water always have to be available. Carry a bottle of water with a small bowl. If the dog is traveling in cargo, be sure to fill a ziplock bag of kibble and tape to the carrier. Plan for delays so you are prepared. Bring paper towels and a plastic bag in case you need to clean up a mess.
There are three ways to transport a dog or cat by plane:
1. Attended flight- you are traveling with the animal on board the plane with you:
This is the cheapest, safest and easiest option for bringing a dog to the USA. The animal stays with you so you can monitor it at all times. Withhold food about 4 hours prior to the flight so that the dog has less of a chance of getting sick or having an accident in the carrier. Just in case, bring paper towels and a plastic bag. You should also have a small water bowl and a baggie of food in the case of a long layover. I am always amazed by how well dogs travel. They usually just sleep quietly and nobody even knows they are there. An airline typically charges a $100 pet fee and the dog counts as your carry on. Have documentation in hand at all times. Make sure you call the airline to book the animal on your flight.
2. Attended flight- the dog is traveling in cargo:
If a dog is not eligible to travel in the aircraft cabin, it will have to go in the cargo area. Airlines usually charge $100-200 for this but you also have to purchase a vari kennel, which can be difficult to find in some countries. If you can’t find one, ask the airline, a local shelter, or vet clinic if they have any you can buy from them. The most important thing to consider is the weather. It may be fine where you are, but if it is below freezing or very hot where you are landing, they will embargo the flight if they do not have a temperature controlled cargo area.
Get to the airport early to check the dog in because many times you will be dropping the dog off in the cargo area which is not where you will be checking in. Make sure you call ahead to book the dog on the flight and make sure that the weather is safe to fly. Be sure to write your name on the kennel and attach copies of the dog’s paperwork to the kennel. Make sure the dog has access to food and water at all times. Clip on dishes work well. Some airlines will ask you to tape a baggie of food to the carrier.
As you board the plane, always inform the pilot that there is a dog in the cargo area. Most of the time, they have no idea what they are transporting. Be vigilant of how long you sit on the tarmac or where the dog is if you have a flight delay. Keep in mind that there is no heat or air-conditioning in most cargo areas and deaths have occurred. Also be vigilant during plane transfers and make sure that the dog made it to your connecting flight.
3. Un-attended flight- the dog is traveling without you.
This is a safe option for bringing a dog to the USA but is the most expensive. You will pay by weight of the dog. When I flew a 50 pound dog this way, I paid $800. The dog will go in the cargo area and will need the same kennel and supplies as option #2. You will need someone to deliver the dog to the cargo area of the airport to check them in and be there to pick them up on the other side. Look for a flight with a temperature controlled cargo area which makes it much safer.
Bringing a dog to the USA is not hard as long as you follow these guidelines and prepare in advance.
Good luck and thank you for saving a life!
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