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Worried about pet travel? Don't stress, just prepare!

Updated on March 6, 2013
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Sometimes life opens doors for us that we weren’t expecting; new opportunities that bring unexpected changes. Those of us who have pets will already know all about how difficult it can be when you want to go abroad. So, what about if you’re offered the chance to relocate? If you have to emigrate, how can you move your pets safely?

It is inevitable that many pet owners will worry and fret about the idea of their beloved pets in any danger or under any stress. With the right preparation, however, the risks can be minimised and your pet is much more likely to have a smooth journey. Follow these steps for a trouble-free journey.

Step 1 - Check the possibilities

The best case scenario for many pet owners is without doubt “in-cabin travel”. This is only possible for animals under a specific size or weight and the carrier must be able to fit under the seat in front of you. If you’re travelling from the UK, however, it will depend on your destination and your airline. Many European carriers allow pets in the cabin but all will have a restriction on how many can travel on one flight (often four) and they are only allowed in economy class.

If you’re travelling to the US there are currently no airlines that allow in-cabin pets but you might be able to travel this way if you are prepared to go via Europe. (Lufthansa, for example, stated that they allow in-cabin pets from London to Frankfurt and then onwards to the USA.)

If you wish to travel with a pet on board, you will need to telephone the airline when you book the tickets and reserve a space for your pet. There will be an extra charge but it is much cheaper than pet travel in the hold. You’ll need to remove your pet from its carrier to pass through security therefore cat owners would be best advised to ensure that their kitty is wearing a harness and lead to avoid possible escape attempts in the busy airport.

If your pet is larger or you are with an airline that does not allow in-cabin travel, your pet will need to travel in the hold. The sooner you know which method of travel your pet will experience, the better as you can begin preparing them for their journey well before the date of travel.

Step 2 - Prepare in advance

It is best to begin planning your pet’s travel at least six months before the date of travel. You will need to look online at the DEFRA website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-pets/pets/travel/pets/) to check the travel rules and guidelines for your pet and your destination. The rules for coming back into the UK with your pets, should you want to return, will be stricter so it would be prudent to make yourself fully aware of these at this stage for ease of travel in the future.

Your pet will need a pet passport, issued by an official veterinarian. All pets on the pet travel scheme need to be micro-chipped and subsequently vaccinated against all necessary diseases (including rabies) and, if you have a dog, he will need a worming treatment to be given in the 24 hours before travel.

For some destinations your pet will also need a blood test to show that there is immunity to rabies at least 30 days after the vaccination date. Make sure that your vet fills out sections 1-4 of the pet passport (and section 5 if applicable) and ask for a declaration of health for each pet 10 days before the date of travel. Get your vet to check that your pet’s micro-chip can be detected by a reader. If the authorities at the airport cannot read it, your pet will simply not travel. If your micro-chip is not made by an approved vendor, you may need to bring your own reader so that the identity of your pet can be verified.

To minimise stress for your pet it is also a good idea if you can order your travel crates as soon as you know what crate will be needed. You will need to check out the size requirements for your pet and must order a carrier that is big enough, strong enough and meets the minimum requirements as set out by the IATA. It is also recommended that you choose a crate with steel crate hardware rather than plastic fasteners to avoid any potential escape issues.

The requirements for in-cabin travel carriers are less strict; these can be made of fabric or plastic. The only necessary requirement is that the carrier will fit into a certain sized space (under the seat in front) and this will vary from airline to airline. It is best to check before you travel so as to avoid any problems.

When your crate or carrier arrives, give your pet time to get acclimatised. Place toys and comfy bedding inside and encourage your pet to explore and relax inside their container. Do not close them inside at first but build up to it slowly and progress in stages. Your pet will be much more relaxed on their journey if they are comfortable with their immediate surroundings.

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Step 3 - Consider your journey

If possible, book a direct flight for your pets to minimise the possibility of handling errors when being transported to the connecting flight. If you’re going direct, it also reduces the likelihood of your pet having to wait around for hours in extreme temperatures. Some airports only allow pets to travel on days when the temperature on the tarmac is between 45 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit so bear this in mind when booking your journey. There may also be some restrictions depending on the breed of your pet. Some short nosed varieties may not be able to travel so make sure you mention the breed when you book your ticket.

If you’re travelling on the same flight as your pet it might be worthwhile writing a letter (complete with cute photo) from your pet to the pilot to remind the crew that there are animals in the hold.

Step 4 - 10 days before travelling

Take another trip to your vet to acquire a pet health certificate. Your vet will give your pet a basic health check and give them the OK to fly. If your pet fails to pass the medical, you should consider whether it is viable to take him on a plane. If you are travelling with a dog, don’t forget to make another trip to the vet 24 hours before your journey to receive a dose of tapeworm treatment.

Step 5 - The night before and on the day of travel

Take another trip to your vet to acquire a pet health certificate. Your vet will give your pet a basic health check and give them the OK to fly. If your pet fails to pass the medical, you should consider whether it is viable to take him on a plane. If you are travelling with a dog, don’t forget to make another trip to the vet 24 hours before your journey to receive a dose of tapeworm treatment.

On the day of travel, exercise your pet and then make sure you arrive at the airport at the correct time. The rest is in the hands of the professionals.

Following all of the steps outlined in this article will help to make the journey smooth for your pet but things can still go wrong. According to records, around 1% of pets who travel in the hold are killed or injured each year. This does mean that 99% of journeys are safe and uneventful but some owners are still not prepared to take the risk. If you can travel with your pet in-cabin, this is definitely the way to fly but are there any other alternatives?

If you’re travelling across the Atlantic there is another, more expensive option; Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. The cruise liner currently has 12 kennels for pets and a dedicated member of staff to look after them. You can also visit your pets at designated times of the day. If you‘d like to travel in style you’ll have to book early and it’ll cost you $700 for a small to medium sized dog and $1000 for a cat (felines automatically take up two kennels – one for sleeping and one for the litter tray). Large dogs will also need two kennels therefore doubling the cost to $1400.

At the time of writing there are a couple of specialist airlines where all pets travel in the cabin but none of these operates flights to or from the UK. Perhaps in the future our pets will be treated more like members of the family but, for now, preparation is the best approach.

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