How To Take Your Pets To Europe From The USA

After getting divorced or losing a family member, moving house ranks right up there in terms of stressful life events. Now imagine that instead of just moving across town, you are relocating to an entirely different country and need to include your pets in the move.

Iberia Airbus A350
Iberia’s flagship aircraft is the Airbus A350. Photo: Iberia

As if packing and arranging a container for your household goods were not stressful enough, you now have to figure out how you will take your pets with you as well! Having done this myself, taking two West Highland White Terriers from New Jersey to Barcelona, I can vouch for the amount of planning that needs to go into getting all the paperwork together and the flights booked.

Vets office staff in California. Image: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

Fast forward to 2020, and the rules have changed slightly for importing animals into the European Union from the United States of America. With this in mind, I decided that now would be the ideal time to document exactly how to arrange to take your pets with you to Europe from America. The catalyst for this guide is my friend David, who decided that he wanted to move from California to Spain after retiring. Since a friend of mine was moving from the US to Spain, it presented the ideal opportunity to document the journey from start to finish.

Let me first say that you need to begin the process around a month before you are ready to fly. If your vet is not familiar with the export paperwork needed, find one who has done it before as it is important that they know all the things that need to be done and in which order. Once you have found the right veterinarian, verify that he or she has the correct (ANNEX II) form for importing your pet into Europe.

Get Your Pet Microchipped

The very first thing you need to do is have your pet microchipped with a European-compliant chip. Standard US microchips use a different system than their European counterparts and cannot be read by European chip reading machines. Your vet should know this and order a European ISO 15-digit microchip, either 11784 or 11785. The chips are easily available online and can be bought from pet companies such as HomeAgain and PetTravel.

pet microchip
European ISO 15-digit microchip, either 11784 or 11785. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

The next step is to make sure your pet’s vaccinations are up to date, especially the rabies vaccination, as this cannot be more than one year old; these must be administered at least 21 days before your departure. Note that you must do everything in the above order, with your pet being chipped before receiving the rabies vaccine. The next step in the process is time-sensitive and needs to be done 12 to 15 days before leaving the country.

Have Your Vet Complete the ANNEX II Form

vet checking dog
Have your vet fill out the USDA form. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

Once this has been done, you have to get it certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Visit the USDA website to find the nearest USDA office in your state, and then decide if you want to take the paperwork to the office or use an overnight mail delivery service. Be sure to read all the requirements and include the correct payment along with a prepaid return envelope with your address on it. When you get the paperwork back from the USDA, you have 10 days to travel to Europe. Please pay close attention to the date on the USDA endorsement, as you will probably be taking an overnight flight and arriving in Europe the following day.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Consider a Pet Relocation Specialist!

Alternatively, you can use a pet relocation specialist to handle all the paperwork for you, as my friend David did. They have done this for hundreds of people relocating worldwide from the United States, and know exactly what they are doing. In David’s case, he used a company called All-Pet Travel, based in Tucson, Arizona.

Debbie Rodgers of All Pet Travel. Photo: Debbie Rodgers

The person who handled all the paperwork for David was pet travel expert Debbie Rodgers, who did a fine job from start to finish. To know more about All-Pet Travel and the services they provide, Simple Flying contacted Debbie to ask her a few questions.

Simple Flying: Firstly, could you explain a little about the service you provide?

Debbie: We are experts at relocating pets around the world. We assist owners with preparing pets properly for flight, lead the veterinary process to ensure the requirements are in order, prepare the export documents for the veterinarian’s review and signature, take the documents through the USDA accreditation process, make the flight arrangements when necessary, and provide clearance services if needed.

Simple Flying: Why should people use a service like yours rather than just arranging the paperwork themselves?

Debbie: This would be the same as selling your own home or planning your own wedding. Sure, it can be done, but it’s better to have a professional involved. I have relocated around five or six veterinarian’s pets worldwide, including to Hawaii and Australia.

