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All you need to know about taking your pet overseas

Approx. 9 minutes read

Are you thinking of embarking on a travel adventure or undergoing the daunting task of emigrating? If you are unsure of where to start or what the travel requirements are for taking your pet overseas, you’ve come to the right place. In this article we’ll look at international pet travel for holiday purposes, as well as the step-by-step process of emigrating with pets.

Travelling abroad on holiday with your pet

It’s tough to resist the inspiration of #travelgram, especially when you see journeying pets all over your Instagram feed – vibrant photos of dogs and cats in stunning locations, having the time of their nine lives. You look at your cute couch potato and think, Yes! Yes, I will take Mickey Moo on a trip! Just the two of us. #YOLO! However, aside from the logistics and expense, there are other considerations.

Look at your dog or cat’s habits.

Is your dog or cat a stay-at-home pet?

Not all pets are cut out for life-changing adventures. Most pets are homebodies who enjoy their creature comforts; eating at the same time every day, knowing that when they go on walkies, they will pass by this tree, and that bush, and that house with the churlish Pomeranian. Cats and dogs can be territorial, so removing them from their home base to introduce them to new and scary expanses can be terrifying! They have a better time of it knowing that 07h00 is breakfast time, 09h00 is playtime, 11h00 is naptime, and so forth. Consistent routines give your pets confidence and build their trust, which reduces their anxiety. Spontaneity and novelty – the whole point of travelling – can increase pets’ anxiety because they don’t know what’s coming next, which feels threatening to them.

Yes, it does happen that some cats love travel adventures and some dogs thrive on sprinting along hiking trails and sitting in the front seat of a double kayak. Some pets are physically and mentally equipped for surfing and skateboarding, taking part in international agility competitions and the accompanying rigours of long-distance travel.

If, honestly, your pet is more of a homebody, then it’s better to travel with your human friends and get a trustworthy pet sitter to look after your furry BFF.

Do pets enjoy travelling overseas?

As pack animals who enjoy consistency and the comfort of home, most pets thrive on keeping their paws on the ground. Long-haul flights can be stressful. The unfamiliar sights, smells and motion can rapidly ramp up their anxiety, and since most pets that travel by air are crated and confined to the cargo hold, their flights are uncomfortable and scary – especially when they don’t know where you are for hours and hours (and more hours) on end. They are exposed to air pressure changes and lots of noise that they have absolutely no way of escaping.

The only exception to this rule is the transport of seeing-eye dogs and other service dogs whose owners cannot function normally without the help of their furry friends. These pet heroes travel in the cabin with their owners, but must adhere to specific rules regarding seating and toileting. Each airline will have their own requirements for pets in the cabin and in cargo, so for pets who do travel internationally, they will need to adhere to these requirements.

If you decide to travel internationally with your pet – for leisure, competition, or other reasons – you will need to know and adhere to the rules of your destination country or countries, and make sure you come prepared. Travelling internationally with your pet can exponentially increase your paperwork and expenses, and you need to keep your pet’s health status and vaccinations up to date. It’s not as simple as those crisp photos of #instapets make it seem.

Which pets should NOT travel by plane?

Since there are physical and emotional/mental risks to pets when it comes to air travel, the following pets should not travel by plane:

  • dogs and cats with behavioural problems
  • dogs and cats with existing anxiety issues
  • puppies and kittens younger than eight weeks old (and those who have not yet had all their vaccinations)
  • elderly dogs and cats, since they may have compromised health
  • pets with short snouts or flat faces:

Short-snouted pets can already suffer from a range of health problems related to their shortened or narrowed airways. Add some anxiety and not-ideal travel conditions on top of that and you’ve got a wellbeing disaster just waiting to happen.

If you must travel with your furry friend, it’s better to travel by car so that you can maintain control of your pet’s environment and they get to spend all their time with you.

Emigrating with pets

It’s the ultimate South African emigrant’s dilemma: how to emigrate with your pets. You are your pets’ whole world, so leaving them behind is not (or should not be) an option. Adopting a pet into your family is for life. Despite the discomfort of a plane ride for your pet, this big, scary once-off is the lesser of two evils – the other being never seeing their family again. So, where do you start?

Here is a quick step-by-step regarding emigrating with pets:

Step 1: Consult with your veterinarian

Your vet will have dealt with this question of emigration hundreds of times, so be sure to ask them for any advice on how to prepare your pet for emigration. From health checks, vaccinations, and preparation for transport, to calming medications, microchipping, and even just reassuring your furry or purry friend that everything will be okay ‘on the other side’. 

Step 2: Give yourself at least 4 to 9 months

From start to finish, prepping your pet for emigration can take four to nine months. This includes ensuring they have all the correct vaccinations, administered by the right vet, in the right order, as well as ensuring they have the correct microchip – something that must be done before any vaccinations. See more below.

