5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Relocating Your Pets Abroad

A chill ran down my spine and my heart sank, yet again.  Looking out across the cargo parking lot through the van windshield with a cat in a pet carrier on my lap, I could see the cargo employee shaking her head.  Now what?  Then, Alan, standing there, his back to me in the dimly lit check-in office, waving his arms about in disbelief.  Oh God!  Have we failed at the finish line?

Fluffy, white snow was falling lightly on black tarmac before me, the windshield wipers – my nemesis – groaning intermittently as they swept reality into focus with every stroke.  It was just a couple of degrees above freezing, an early November day dawning in Seattle, Washington, with a massive storm on the horizon.

Why was I here?  Punishment for all my sins?  My name:  Donna; a southern girl struggling in the north.  I’ve been through it all, I’ve done it all in my 60 odd years of existence.  But this?  Could it get any worse?  I should not have asked.  Of course it could, and it would.  Seven pets to transport by air out of country, along with myself, all of my meager belongings and my trusted boyfriend who had flown up from Belize, Central America, to help me with relocation.

It all started several months earlier, mid August, to be precise.  Plenty of time, one would think, to book flights for departure by the end of October.  Think again.

Pitfall No. 1.  Import Permits and a Man on the Ground

Alan was in Belize when I asked him if he could contact the Agricultural Health Authority for a permit to import my pets:  Three dogs, one cat, and three coatimundi (coatis; long-nosed mammals in the raccoon family).  Alan runs a recognized wildlife sanctuary in Belize where he rehabilitates and releases wild animals, including coatis.  Step one; BAHA issued him with permits for the dogs and my cat within a week.  All they required on entry was a current rabies vaccination and a Health Certificate from a licensed vet issued within 10 days of arrival, stating the animals were in good condition and free of ticks and fleas.  For the coatis, however, a sign-off was required from The Forestry and Wildlife Department (FD), as coatis in Belize are classed as wildlife.

And this is where everything began to go pear-shaped.   Heads up…

Officers at FD were very courteous, though ruthless in their quest for procedure.  Beyond the usual, name, weight, age, species, and sex, they required proof of being born in captivity, a history of medical records, and a certificate of spay/neuter.  Hang on!  Turncoat, my eldest, was seven years old, Cody was previously owned by a woman in Texas, and Zola was delivered from Turncoat during a miscarriage.  Somehow we were supposed to dig up all this documentation from years gone by in a matter of days?

Exotic pets entering most countries will have far stricter regulations than dogs, cats, and ferrets.  Be warned.  An African gray parrot, a cockatoo, a chinchilla, or a moose, will no doubt all be subject to rigorous scrutiny and reams of paperwork by the destination country.

The crunch came several weeks later when FD had everything, except one nagging detail:  Zola was not spayed.  It was the beginning of September and it was all my vet could do to squeeze Zola into his busy schedule for a spay procedure during the last week of the month.  Meanwhile, Alan had an idea.  He was going to pressure FD with a compassionate plea:  Animals are denied transit in the U.S. and entry into most countries if they show any signs of ailment or recent surgery.  It would take at least six weeks for Zola to heal.  That would push my travel plans to middle of November – scary, with winter temperature restrictions looming.  Would they permit Alan to take custody of Zola on entry to Belize and place him in charge of seeing to her procedure “in country?”  This was unheard of; even my vet was shaking his head.

A few agonizing days dragged by; my stomach a mess, I couldn’t eat, my head pounding with a migraine.  I was a wreck.  Then, finally, the news:  Yes, FD accepted the proposal.  Zola could be spayed in Belize.  Wow!  I was elated.  Time to pack, I thought.  Wrong!  If you are thinking of relocating to a foreign country with your pets, pitfalls abound…  This was just the beginning, importing exotic species.  Exporting large dogs was to become an even worse nightmare.

Alan rushed the FD authorization to BAHA expecting a formality.  Sure enough, two days later and an email from BAHA: “Your permits will be issued within the week.  Please be sure to have Zola spayed before entry..!”  What?

I burst into tears.  I could see the snow storms piling up in the hills, weather forecasts ringing in my ears, thoughts of my aging furnace breaking down this winter and all my babies dying one night.  Though Alan tried to console me he failed to make an impression.  So he went silent; no more messages from him that day.  Early next morning he was on the phone to BAHA, Friday, a long weekend ahead in Belize.  Zola’s spay in my hometown was scheduled for the following Wednesday.  Alan took one last stab.  He had a hunch.

“Yes, sir.  No, sir.  Please email me the FD authorization, again.  I never looked at it.  They are always the same.”

