By Maureen Johnston and Sarah Genton
Thousands of pets accompany U.S. diplomatic personnel overseas, which comes as no surprise to those who cherish their furry family members. Dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and even horses (among other animals) travel the world with their families, providing unconditional love, emotional support, and stability in the Foreign Service’s transient lifestyle.
Despite the known benefits, the challenges of traveling with pets have increased dramatically in the last five years. Host country import and quarantine requirements and restrictions, stricter airline policies, new U.S. government and European Union rabies titer vaccination requirements, housing limitations, the possibility of an evacuation, and last-minute glitches in travel plans all complicate the ability to take a pet overseas and move it from one location to another.
Many colleagues within the Department of State, and in the broader international affairs community, are working to gather and synthesize the plethora of rapidly changing information and advocate for pet owners who face increasing challenges. The Overseas Briefing Center (OBC), a division of the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) Transition Center, has long been known for its expertise in pet shipping and partnership with federal agencies involved in the requirements for the relocation of pets. OBC collaborates with many federal offices to ensure foreign affairs pet owners have the most up-to-date information available.
Not all pets, however, are able to join their foreign affairs owners in every overseas location. Those new to the Foreign Service or new to pet ownership may be surprised to learn the barriers for shipping and bringing to post snub-nose pets, “aggressive breed” dogs, dogs that weigh more than 80 pounds, birds, and other types of pets. Many countries restrict specific breeds, a few restrict pet size, some limit the number of pets, and some require pets to undergo a quarantine period. When bidding on a new assignment and/or being assigned to a new post, employees and family members should be aware of breed and size restrictions and the timeframes required for vaccinations and health certificates. OBC’s Post Pet Surveys and each post’s Travel Message Three include this information.
Pet owners also face issues when transiting through European Union (EU) countries if they get off the plane with a pet for an overnight stay. This requires meeting EU standards for pet entry.
Regardless of whether a host country requires a microchip, OBC strongly recommends that all pet owners taking a pet abroad microchip their cats and dogs with a 15-digit International Organization for Standardization (ISO)-compliant microchip (ISO standards 11784 and 11785) and that they band their birds.
When the Genton family shipped their cocker spaniel to Spain, they made a crucial error. Their dog Sammy had a non-compliant ISO microchip from 2003. To dutifully prepare for Madrid, the Gentons arranged for the required rabies booster. The vet recorded Sammy’s microchip on the rabies paperwork. Soon after, the Gentons decided to equip Sammy with a new 15-digit ISO-compliant chip. However, now, the rabies paperwork did not match the dog’s new chip, which would have caused a problem if the airlines or the destination country had compared the paperwork and the microchip number to identify the pet.
Maureen Johnston, OBC resource specialist and pet shipping expert, makes the point in every pet presentation at FSI that “microchips should always be implanted prior to administering the required rabies booster. The microchip noted on the rabies booster certificate and the microchip that shows up when the animal is scanned must match.”
Besides the rabies vaccine, some countries might require additional vaccinations, including an expensive rabies titer test several months prior to entry. Entry requirements for many countries worldwide are on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) website. If APHIS has a treaty with a specific country, it lists the timeline for vaccinations, blood tests, and the specific paperwork needed. Once a USDA-accredited veterinarian certifies the pet’s health and the necessary procedures are completed, most countries also require the USDA APHIS endorsement of the health certificate. The good news is that during the pandemic, when most in-person government services closed, the process for endorsing pet health forms converted to 100% electronic. Despite the electronic process, many countries still require that APHIS print a hard copy of the electronically endorsed form, sign it in ink, and affix the seal. APHIS can send the form via FedEx in a prepaid, self addressed envelope to the owner, usually within 48 hours. Even with this last step, pet owners save time and money thanks to the new electronic process.
The policies of U.S. airlines regarding the shipment of animals are subject to change at any time and remain a moving target. OBC witnessed significant changes in just the past two years.
