Flying With Your Pet? It Just Got a Lot More Difficult.

By Debra Kamin

A recent C.D.C. rabies rule, pricey pet ‘tickets’ and limits on animals in airline cabins are making traveling with a pet more complicated.

A passenger with her dog at Los Angeles International Airport. New, and sometimes confusing, rules have made some travelers think twice before flying with their pets.
A passenger with her dog at Los Angeles International Airport. New, and sometimes confusing, rules have made some travelers think twice before flying with their pets.Credit...Etienne Laurent/EPA, via Shutterstock

Vivian Harvey, 81, goes to Guatemala every winter, where she spends five months tutoring children. And for 11 years, she has brought her dachshund, Sadie, along for the trip.

But this year, because of a new ruling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sadie can’t come. A ban on the import of dogs into the United States from 113 countries has forced Ms. Harvey, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, to rework her plans. The ban applies to foreign dogs as well as those traveling with American owners and re-entering the country after a trip abroad.

As a result, Ms. Harvey is now heading to Guatemala for only a quick two-week trip, while Sadie stays behind with a sitter.

The ban, which went into full effect Oct. 14, is intended to prevent animals at high risk of rabies from entering the country. It comes, the federal agency says, after the pandemic surge in dog adoptions led to a spike in falsified health documents from international pet importers.

The C.D.C.’s ruling has arrived at a time when pet owners are already navigating new restrictions on pet travel in the airplane cabin, reduced options for shipping pets as cargo, and cascades of flight cancellations and scheduling shifts. If the pandemic, with its vaccine mandates and testing requirements, has made air travel difficult for humans, it’s made it infinitely tougher for our furry friends.

The C.D.C. says it has intervened in more than 450 dog importations with falsified or incomplete rabies vaccination certificates in 2020, and it has begun issuing a small number of permits to dogs coming to the United States from high-risk countries, like Guatemala, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates, among other places. But requirements are steep: The permits demand microchipping, a valid rabies vaccination certificate and blood work from an approved serology laboratory.

Dogs must also be at least six months old, and rabies serologic titers must be drawn at least 30 days after rabies vaccination and 90 days before entry into the United States. And after Jan. 7, the C.D.C. will also reduce the number of ports where dogs from countries on the C.D.C.’s list can enter the United States, to three from 18: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Before the C.D.C.’s ban, the United States “was probably the most lax country to send a pet into,” said Mandy O’Connell, regional director for North America for the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association.

“The importation of even one rabid dog is dangerous because rabies is nearly always fatal in people and animals once symptoms appear,” said Emily Pieracci, a veterinary medical officer with the C.D.C., in an email.

But Lori Kalef, the director of programs for SPCA International, said that the ban, no matter how well-intentioned, may actually exacerbate the global incidence of rabies in dogs. Many places that could once find homes in the United States for abandoned dogs are now finding that their own resources for neutering and vaccination are overstretched.

Operation Baghdad Pups, an SPCA International Program that helps U.S. service members reunite with animals they adopt on deployment, currently has close to 30 military personnel waiting to reconnect with a pet.

Sgt. John Weldon is one of them. While on deployment in Syria earlier this year, the infantryman was given an abandoned week-old puppy. He named the pup Sully, went online to learn how to make puppy formula and nursed him to health. In July, when the C.D.C. announced the ban and Sergeant Weldon, who is now based at California’s Camp Pendleton, realized he wouldn’t be able to bring Sully home, he put the dog on a convoy headed for Iraq. Three months later, the dog is still there.

“The entire time I was in Syria with him, he never left my side,” Sergeant Weldon said. “I just want to get him home.”

Even before U.S. borders were closed to many pet owners during the pandemic, flying with an animal had become significantly more complicated.

Last December, the Department of Transportation clamped down on service animals on airplanes. For years, passengers had been able to bring animals in the cabin with them if they had a note from a licensed medical professional deeming the pet to be an emotional support animal. The December ruling — issued after passengers had brought pigs, peacocks and even a kangaroo on board — limits service animals to trained dogs only. Several airlines, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Alaska Air, announced shortly after that they would no longer accept emotional support animals, including dogs, on board.

Animals without service dog documentation must either travel in a pet carrier that fits under the seat, or in the cargo hold.

And the coronavirus has thrown another wrench into the works: Multiple airlines, struggling to survive as flights were canceled and employee ranks slashed, announced they would no longer take pets in the cargo hold at all. Today, only American Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines accept dogs in the hold, and not on every flight — most aircraft can only accommodate a 27-inch crate, making options for those with larger-breed dogs even more limited.

Some domestic airlines have increased fees for flying with pets in the cabin, as well, to as much as $500. “You really want to read into the restrictions of your airline and make sure that you can afford it, said Molly Fergus, the general manager of the travel advice site TripSavvy. “In some cases, you might end up paying more than your own ticket for your pet.”

There are other changes: Swiss Air has a new rule on its website that the airline now charges a $125 transfer surcharge for pets flying through Frankfurt, Vienna, Munich, Zurich and Geneva; Air France says the airline now allows pets in the hold on flights to and from Paris airports only, except on flights between Moscow and Paris, where they can only be in the cabin; and KLM’s website spells out a rule that says if animals are flying in the hold and transiting via Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, their layover must be three hours or less.

Rachel Brathen, an author and yoga teacher who lives in Aruba, learned the last rule the hard way. In August, she was returning from visiting family in Sweden with her Italian greyhound, Ringo, who — like many of us — gained some weight over the pandemic. Ringo was now too heavy to fly in the cabin, so Ms. Brathen booked him in the hold. But two days before her flight, Ringo’s passage was canceled. The reason? His layover at Schiphol was 15 minutes too long, according to the new rule.

She ended up leaving him in Sweden with her brother, and plans to reunite this winter.

“There wasn’t a clear explanation, and if they had shared that in the beginning, we never would have taken him on the trip,” Ms. Brathen said.

Jeni Redmon, who helps coordinate pet transportation for private clients, said that even before the pandemic, many airlines were frustrated with the labor required to transport pets.

“Handling pets is difficult,” she said. “I think some of these services were on the way out prior to Covid. This was just the kick in the pants that the airlines needed.”

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