Well, this one was different.  Wham..!  And in one stroke of good fortune the awful calamity was overturned.  BAHA acknowledged their mistake and issued permits immediately.  The moral here being:  Don’t try this from home; a friend on the ground is worth a hundred emails and many months of agonizing frustration.  Decide how long you think you will need to begin the final bookings for your relocation, then double it.

Now the clock was ticking.  Wasted weeks, late September and our FD authorization would expire on the 17th of November.  While I worked on scheduling seven animals into two different vet clinics, my travel documents, and umpteen service cancellations, Alan was on a plane bound for Washington State and me.  I couldn’t possibly relocate that many pets and belongings on my own.  One was a Great Pyrenees mountain dog, requiring a giant, 700 series pet carrier.

Donna Deck

Pitfall No. 2.  Internet and Emails vs. the Good Old Phone

Initially, we had considered United Airlines as our choice for transporting all seven animals and we humans to Belize.  Alan had done the leg work over the previous month and, now in Washington, he could call on the phone to make reservations and understand fully the regulations required for U.S. transit of pets – quicker and easier than emailing, you would think.  Think again.  First of all:  Never rely solely on the internet, not even the pages of information provided by such government authorities as The USDA, IATA, or APHIS; nor the airlines themselves nor professed pet authorities in the business.  For one thing it is a day’s page chase to find and foreclose each item that you are looking for and, second, what you often find are only half the facts.

Do coatimundis need an export license?  APHIS, via email, finally shrugged and said, “Er, we don’t think so.  They are not listed on CITES.” What about short-nosed dogs?  Which breeds exactly, what about mixed lines and what are their acclimation limits? “Oh, you can find that out online.”

Really?  Are you kidding?  OK, you have an exotic loved one you bought in a pet store.  Does that mean it is recognized as such and will show up in the APHIS database online?  Not always.  Here’s the fall back:  Vet clinics; they are often far more savvy.  Trust USDA accredited clinics.

Now, get on the phone.  No, you don’t save time, but it’s worth it in the end.  Just make sure you get an email confirming your phone conversation, then print it out and wave it about.  There are a heap of people between you and your destination, all trying to tell you that you are wrong.  Here’s what happens all too often:  One hour and 10 minutes on hold with a call center and Alan was now first in line and about to speak to a rep when, “Click!”  The rep accidentally pressed the wrong button and disconnected him.

That was the first time Alan lost his cool.  The second time was 55 minutes later when a rep told him United Airlines would ship animals if they had a Health Certificate within 10 days of tender (not to be confused with the destination Import Health Certificate, mind you – yes, there are two), however, they would not ship animals unless their rabies shots were at least 21 days old.  OMG..!

Now I was screaming.  We had scheduled a possible departure within two weeks, with rabies shots being given on the same day as the 10-day Health Check.  Crap.  Now what?  Three full-sized dogs, a cat in a carrier, Alan and I, crammed into a Honda Accord later, and we were heading for the emergency clinic.  That was that afternoon kaput.  The following day, three snarling coatis drawing blood from us by the cup-full were being bundled into their carriers for a trip to a different clinic.  Graciously, my vet fitted them in, albeit, with reservations. “Never heard of this 21-day reg.”

Alan, on the phone again to United a day later for re-scheduling, let out a god almighty howl of disgust.  He had just been told by another rep that they did not require 21 days for rabies vaccinations on domestic flights, only international. “Excuse me, but the country of destination only requires the shots be current.”  The supervisor was summoned and apologized.  21 days was not a requirement at all.  Oh, thanks..!  And then in another breath:  However, United cannot carry 700 Series crates on their second hop out of Houston.  All they fly are Boeing 737s or A320s to Belize – too small a cargo hold for giant crates.

This is an element of pet transit that is often overlooked.  Each airline has its own demands.  While they state that they abide by IATA regulations, they add their own rules, being private companies with a right to do so.  For example:  One airline will demand metal pins securing pet carriers, others will not; while one will refuse to allow towels or blankets in pet carriers, others couldn’t care less.  And most provide all labeling for your pet carriers, so don’t get fooled into buying an accessory kit.  Check it out on the phone.  Then double check.  Don’t ever rely on the internet.

goat house cover

We were back to square one.  Time was running out.  So, Delta Airlines was called; almost double the price of United.  What the hey!  We were running out of choices, too.  Yes, they could carry our seven animals all the way to Miami, via Atlanta, then on to Belize.  They flew bigger planes at certain times, but we would have to use an IPATA pet service for international flights.  They did not accept owners consigned to animal transfers at layovers between flights, stated the knowledgeable Delta Cargo rep.


