With So Much Red Tape, Are You Sure You Want to Travel With Your Pet?

Make sure the red tape is worth your dog's trip to Europe

Chocolate Labrador Retriever Dog in Empty Suitcase
Traveling abroad with your pet is a big decision. Purple Collar Pet Photography / Getty Images

If you are considering taking your pet to Europe, we suggest you reconsider. The following testimonial is from one New York-based dog owner, who brings his dog with him every time he travels to his vacation house in Italy. The following information is based on what European Union (EU) countries like Italy require to bring pets into the EU.

A caveat: Neither the writer nor this pet owner is a professional in the pet transport industry.

This is the story of one person’s experience over several years, with his advice for navigating the process. Do your homework before traveling and check with your veterinarian and the ​US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which facilitates international pet travel.

Let’s just say up front that this is not the fun part of travel. With that in mind, the following describes the process—and problems—that an experienced pet owner has had to go through since 2002 to bring a pet into the EU with him.

Before You Go

Before you go, check with your airline’s customer service and the USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Service for the latest information on pet travel requirements. 

Once you are at the website, go to the USDA's international regulations governing animal exports. This is a good source of general information and the place where you’ll find all the necessary animal export forms you’ll need. You can download and print these in Word.

Select the country that will be your port of entry and check the regulations.

When it comes to importing animals, the USDA errs on the side of caution. Caution seems to have worked for the United States, which has one of the lowest incidences of rabies in the world.

Proving Your Dog Is Healthy

First, a veterinarian must endorse an international health certificate saying that your dog is healthy and up to date on vaccinations; the veterinarian must be USDA accredited to do so.

If your vet does not have this credential, he or she should be able to direct you to an accredited vet who does. It is highly recommended that you download the USDA's helpful checklist for what owners must do to obtain an international health certificate for pets.

If you are going to an EU country, you must have this done within 10 days before you arrive, not sooner. This is because the country where you are going will be looking for very current evidence of your dog's bona fide state of health. They will be looking for this because this is an EU requirement.

The Hard Part: the USDA and the Microchip

The form certifying good health must be sent to the USDA for a stamp and signatures. That means you need to get the vet to give your dog a checkup exactly 10 days before you leave since you need to mail the forms (usually supplied by the vet) and have them returned to you before you leave. An efficient way to do this is to send the forms by FedEx and include a prepaid return FedEx envelope.

Another EU requirement is that the dog must have a microchip. When you travel, you will need to bring along a scanner to read that particular type of chip since there are different brands and the customs people where you are going may not have the right one.

This can cost anywhere from about $100 or under for a brand-specific microchip scanner for about $500 for a universal microchip scanner. The scanner is a good investment because you will be able to keep using the same scanner over and over for as long as your pet is microchipped. Remember to test it each time to make sure it’s in good working order.

Reserve Space in Cargo for Your Dog

You will need to reserve a space for your dog in cargo when you book your flight. Ask your airline if you can bring a small dog into the cabin with you and supply the dog’s weight, which determines whether the dog is small enough. The dog must be in a proper airline-approved travel crate; again, speak with airline customer service to make sure you have the right size for your dog.

The fare for a dog is usually a few hundred dollars round-trip to EU countries.

Many airlines will not accept dogs for cargo in the summer because animal crates are placed in a part of the plane that’s not air-conditioned, and dogs have been known to expire from the heat. When you hand the dog over to the ground crew before takeoff, make certain the crate is securely closed. Otherwise, you may witness airline staff trying to catch your dog after he bolts from the crate and starts running around the tarmac while you look on helplessly from the gate. This does happen, so beware.

When You and Your Dog Arrive

After you have jumped through all these hoops, this is what to expect when arriving in Europe: a long wait for the dog to be unloaded and, after he is unloaded, a dog who is definitely not happy with you. Depending on the country, chances are good that no one will even glance at the paperwork that you have gone to great trouble to have in good order.

The dog will need to drink or pee immediately after you clear customs, so bring something the dog can drink from. It is best not to give a dog a big meal right away; wait a bit until the dog settles down.

On the return trip, US Customs will scrutinize your paperwork…even if the pages are upside down. This has been known to happen to our intrepid dog owner. As he says, you can't make this stuff up.

This particular owner considers the process a headache for everyone concerned, including his dog. But there is no choice. It requires planning, which makes it difficult for folks with a spontaneous approach to life. Do it wrong and you may not be allowed to enter the country, which means you’ll probably have to do an intercontinental U-turn. And that, above all, is something you really do not want to do.