Pets on Planes? 5 Potential Pitfalls When Relocating Your Loved Ones

by Alan R. Graham

A chill ran down her spine and her heart sank. It was 5 a.m. and my girlfriend peered out across a dark parking lot through a van windshield with a cat in a pet carrier on her lap. She could clearly make out the Delta Airlines cargo officer shaking his head at me while I stood in a dimly lit check-in office, waving my arms about in disbelief. Snow was falling on the tarmac, the windshield wipers groaning as they swept reality into focus with every painful stroke. It was just a couple of degrees above freezing on a November morning in Seattle, Washington, with a massive snowstorm to hit in just a couple of hours.

Could it get any worse? Of course it could … and it would. We had seven pets, two humans and six suitcases to transport by air out of country, and it was down to the wire.

It all started several months earlier, in mid-August – plenty of time, one would think, to book flights and prepare animals for departure by the end of October. Admittedly, our case was a little extreme. We had to contend with domestic and international flight issues, with both exotic and standard pets in tow. We identified some pitfalls that may help you in your travels.

Pitfall No. 1: Import Permits
I had to contact the Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) for a permit to import my girlfriend’s pets. I run a wildlife sanctuary in Belize and she was relocating from Washington with three dogs, one cat and three coatimundi.

Step one was a cinch: BAHA issued me permits for the dogs and cat within a week. They required a current rabies vaccination, plus a health certificate from a licensed vet issued within 10 days of arrival stating good condition and free of ticks, worms and fleas.

For the coatis, however, a sign-off was required from the Forestry and Wildlife Department (FD). This is when everything began to go pear-shaped.
Beyond the usual information, they required proof of being born in captivity, a full history of medical records and a certificate of spay/neuter. Somehow we were supposed to dig up all this documentation?

A week later, FD had everything except one nagging detail: Zola was not spayed. A Spokane vet would squeeze Zola into his schedule in the nick of time, but the problem was, animals are denied transit and entry into most countries if they show any signs of ailment or recent surgery.

That would push our travel plans to mid-November, postponing relocation for another year due to winter temperature restrictions. I asked FD to let me take custody of Zola on entry to Belize and place me in charge of seeing to her procedure in country. They agreed.

Time to book flights, I thought. Wrong! This was just the beginning … importing exotic species takes time. Decide how long you think you will need before reserving those pet flights … then double it. The clock was ticking. Our FD permit would expire on November 17 but we were bogged down in government regulations vs. airline practices, many of which seemed to conflict.

Pitfall No. 2: Internet and emails vs. the good old phone
Initially we considered United Airlines for transport to Belize due to their well-managed “pet safe” in-transit policy. But I could not rely solely on the internet, not even the USDA website, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) or APHIS. Websites often lack answers to your specific questions, offering only a “catch all” summary or providing confusing fact-sheets. Some online pet stores are fantastic when it comes to products needed for transport, but trusting their information about IATA regulations and airline specifications is iffy. So, get on the phone.

USDA-accredited veterinary clinics are far more savvy. They will do a lot of the prep for you, it’s their remit – and not just requirements for export; internally each state has different laws governing pet entry and transit. They know.

To transport a pet in cargo, domestic or international, you need four things sorted out:
An IATA approved carrier with all feeding and bedding accessories
Time-sensitive vet documentation approved by state and/or countries
Flight reservations and land transfer, with handlers for tender, pick up and layovers
Nerves of steel
If your pooch is a standard sized Dachshund or Spaniel you probably won’t have much to worry about. A pig or a goat is another matter. And a python will raise eyebrows. Lastly, more than two of anything … that’s where things can get really out of hand.

Pitfall No. 3: Should you use a pet transport service?
Time was running out. So, we called Delta Airlines; almost double the pet price of United, by the way, but we had little choice. Yes, they could carry our seven animals all the way to Miami, via Atlanta, then on to Belize. Also, we would have to use an IPATA pet service agency for international flights.

Reluctantly, I called up half a dozen IPATA agents and made a short list. Cost? Anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000 just to take charge of seven carriers for six hours and transfer them from Delta domestic to international cargo in Miami – about a mile.

One agent explained that pet transit was extremely complex and to leave it to them; they had the experience. “We take the stress out of pet transport.”

They gave an estimate of $6,000 just for the three coatis on United. Imagine all seven and giant dog carriers. A call to reserve pet flights with Delta hits another road bump. We wanted to be on board the same flight – on call if something goes awry – especially with unpredictable coatis that no one has experience handling. IPATA agents could not guarantee such a scenario. So we moved on.

We were about to get our pet bookings confirmed when the rep said, “All good – except for one thing. The final leg. Belize? No. You were misinformed. We don’t fly pets in cargo to Belize anymore. I’m told we no longer have a rep on the ground there.”