Pitfall No. 3.  Should you use a Pet Transport Service?

Damn, and we were getting so close.  I had used one of these IPATA agents in the past, when shipping Turncoat and two male coatis out of Belize five years earlier, and the service was a disgrace.  No guarantees, little done as had been highlighted in glossy, website pages – and then to find my babies dumped at cargo with doors closing for the night, abandoned and dehydrated.  So I was reticent.  Meanwhile, Alan calls up half a dozen and makes a short list.  Cost?  Anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000 just to take charge of seven carriers for 6 hours and transfer them from Delta domestic to international cargo.  Admittedly, and with a chuckle, one agent exclaimed that pet relocation was extremely complex, and that it was best to leave them up to the logistics and reservations from tender to destination; they had the experience.

Uhuh…  And that would cost?  $6,000 was an estimate, just for the three coatis on United.  Imagine all seven and giant dog carriers to boot..?  No!  We were trying to save money, not spend it like toilet paper.

The following day, a call to reserve flights with Delta for my pets hits another brick wall.  We want to be on board the same flight, so we need to check seat availability around the clock.  Just as we were about to get confirmation of the animals’ bookings, the rep says, “Belize?  No.  You were misinformed.  We don’t fly pets in cargo to Belize anymore.  We no longer have a rep on the ground there.”

“Bh… but her name was…  And she works in your cargo offices.  She said…”

It is 2:00 on a Friday afternoon in Washington State, offices 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.  I start to panic, I can’t think straight, or maybe it’s the tranquilizers.  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.  Do I have to charter a plane?  Christ.  Then I remembered a name: Amerigroup?  Ameripack?  Ameri-something…

“Amerijet,” Alan snaps.

My Exotic Pets

Pitfall No. 4.  Too Many Middlemen

We spend the weekend researching, surfing, in conversation, out of sorts, as the first snow flakes begin to fall outside in the yard.  Gaylord, my Pyrenees, is up in a flash, loves a deep freeze, gale force winds, and a white-out.  Plan B begins to take shape.  Amerijet is a cargo company.  Their online schedule shows a flight out of Miami on Mondays arriving midday, being the 30th October, or the following 6th of November.  So it seems we could fly Delta to Miami then split with the animals and take an AA flight to Belize.

Monday, 23rd October, and Alan is hanging on the line for an Amerijet pet rep.  Half an hour goes by.  He is transferred.  No answer.  Frustration sets in.  I head into town for supplies, an hour’s drive to Spokane; angry, deluded, fearing the worst:  Another winter in hell.  On my return, Alan looks glum.  He has finally got through to Amerijet, only to find that the online schedule is out of date and that the new schedule for November will not be published till the end of the week, ie. the end of October.

Are they mad?  What kind of business is this that leaves their customers hanging till the last day of the month?  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: $2,000.

Ouch!  We just hit $6,000 for my pets’ transit alone, not to mention all the expenses related to carriers and IATA regulation accessories, truck hire to Seattle, vet fees and so much more.  A finger then clicks; a light bulb comes on.  Wait a minute!  We could fly with the coatis on United in their small carriers all the way to Belize through Houston, with only a three hour overlay handled by the airline’s “Pet Safe” policy, 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, and Plan C is taking shape.

My exotic pet vet then gives us an ultimatum:  Wednesday the 1st of November is his only available appointment for the coatis’ Health Certificates; his wife will be going into labor by the end of that week.  Are you still thinking of relocating with your pets?  Read on.  How many pieces of this puzzle must fall into place when deadlines, regulations, time constraints, and availability are set by so many different middlemen, none of whom care about the others in the chain or your ultimate dilemma?

Now Alan must extend his stay in Washington for a further week and put up with more of my belly-aching misery.  Poor man.  Just then, Amerijet calls back after many email exchanges and says, “Oops!” The flight schedule is the same for November, so Monday the 6th is fine.  Well, gosh gee and gawd darn it, who’da thunk.  All that waiting around to month’s end for nothing.  Alan flies into action while I fly into a money-pursing panic.

Pitfall No. 5. Tendering Your Pets at Cargo

On Tuesday, the 31st of October, all flights are confirmed; everyone is satisfied.  Time for the final vet clinic certificates on Wednesday and Thursday.  Then it’s up for me to pack four huge suitcases with all of my possessions.  Actually not all – clothes mostly; I’ll have to come back for the rest of my belongings next year.  I have just two days left.  Our rental minivan is booked for Saturday, the 4th of November, with a six-hour, overnight drive west through Snoqualmie Pass and The Cascades to Seattle, on the eve of the first winter snow storm of the year – and Alan hasn’t driven in snow for over 15 years.

