I recently moved from the United States to Germany, and brought along my 8-year-old West Highland Terrier, Wesley. I was nervous enough about this giant change in my life, but this was also my first time traveling with an animal, freaking internationally, and knowing that he can get a bit….stressed.
I researched several pet forums for helpful information on which airline to choose, how to prepare for the flight, and my destination city’s requirements. Most of the answers I found were from 2013 or older, so I would like to share what I learned.
Please note that the vaccination/health forms/registration may be different depending on the country you are flying to and from.
We flew with Lufthansa
Though the information I found was decently outdated, I trusted the many recommendations I saw to fly my pet through Lufthansa. I knew I didn’t want to fly him in cargo, but I was worried about my dog meeting the weight requirement. Lufthansa allows dogs up to 8 kg (17.6 pounds) to be in-cabin, and they must be your only piece of carry-on luggage and fit under the seat in front of you. Wesley was admitted even though he was at least two pounds over the weight limit. This may vary depending on the check-in attendant you get.
Wesley had to be taken out of his carrier when going through security. His carrier went through on the conveyor belt, and I had to hold Wesley and walk through the full body scanner that resembles a door frame, not the one that asks you to place your hands above your head. A TSA worker swabbed my hands, I packed Wesley back in his carrier and we headed to our gate.
We had at least three hours until take-off, so I made sure my dog had plenty of outside time at the Houston Intercontinental Airport, which has two pet relief areas that are not fenced, and require leaving the terminal and going back through security (same procedure) when you come back in.
My dog traveled in a Sherpa Bag
Wesley barely fit in the large Sherpa Bag. He could lay down comfortably, but had to squat a little when standing. The bag has a zippered top, allowing you to open it halfway and let your dog stick its head out. I bought the bag one month prior to our trip, and would practice zipping Wesley into it, placing it under my desk and playing a YouTube video of plane sounds at full volume. I would extend the amount of time he was in the carrier by 15 minutes each day, and reward him with a treat when he would stay quiet.
When we weren’t practicing, I would leave the Sherpa bag on the ground near his bed zipped open on the side, and I got so excited when he would crawl into it by himself for a nap. Westies like small spaces, so I wasn’t surprised that he grew to like it, but it still felt like a success.
During the flight
I paid ahead of time ($35) to have an aisle seat near the middle of the plane situated next to a bathroom. Wesley stayed in his carrier under the seat in front of me, completely zipped up, for the entire flight. He only whined once when I got up to use the bathroom, even though I tried to creep out of my seat like a ninja and return as fast as I could. I waited for him to fall asleep the next few times I went.
I packed a small bag of Blue Buffalo turkey jerky for the nine hour flight, since turkey has tryptophan to help Wesley sleep and kept him preoccupied with chewing. He ate his last meal at least four hours before the flight, as recommended, and I would give him a generous piece of jerky at least once per hour. When I was served dinner, I noticed that my salad came in a rectangular dish that I re-purposed as a water bowl for Wesley. I asked for a cup of water, poured it into the dish, and carefully slipped it into his carrier from the side zipper. He drank it immediately, but I refrained from giving him anymore since we were only halfway through the flight.
Wesley slept majority of the time. I made sure to book a flight that left in the evening, so that we would essentially travel overnight. It was 10 a.m. when we arrived in Germany, and Wesley was quiet, even while landing. Our seat neighbor even commented that she completely forgot he was under the seat, and said he was “so well-behaved.” That didn’t last long once we got off the plane. He whined and turned around in his carrier during the entire walk to baggage claim, eager to get out.
Going through animal inspection
I began Wesley’s travel preparations six months before our flight. He needed a series of shots, most importantly his rabies vaccine and a 15-digit microchip required by Germany, that had to be administered in a certain order, and even time frame. He received his rabies vaccine in the summer, then got his microchip a month later, then a last group of shots that may or may not have been required by border control. He received his final health inspection at least ten days prior to traveling, in which they checked his eyes, heart rate and teeth. This final health inspection was documented on a packet of paperwork, which had to be sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Austin, Texas for notarization. I received my approved packet back four days before traveling, which I had to pick up from the veterinarian.
These health documents had to be presented to the Germany animal inspection, who greeted me from a small table near the exit after I grabbed my luggage. I had to unzip Wesley from his carrier so they could confirm his breed (certain breeds are not allowed in Germany) and they looked through his paperwork and noted their approval in their system. They gave me all of my papers back, and Wesley and I were free to set foot into the country.
A few details:
I spent just over $1000 to move my dog from Texas to Germany. The vaccinations and paperwork were the majority of the cost, the paperwork alone costing $364 plus a $39 fee, which had to be sent as a check. The downside (besides the price) is that these documents are only valid for 30 days in Germany, 10 days in the United States. From what I understand, the procedure will need to be repeated to travel back to the United States, with new requirements.
I first called Lufthansa to check if there was room for a dog on the flight I was interested in, booked the flight, then called back to have him added to my itinerary. I did not have to pay the $100 fee until I checked-in at the gate. Also, you are not allowed to do early check-in online if you are flying with a pet. The pet must first be approved in-person to check-in.
My dog does not have a history of major health problems nor any major allergies.
Your dog is allowed to walk through the Frankfurt airport on a leash after you leave the baggage claim area. I did not see any pet relief areas, so I waited until we had driven away from the airport and let him out at a rest stop.
My dog rarely barks, but he whines a lot when stressed or worried. I only heard him once when I got up to use the restroom, but if he whined any more during the flight, it was too loud on the plane to hear it.
Practice the flight with your dog. Buy your carrier ahead of time (and spending the extra money on a nice airline approved one will give you peace of mind) and practice with the plane sounds, walking up and down stairs, setting it on a table and giving your dog treats while it is in it.
Research all the requirements of your destination country. My veterinarian really appreciated that I had done my homework and knew what my dog needed. Their travel expert was already knowledgeable about the procedure and requirements, but she liked that she didn’t have to explain everything and we could just proceed.
Do not give your dog “doggy downers” or any kind of sleep aid for a flight longer than five hours. I was warned by my vet and groomer that this was not a good idea for long flights, because the dog could have an even bigger panic attack if it suddenly woke up and didn’t know what was going on. I made sure Wesley was aware of his surroundings, and that he would occasionally receive a treat and see me sitting right in front of him.
And lastly, don’t worry. I really stressed myself out before this trip, and in the end, everything went much smoother than expected. There is always the chance of running into a problem, but your dog may surprise you. I expected Wesley to be a complete mess, but he was the most calm little darling. Honestly a miracle.
I will write a post soon about getting your dog registered in your destination city. I can only really speak about my experience in Cologne, Germany, but I learned that the procedure is similar across the country.