Simple Flying: Do you just have one office in Arizona?

Debbie: Yes, we are physically located in Tucson, AZ.

Simple Flying: Can you arrange all the paperwork for a client no matter where they live in the USA?

Debbie: Yes, I assist people all over the country. I rarely have a Tucson client.

Simple Flying: Realistically, how long in advance should a person start preparing for their pet’s move?

Debbie: This depends on where the pet is relocating to. For instance, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan take six to eight months, Europe is usually one month in advance, with Hawaii being at least two to three months in advance.

Simple Flying: Are some airlines better than others when it comes to transporting your pet, and if so, why?

Debbie: Yes, we like United Airlines. They have always done an outstanding job for us and the pets we have sent. All the airlines are hyper-vigilant these days with making sure they do the best for the pets in their care. In this age of instant social media, they don’t want negative posts.

Simple Flying: When is the best time of year to transport your pet, and should you try to avoid very hot or freezing weather?

Debbie: We can safely relocate pets all year round, but there are some restrictions in very hot or very cold weather. Arizona and Nevada are restricted after May 15th (until September 15th or so), and there are minimum temperatures to contend within the winter. During these times, ground transport may be necessary for those locations.

Simple Flying: We have heard stories about animals getting lost in transit or running free on the runways. How often do things like this happen?

VisualDebbie: In the 15+ years I have been relocating pets; I have never had a death. In that time, though, I have had four pets with “incidents.” Two chewed through their kennels and were waiting at the door when the guys opened it. One broke free on the tarmac in Frankfurt but was fortunately caught safely. The last one tried to bust out in flight but was unsuccessful, although he did tear a claw trying.

Simple Flying: What is the most difficult move you have had to arrange so far?

Debbie: My “favorite” so far was from 2014, bringing a cat home for a Peace Corps volunteer, that had to return to the US urgently and couldn’t bring her cat with her at the time. I found a veterinarian in Dar es Salaam to fly to Njombe, take a taxi three hours to a small village, collect the cat, take the taxi back to Njombe, fly back to Dar es Salaam, properly “vet” the cat, and then fly it to Los Angeles by way of Amsterdam. We cleared the cat on arrival in Los Angeles, gave her a much-needed break, and then flew her home to Las Vegas. I will never forget the joy the owner had when she got her baby back.

Choosing an Airline

Most major airlines have dedicated pet programs, with employees trained to make sure your pet arrives at its location safely. Visit the airline’s website to read its policies regarding transporting pets. Usually, if your pet is a small dog or cat, it will be able to travel in the cabin under your seat, providing it is in a suitable pet carrier.

Larger animals will be placed in a climate-controlled compartment in the aircraft hold. Please bear in mind that some airlines will not transport pets during the height of summer, and many refuse to take short-nosed breeds like pugs and bulldogs that can be susceptible to breathing difficulties. Also, be sure to make your booking well in advance to ensure that both you and your pets can fly on the same aircraft.

TIP: Rather than flying out of the airport closest to your home, you might want to depart from an airport that has a direct flight to your destination, thereby alleviating the risk of your pet being lost when having to change from one plane to another.

In David’s case, he chose to have someone drive him and the animals to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), rather than use the more convenient Ontario International Airport (ONT) and change planes in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW).

Buying the Correct Transport Crate

Again, follow the airline’s guidelines when it comes to which type of crate is suitable. As a general rule, it needs to be made of hard plastic, be well ventilated, and fitted with a locking metal gate. The crate must also be large enough for your pet to stand up in without its head touching the top while being big enough for your pet to turn around comfortably.

Most crates also come with a water bowl that slots securely on to the front gate. You may have read somewhere that it is okay to sedate your pet to make the journey less stressful – I can tell you that it is a big mistake! If the airline staff sees your animal as unresponsive or not behaving normally, they can refuse to fly your pet, leaving you stranded at the airport.

