The thought of moving your beloved pet can be daunting, especially if it involves flying. After all, they are our family and dependent on us for their safety and well-being.
Over 1 million pets are flown every year in the United States alone and even the worst airline has an incident rate of 0.03%. If proper care is taken in preparing your pet for travel it can be a very safe and minimally stressful experience, and they will arrive at your destination healthy and happy.
There are specific requirements for bringing pets to Costa Rica which are outlined below. This covers dogs and cats – if you have other species it is best to contact Senasa (animal health agency in Costa Rica) for details.
Preparing for travel
Determine the carrier requirements for your pet
There are various types of carriers including soft-sided, hard carriers and strong breed-specific crates. Check with your airline to confirm the carrier size requirements based on the height and length of your pet. They must be able to stand, turn around and lie down comfortably.
To ensure your pet’s safety, airlines will also have specific requirements around the type of fasteners it has and the ventilation of the carrier. There should be small holes above the door where a zip ties can secure the door shut.
All carriers are not airline approved. Some are simply for home use and will not meet the requirements so make sure you know what is needed before buying a carrier for air travel.
Give your pet plenty of time to get comfortable with their carrier. With proper time and training the carrier can become a haven where they feel safe and protected.
Start by leaving it in a room with the door open and allow them to enter whenever they want. Provide treats and enthusiasm when they use it. Then you can begin closing the door for short periods of time and increase their time in the crate as they become comfortable. Sometimes placing a blanket over it can help it feel like a safe little cave.
Take them for a ride in the car in the carrier to a fun destination. I would take mine on the highway with the car windows down and sunroof open to simulate the noise of the airplane, and go to the dog park to let off some steam.
Never use the crate as punishment.
Cabin, baggage or cargo?
How your pet will travel will depend on the size and weight of your pet. They may be with you in the cabin under the seat, go in the cargo hold as over-sized baggage, or travel as manifested cargo with a carrier who handles animals. Each airline has specific regulations and restrictions so it’s a good idea to contact them in advance of booking.
I traveled with three dogs on Air Canada – a 10 lb Chihuahua cross, a 65 lb Labrador cross and an 85 lb Rottweiler cross. The Chihuahua and Lab were able to travel as baggage in the cargo hold (the chihuahua is too tall to fit in cabin under the seat) but my Rottweiler had to travel with Air Canada Cargo as manifested cargo. This adds cost and complexity since you will require a broker in Costa Rica (and an import permit but they will take care of this), and the charges are based on cubic weight. You can read more about my experience here.
Choosing a flight
There are several factors that could affect your ability to book your pet with a particular carrier, flight or route. Many airlines will not fly pets on certain routes, or at all. Weather embargoes, such as during hot and cold months, certain aircraft without the capacity or climate-controlled holds, peak travel periods to certain destinations, and specific breed embargoes are all considerations.
Check with your airline to confirm your flight options and be aware of the risks if there is a layover in a hot location. It is always best to fly direct if possible.
Work with your veterinarian
See your veterinarian well in advance of travel. They can help answer any questions that you might have specific to your pet or about air travel in general. They will confirm that your pets is healthy enough to endure a flight and assist with any anxiety issues that your pet may have.
It is not considered safe to tranquilize a pet since it affects the respiratory system and could cause problems at altitude, but your vet may recommend a medication that will help to ease anxiety safely. One of my dogs has separation anxiety and I worked with my vet to find a medication that would help ease his symptoms during travel. Do this well ahead of time so you can test the pet’s reaction and response to medication prior to your travel date so adjustments can be made if necessary.
Dogs must have current vaccinations for distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, leptospirosis and rabies. The rabies vaccine must be given at least 30 days prior to arrival.
Cats must have current vaccinations for feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, panleukopenia (feline distemper) and feline leukemia.
Your pet must be treated for internal and external parasites within 15 days of arrival.
The International trilingual health certificate must be completed by your veterinarian (within 14 days of arrival) and then stamped by your CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) or USDA (US Department of Agriculture) office. This is done by appointment so be sure to book it in advance.
Costa Rica does not require a quarantine for pets arriving in the country.
Be sure to carry a couple of extra copies of the health certificate and rabies certificate with you just in case!
Most airlines will require that the animal’s collar be removed while in their crate (this is for the pet’s safety so they cannot get caught on the door). The collar and leash can be attached to the kennel or keep them with you.
I attached a photo with the name and contact information for each of my dogs to the top of their kennel. Better safe than sorry. I’ve heard the horror stories of dogs escaping from their crate and running loose on the tarmac, or being put into the wrong kennel during a layover and ending up in another foreign country.
If your pet is micro-chipped (which is not required in Costa Rica) then make sure the information is updated, and update the contact information on your pet’s collar tag once you have arrived. Fireworks and thunderstorms – both common in Costa Rica – can be an escape trigger for dogs in particular. Current identification can be the difference between being reunited or lost forever.
Most importantly, stay calm. Your pet can sense your anxiety so the more relaxed you are the more confident they will feel.
The airline will require that you have food and water dishes in the carrier for emergency purposes, but leave them empty for travel. You don’t want your pet to be soggy and uncomfortable during the flight.
It’s best for your pet to travel on an empty stomach. Give them a meal 4-5 hours prior to travel and then nothing until after arrival.
Make sure they get a bathroom break before check-in – most major airports will have a little potty area specifically for pets.
Place an old towel in the carrier in case of an accident, and add a soft article of clothing that smells like you in the carrier with your pet. Your scent will be comforting and help soothe them.
When you arrive at the airport and have completed your check-in, you will need to go through security with your pet. In Canada, if they are traveling as baggage then you will take them to the oversize baggage area where they will be removed from the crate for a security inspection. Once complete, remove their collar and leash and use zip ties to secure the doors closed.
If they are traveling in cabin with you, then you will proceed to passenger security screening where they will usually request that you remove your pet from the carrier so it can go through the security check. You will then proceed through with your pet and be able to place them back in their carrier.
Feature photo credit: Erda Estremera via Unsplash