“The three main U.S. carriers that receive the majority of contracts for moving USG employees around the world, known as the GSA City Pair Program, are United, American, and Delta. Traditionally, the three shipping options have always been in-cabin, as accompanied/excess baggage, and cargo,” said Johnston.
In-cabin requires an animal to either fit in its carrier under the seat (cats and very small dogs) or meet the requirements of a service animal. As of December 2020, the Department of Transportation ruled that only trained service animals that assist owners with either physical or psychiatric disabilities are allowed by American carriers to travel in the cabin free of charge. Emotional support animals (ESAs) are no longer a category that receives the same entitlement. As a result, American, Delta and United no longer allow ESAs special privileges.
Even if a country has no breed restrictions, the airlines may impose travel restrictions on specific breeds. Some airlines no longer allow the in-cabin option. To further complicate the issue, some countries do not allow any pets to arrive in-cabin or as unaccompanied/excess baggage, thus requiring pets to travel as cargo in the cargo hold, the most expensive method for shipping a pet.
“Never assume because your pet is very small that the airline or destination country will allow it to travel in-cabin,” said Johnston.
Pet owners should also be aware of temperature restrictions, length of flight restrictions, and specific aircraft accommodations for the cargo hold. Unfortunately, not all planes can place pets in the cargo hold due to the size of the cargo space in relation to the size of an animal’s cage. When a U.S. airline contract carrier cannot accommodate shipment of a pet, Department employees on official travel orders and who are not cost-constructing, can opt to request a non-contract carrier flight that would accept their pet. (See 14 FAM 542.1). This requires a DS-4022 form for Department employees, available through myData, and payment for any amount above the authorized itinerary. Members of the interagency community should verify the form number used by their agency and the accompanying procedure to request use of a non-contract carrier.
Sunny Blaylock, who moved with her family this summer to Belgium, provides an example of the many challenges of shipping a pet. Blaylock spent hours arranging for flights to move their family rabbit Margaret to Brussels. The U.S. flag carrier, American Airlines, would not let rabbits fly in-cabin. Cargo is not an option due to high summer temperatures on the tarmac and besides, Margaret has a weak heart. Blaylock arranged to fly with Margaret on FinnAir, another American Airlines code share, and applied for the required waiver to cost-construct and invoke the EU Open Skies Agreement. Margaret, with her newly implanted microchip, will ride in-cabin, in a soft pet carrier under the seat. The rest of the Blaylock family will take the assigned U.S. carrier flight.
In parts of the world where the EU Open Skies treaty cannot be used, travelers should consider purchasing a foreign flag carrier who can take the pet, but not seek reimbursement. One example is a $599 one-way commercial fare from Washington to Casablanca instead of using a pet shipper for $5,000.
The use of a pet shipper, with the associated higher costs, is sometimes the only option. Johnston noted that “With all costs tolled, pet owners report relocation fees ranging from $3,000 to as high as $9,000, depending on the pet’s size and a post’s location.”
While pet shipping is the financial responsibility of the pet owner, some percentage of the cost is partially reimbursable under the miscellaneous expense portion of the Foreign Transfer Allowance and the Home Service Transfer Allowance, both of which provide for reimbursement of “certain extraordinary costs” related to moving to and from foreign posts. Effective May 2021, selected costs related to pet transportation, including handling fees, transportation to and from the airport, and any required quarantine of pets are reimbursable up to the stated limits in the Department of State Standardized Regulations.
“Keep all pet shipping receipts and have the shipper itemize the costs,” said Johnston. “Without receipts, reimbursement for all miscellaneous expenses provides a flat rate depending on family size.”
The Transportation Security Administration requires that all air freight forwarders (including commercial pet shippers) hold an Indirect Air Carrier license. The Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association, an international association of animal handlers, pet moving providers, kennel operators, and veterinarians dedicated to the care and welfare of pets and small animals during transport, maintains a lengthy list of pet relocation services in all areas of the United States and in many overseas locations.