Tip: Make sure your destination address and contact telephone number are written on the crate or taped to it. Along with this, add your dog’s name by writing something like “Hi, my name is Benny,” this way, the person looking after your pet can interact with it.

It is also a good idea to have live animal stickers fastened to the crate so that the ground crew knows they are taking care of someone’s pet and to make sure it is placed in a pressurized cargo hold. Most airlines will provide you with the stickers, but if not, you can buy them online or from your nearest PetSmart store.

Another thing you can do to make sure your pet is comfortable is to put a favorite toy in the crate together with a potty pad and something they can lie down on, like a towel or some old T-shirts.

At the Airport

David Watts LAX
David is checking in for his flight at LAX. Photo; Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

When traveling with pets, be sure to arrive at the airport at least four hours before your flight. This way, you will have plenty of time to take your dog for a walk so that they can do their business.

All airports in the United States that handle more than 10,000 passengers per year are required by law to have specially designated pet relief areas outside every terminal building. If you are on your own, you will probably need to hire a porter to help you take your pet or pets to the airline check-in desk.

Once you and your pets have been checked in, the crates will be taken to a special TSA desk, where you will have to remove the animals so that the crates can be X-rayed. Before putting animals back in their crates, now is a good time to ensure they have enough water in their bowls.

Dogs at LAX
Make sure your dogs have water. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

TIP: Bring a bottle of water from home that you can refill from a water fountain at the airport if necessary.

After the TSA officers have determined that everything is above board, the crates will be returned to the check-in desk, where they will be picked up and taken to the aircraft. Please note that following the TSA inspection, you will not be allowed to handle the crate again until you arrive at your destination.

David Chose to Fly with Iberia

Dogs and cat at LAX
Dogs and cats by the Iberia check-in desk at LAX. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

In David’s case, he decided to fly with Spain’s national airline, Iberia, as they had a direct flight from Los Angeles to Madrid. At the Iberia check-in desk, everything went well, with the airline staff telling David exactly what he needed to do.

Looking forward to flying on one of Iberia’s new A350 aircraft, David was a little disappointed when he found out that the original plane had been swapped for an older Airbus A330. However, the good news was that he had two economy seats, one for him and one for his cat.

Tip: Once you are comfortably seated, ask one of the flight attendants to check with the captain that your pet is on the aircraft. By doing this, you accomplish two things: firstly, it reminds the captain that he or she has live animals onboard, and secondly, it gives you peace of mind knowing that your pet or pets are safe aboard the aircraft.

In David’s case, as soon as he sat down, a member of the Iberia crew came to let him know that Mira and Benny were safely aboard and that the captain was aware of the two dogs. During the 11-hour flight, two of the Iberia flight attendants, Johanna and Adrianna, came to David to ask how Fat Man (the cat) was doing, which David said was very nice of them. 

MAD arrivals
David’s pets were waiting for him in the arrivals hall at MAD. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

On arrival in Madrid, David was surprised to find that both Mira and Benny were waiting for him at the Iberia desk in the arrivals hall. The animals were there a good 10 minutes before luggage started arriving at the carousel. Again, getting the two dogs from the arrivals hall to the car hire desk required airport porters’ help, which Iberia staff arranged after making a couple of telephone calls.

Get Your European Pet Passports

EU Pet Passport
European Pet Passport. Photo: Mark Finlay / Simple Flying

Once you have settled into your new home, take all the paperwork you have from the United States to a veterinarian in the town or city where you will be living. During the visit, the vet will scan your pet’s microchip, make sure that all the vaccinations are in order, and then issue each animal with a blue European pet passport. This passport allows you to travel anywhere in Europe with your pet, including the United Kingdom, although this might change following Brexit.

As far as David’s trip was concerned, it could not have gone any better, with him singing the praises of Iberia for the way they took care of him and his animals.

Did you find this article interesting, and has it helped explain how to bring your pet to Europe from the USA? Please let us know what you think in the comments.