Step 3: Contact a reputable pet relocation company

Specialists in pet relocation can ensure that you don’t try to reinvent the wheel when emigrating from South Africa with your pets. Keep your vet in the loop about which pet travel agency you’re using – open communication will save a lot of time should there be any delays or additional stressors in the pet emigration process. A pet relocation company will also have all the latest relevant information on the requirements for your pet at your destination country, so don’t try to go at this on your own.

Step 4: Make sure your pet is ISO-microchipped

Confirm with your veterinarian that your furry or purry friend has an ISO microchip. This part is important: it must be ISO (International Standards Organization) so that it can be scanned anywhere in the world. This will be especially useful if your brave pup decides to escape in an unfamiliar country. It will also help for your pet to have external ID like a collar with a tag with your name and international number or email address.

NB: Your pet must be microchipped before receiving any of the relevant vaccinations.

If your pet gets their vaccinations before their microchip, those vaccinations will not be valid and you’ll have to wait to redo the shots after their microchip is inserted.

Step 5: Get your pet’s rabies shots done in the right sequence

At your pet’s time of departure, their rabies shots must still be valid, which means the vaccination:

  • must have been given more than 30 days prior
  • must have been given less than 12 months prior
  • must be officially recorded on your pet’s vet card

Also make sure that your pet’s other vaccinations (5-in-1 for dogs and 3-in-1 for cats) are still valid and recorded in their vet card.

NB: To ensure that your pet’s rabies vaccination is recognised for international relocation, it must be given by a vet who’s registered with the South African Vet Council (SAVC). The state vet must also validate that this has been done. No rabies vaccination given by breeders, veterinary assistants, pet rescues or SPCA is valid for this purpose.

Step 6: Get the Rabies Neutralising Antibody Titre Test (RNATT) done at the right time

In order to prove that your pet’s immunity against rabies is effective, an antibody test will need to be done at least 30 days after their rabies vaccination. The state vet will deny clearance if this timeline is not adhered to, which means your pet may need to be quarantined when they arrive in your destination country… or they may not be allowed to enter at all!

The results of the rabies titre test will only be available 90 days after it was administered, with an antibody count of 0.5 IU/ml or more. Only when the state vet can prove that your pet is effectively vaccinated against rabies will a health certificate be issued.

Step 7: Get a provincial health certificate for your pet

You’ll need to make sure you complete all the information on your pet’s provincial health certificate before you can apply for a veterinary health certificate. An appointment must be made for this application.

Preparing your pets for emigration

As soon as you start the process of emigration, think of your pets. They will need to be transported in an approved crate (one per pet), so now is the time to get hold of the crate and ensure your pet is comfortable inside it. This is not a process to start a week before your pet is due to travel – what if they hate the crate?

Crate considerations

  • As soon as you have the right crate for transporting your pet, use positive reinforcement to get them used to the crate.
  • Never send your pet to the crate as punishment.
  • The crate must be a safe, relaxing and enjoyable place for your pet.
  • Things to help your pet ‘become friends’ with the crate include treats, their favourite toy (to only be given when they are inside the crate), encouragement from you, and a simply positive experience.

When the time comes to emigrate, your pets will feel the high stress of your family’s experience, so having a safe, calm crate to retreat to can actually be highly beneficial. When they feel stressed, they may automatically feel more comfortable in the crate, which will work wonders when they need to be transported in it.

Health considerations

In the months leading up to emigration, sort out any health issues your pets may have. Pets that are obese, sick, allergic or who have joint pain may have a harder time travelling – nevermind the anxiety loaded on top of their existing ailments. Use these months to work with your veterinarian and resolve any lingering health issues.

DO NOT SEDATE YOUR PET to calm them down for their travel experience. Calming aids like gels, tablets, collars and sprays help to relieve your pet’s stress and anxiety, as they contain calming pheromones and amino acids that help to bring balance to a stressed pet. Sedatives and tranquilisers, on the other hand, slow down your pet’s heartrate, have an effect on their blood pressure and impact temperature regulation. This is dangerous for a stressed pet in the cargo hold of an aeroplane.

On the other side

When you and your pet have made it to the other side unscathed, it’s important to include your newly emigrated dog or cat in your own process of acclimatisation. It’s not unusual for them to feel bewildered in a new and unfamiliar place, so try to maintain their eat, sleep, play, walk routine. Find the local veterinarian and when your dog or cat has settled in, take them for a check-up and to introduce them to their new vet.

You and your pets can offer each other support and love in a new and strange place – be each other’s heroes while you find your feet (and paws) again in your home-away-from-home.

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