It is also going to be a tight squeeze in a minivan.  Seven loose animals, collapsed pet carriers, food for two days, papers and accessories, two humans and six overweight, pieces of luggage.  You might be wondering how on Earth we managed to squeeze it and them all in.  Magic!  I hired an illusionist.  Dodge should be proud of their vacuous Caravan space capacity.  It had to be a van rather than a box truck because vans have heating throughout and we are heading for a frozen, mountain pass.  

That is why I am sitting here at 5:00 a.m. on November the 5th, with a cat in a carrier on my lap, deprived of sleep, cranky, staring out in horror at the Delta Cargo office, Alan arms in the air and snow settling in the car lot all around me.  After all we have been through, am I about to lose over $12,000 at the first extraction hurdle?  If just one animal is not loaded, we have to pull the plug.  I’m not leaving a single one behind.  I can’t.  My babies.

Tears are welling in my eyes as I see Alan returning to our van.  He opens the driver side door.

“The vet Acclimation Note states no animals allowed in transit below 40 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says.  Then goes on. “Delta checked the temps on the tarmac and it’s reading 38 degrees.”

“But one is a Pyrenees Mountain Dog,” I scream. “The other two, Pot-lickers.  Are they crazy?”

“It’s OK,” Alan says quietly. “I asked if they would accept a signed waiver from you.  It’s all I could think of.  They agreed.”

“Well, hell!” I groaned. “Why didn’t you say that first.  You almost gave me a heart attack.”

Three dogs and a cat have made it to their first rendezvous.  Only just.  A kindly woman handling pets at Sea-Tac Delta Cargo goes to extreme lengths to make us and my pets comfortable.  She offers blankets for the carriers and goes the extra mile.  She tells us that Charlie, a Catahoula mixed breed is too big for his carrier. But instead of refusing to accept him she swaps out our carrier for a bigger 700 series they have, for just a hundred bucks.  That woman was a jewel.

An hour later and, with snow now swirling across the parking lot, we return to our motel room and three coatimundis.  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.  What a mess.  A rock band couldn’t have trashed that room better than they did.  Alan cleaned out the van in blinding snow while I cleaned the room.

There are two ends of a thermometer, hot and cold.  Temperature limits for transport are set by IATA for many different breeds and species; the airlines have their own rules, too.  We took cold weather to the limit, however you are just as likely to have the same issue in the southern states with hot weather – 85 degrees being the cutoff.  And don’t forget the country of destination; your airline won’t.

Moreover:  Don’t forget customs duties at your destination country.  Live produce can exact a hefty toll.  It could freeze your resolve.Consumer Resource Guide

Sunday, the 5th of November, the clocks went back.  We knew about it but expected it to happen at midnight.  It did, but in the first hour that morning, not at the end of the night.  Trying to get the coatis back in their carriers, having had the run of a motel room for a day was sheer chaos.  They are swift and supple little devils, slippery eels with huge talons and scissor-like canines.  Welding gear and snake handling gloves are the only options when “sweet talk” just doesn’t cut it.   We arrived at United Cargo covered in blood and panic, an hour late, we thought.  No..!  We were bang on time.

The employees at United were excited to see us.  Well, not us, the animals!  They had them listed as “raccoons.”  We corrected them, much to their amusement, as they Googled coatimundi just to be sure.  At the gate, and a couple of minutes late for departure, the captain of our aircraft comes on the PA to applause and raucous laughter in the main cabin:

“Folks we have a slight delay before push-back.  We are carefully loading up the last of our delicate freight in the cargo hold:  A dog and three raccoons – and I’m not kidding.  Three raccoons!”

We had made it.  I was finally going home, back to my beautiful Belize.

On logging into WiFi while in-flight that red-eye morning, Alan got an ominous email.  It was the IPATA agent responsible for transferring my dogs and cat between airlines in Miami. “Can you call us immediately?” It read.  Alan never told me…

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



Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA), for import permits. animalhealth@baha.org.bz

Belize Forestry Department (FD), for exotic animal authorization.  secretary.fd@ffsd.gov.bz

Amerijet: international freight only air transport out of Miami. Call Center: 305 593-5500

Delta Cargo, for pet freight and handling. Call Center: 800 352-2746

United Airlines “Pet Safe,” for freight handling. Call Center: 800 575-3335

International Pet and Animal Transport Assoc. (IPATA), for pet transport services.  www.ipata.org

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), for accredited vet clinics and exotic animal export from USA.  Wa.Export.Animals@aphis.usda.gov

International Air Transport Assoc. (IATA), for freight regulations.  www.iata.org/cargo/live-animals

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