A major change in bringing dogs into the United States went into effect July 14, 2021 and will be extended through at least December 2023. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies 113 countries as high risk for rabies. Dogs without a current valid U.S. rabies vaccine coming from these countries must meet new CDC requirements as listed on its website. In addition, CDC approved only 18 ports of entry for these pets, necessitating airline route modifications for pet owners.
According to the CDC website, “These rules apply to all dogs, including puppies and service animals. They also apply whether you are a U.S. citizen, legal U.S. resident, or foreign national.”
In June 2021, several Department offices met with CDC officials to clarify the new regulations and communicate their impact to foreign affairs pet owners.
The bottom line is that pet owners should go overseas with a three-year U.S. rabies vaccination and an ISO-compliant microchip. If a dog does not have a current valid U.S. rabies vaccination when returning to the U.S., the pet owner will be responsible for providing proof of a rabies titer test (administered at least 45 days prior to entry into the United States) and apply for a CDC pet import permit, which might take up to six business weeks to process. Dog owners returning to the United States have indicated that at least three months preparation time is needed.
Matthew and Catherine McQueen and their two large Maine Coon cats, Hemingway and Talisker, are currently posted in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Even though we do not leave until 2024, I checked to make sure my pet paperwork, rabies vaccinations and titer tests were all in order—just in case of a sudden return to the United States,” says Catherine. This kind of forward planning and preparation is key to ensuring family pets can travel easily.
The Department’s new Pet Tracker, located within the Travel, Transportation, and Shipping request category on the myServices Customer Portal, marries pet identifying information and documents to an employee’s location. To date, more than 6,000 pets have been registered. Once in the database, the information accompanies the employee from post to post, and records can easily be updated. With all vital information in one location electronically, the tracker ensures that a pet’s records are available at all times and that pets are accounted for in an emergency.
For David Koh, getting his dog Momo to Canberra, Australia, presented a roller coaster of emotions and challenges. Despite six months of preparation and planning, Koh hit roadblocks at every turn. With his flight to Australia leaving from Los Angeles, “the worst part of our travel was figuring out how to get from Charleston to LA,” said Koh. Planes from Charleston to Atlanta were not big enough for his 31-pound dog. “Instead of flying out of Charleston, we cost-constructed, drove to Atlanta, and picked the earliest flight due to temperature restrictions on pets flying when it’s too hot.”
Once in Atlanta, the airline agent refused to let Momo on the plane. Speaking to a supervisor eventually solved that problem. Finally in Los Angeles, and with the assistance of a pet shipper (required for pets entering Australia), Koh dropped Momo off at a pet daycare center where he would stay for a few more days before flying straight to the quarantine center in Melbourne—Australia requires a 10-day quarantine. However, while in quarantine, Canberra went into a hard lockdown during the pandemic, so Koh contacted another pet shipper who arranged to fly him one last time to Canberra.
“Our long journey finally ended but it was only the beginning of an even bigger journey. Happy to report that my dog has adjusted to life in Australia and spends his days taking naps, going on long walks, and chasing kangaroos,” said Koh.
The Training Division of FSI’s Transition Center offers several classes on pet shipping. The popular no-cost Traveling with Pets Webinar (MQ-855), held annually in the spring, covers all relevant and recent pet shipping information and features expert panelists representing all aspects of the process. An additional webinar, Ask the Pet Expert, is held at various times throughout the year. OBC’s collection of pet handouts provide comprehensive overviews for pet owners—invaluable information for bidders and those assigned to an overseas assignment.
OBC staff are available to answer questions and help find solutions for pet owners faced with difficult or extenuating circumstances by email. Staff from the Office of Travel Management and Policy are also available by email to provide support for questions related to compliance with the Fly America Act, the Open Skies Agreement, and cost-constructs for using non-contract carriers.
Maureen Johnston is a resource specialist, and Sarah Genton is the division director at the Foreign Service Institute’s Overseas Briefing Center.