It is 2:00 on a Friday afternoon in Washington State and offices are closing in Miami. Now what do we do? We are just a week from the end of October and the window within which we had planned to leave. American Airlines is the only other carrier flying to Belize out of the U.S., but they only allow two pets per passenger and fly only 737s. Honestly. Do I have to charter a whole plane?

Then I remembered a name in the Belize airport: Amerijet.

Pitfall No. 4: Too many middlemen
I spend the weekend researching, griping and out of sorts. Literally hours of our time is swallowed up as the first snowflakes begin to fall outside. Plan B begins to take shape. Amerijet is a cargo company. Their online schedule shows flights out of Miami arriving midday. So it seems we could fly Delta to Miami – if the right sized plane coincides – then split with the animals and take an AA flight to Belize.

I am hanging on the line for an Amerijet pet rep. Half an hour goes by and finally I get through, only to find that the online flight schedule is out of date and the new schedule will not be published until the end of the week – the end of October.

How can we book half a dozen flights at the last minute and hope to get availability? Cargo space and passenger seats are going fast. We are at the mercy of Amerijet with just days to go. Cost for all seven pets on a two-hour flight from Miami to Belize: $2,200.

Ouch! We just hit $6,000 for pet transit alone, not to mention all the expenses related to carriers and IATA specs, truck hire to Seattle, motel, vet fees, an IPATA agent in Miami and so much more.

A light bulb comes on. Wait a minute! We could fly with the coatis on United all the way to Belize through Houston, with only a three-hour layover handled by trusty “Pet Safe,” while the three big dogs and the cat fly Delta to Miami and then onward to Belize on Amerijet. A hasty reshuffle, a check on seat availability, some price savings, and Plan C is taking shape.

The exotic pet vet in Spokane then gives us an ultimatum: Wednesday, November 1 is his only available appointment for the coatis’ health certificates. How many pieces of this puzzle must fall into place when deadlines, regulations, time constraints and availability are set by so many different middlemen?

Just then, the delightful Amerijet rep says, “Monday, November 6 is fine.” Time for the credit card max-out.

Pitfall No. 5: Tendering your pets at cargo
Now for the final vet clinic certificates, then it’s time to pack four huge suitcases with all but the kitchen sink. Our rental minivan is booked with a seven-hour, overnight drive through the Cascades to Seattle, on the eve of the first winter snowstorm of the year.

It is also going to be a tight squeeze in the minivan. We disassembled pet carriers which meant seven loose animals, bundles of food parcels, tools, two humans and six overweight pieces of luggage. Dodge should be proud of their vacuous Caravan space capacity.

And that is why my girlfriend was sitting there at 5 a.m. with a cat carrier on her lap, deprived of sleep, staring in horror at the Delta Cargo office. After all we had been through, were we about to lose over $12,000 at the first extraction hurdle? If just one animal is not loaded, we will have to pull the plug. No one gets left behind.

I told her, “The Vet Acclimation Note states no animals allowed in transit below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Delta checked the temps on the tarmac and it’s reading 38.”

“But one is a Pyrenees mountain dog,” she screams. “The other two are pot-lickers, for crying out loud.”

I asked if they would accept a signed waiver from her, the owner, and they agreed.

Three dogs and a cat had apparently made it to their first rendezvous, just barely. A kindly woman officer handling pets at Sea-Tac Delta Cargo goes to extraordinary lengths. She tells us that Charlie, a Catahula mixed breed, is too big for his carrier, but instead of refusing to accept him, she swaps out our carrier for a bigger one for $100.

An hour later we return to our “no animals” motel room with three coatis. Their tender to United Cargo would be 8:15 p.m. We had all day to sleep, eat, open up the carriers, play with feisty pets and then … yes, clean up after them. A rock band couldn’t have trashed that room better than they did.

There are two ends of a thermometer – you are just as likely to have the same issue in the southern states with hot weather – 85 degrees Fahrenheit being the cut off. Moreover, don’t forget customs duties on arrival. Live produce can have hidden costs that can sting worse than frostbite.

It was time to get the coatis back in their carriers having had the run of a motel room for a day. What a nightmare. We arrived at United Cargo covered in blood and in a state of panic … and we were bang on time, thanks to a time change.

The employees at United were excited to see us – no, not us – the animals! They had them listed as “raccoons.” The airline captain comes on the PA to applause and laughter when he says, “Folks we have a slight delay before push-back. We are carefully loading up the last of our delicate freight in the cargo hold: three raccoons – yup, and I’m not kidding. Three raccoons!”

We were finally on our way, back to beautiful Belize, but on logging into Wi-Fi that red-eye morning I got an ominous email from the IPATA agent responsible for transferring the dogs and cat in Miami. “Can you call us immediately?” it read. I cringed.

Five minutes later another email. “Not to worry. Everything is OK. Have a great day.”