I adopted Taco from a small, community shelter that was operated out of a police station in South Florida. At the time, I had been living in the area for about six years and felt confident that I was ready for this step. Weighing in at just 17 pounds and assigned an approximate age of two to three years old, Taco was the perfect addition to my small family, which, yes, was essentially only me. When Taco and I met in 2015, I didn’t think much of traveling with my dog, especially to the Caribbean where I’m originally from. I knew that if I ever returned home, he was absolutely, positively coming with. And that’s exactly what we did, three years later.
Traveling with a companion animal is complicated, despite what all the Instagram pet profiles might suggest. It’s not easy to globe trot with your dog, cat, or hedgehog if you’re crossing country borders and oceans along the way. Depending on where you’re leaving from and where you’re heading to, you will have to get familiar with import and export regulations to ensure the safety of your pet. So, most importantly, you’ll have to plan ahead.
I knew a little beforehand about the intensity of the animal import process in Trinidad and Tobago, where Taco and I would be relocating to. I had heard horror stories in the past about an extensive quarantine period and the deplorable conditions in which quarantined animals lived while waiting to be reunited with their families. Truthfully, I was prepared to fight anyone who kept me and Taco apart but, luckily, I learned that the Trinidad and Tobago quarantine requirements had been dissolved a few years prior due to owners’ and activists’ complaints. With that knowledge, I began what would be a five-month-long process to bring Taco home with me, first by applying for an import permit filed with the Ministry of Agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago for a nominal fee of TTD$10.
The travel prep period varies, of course, based on location, nature of travel, and status of the animal. For example, while Taco is a companion animal — my pet — he is not currently a registered emotional support animal. For us, this meant that he first had to satisfy a long list of health requirements before entry into Trinidad and Tobago. This list, provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, outlines vaccination requirements, along with mandatory vaccination timelines that indicate which vaccines your animal (and the list is animal-specific) must receive and when. That said, Taco was required to begin his vaccination schedule five months ahead of our departure date from the States.
If you are faced with such lengthy procedures, my advice is to keep a departure calendar handy. Identify when you and your pet would like to travel and work backwards, time permitting, to ensure you check everything off the list on schedule. Speak with your vet about your upcoming plans and, if possible, provide them with any documentation you’ve received from the appropriate authorities by which you have to abide. Having a good relationship with your vet throughout this process will be a tremendous benefit to your and your pet’s mental and physical health. An attentive vet will be able to advise on the scheduling of appointments for vaccinations and any other necessary lab work. For Taco, this included a titer test — a blood test that checks for certain antibodies present in the bloodstream — which his vet informed me would take an additional number of weeks to complete.
After satisfying all the veterinary requirements for import into Trinidad and Tobago, I had to have Taco’s paperwork reviewed and signed by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA. This was a requirement by the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago that was not clearly explained and almost threw a wrench in our plans when I found out about it only 48 hours before our flight. In South Florida, a USDA veterinary endorsement for the import or export of an animal is issued in person at very few locations (I didn’t have time to secure one via mail), if more than one at all. It doesn’t help that you typically must make an appointment to do so. After a few frantic calls, I discovered that I could have this done at a USDA inspection office at the Miami International Airport. Taco was not allowed into the office but I was required to present his import permit, an original health certificate prepared and signed by his vet, and his rabies vaccination certificate. The endorsement process took about two hours, waiting time included. I learned about it at around 9 a.m. and I was on my way back home by noon, with an hour commute each way.
Beyond the paperwork, if you can wrap your head around that bureaucratic nightmare, there are a few other moving parts to this ordeal that you should consider. The first is booking your flight. Although I waited until I was a few months into Taco’s vaccination schedule to do this, I still booked our flight at least six weeks in advance. I chose to do this over the phone and not online so that I could ask any questions I had and confirm with an actual human being what I would need to provide at the airport. Booking your flight early is important not just for peace of mind but also for airline regulations. Most flights can only accommodate a certain number of live animals on board, especially in cabin. Once they have reached this limit, they will not accept any more pet bookings and your pet will be denied boarding if you arrive at the airport with them in tow. To fly Taco in cabin, my airline of choice charged an additional USD$100 and provided me with Taco’s individual confirmation number to be presented at check-in.
Since this was Taco’s first flight, I was adamant on flying him in cabin and, frankly, I still would be on any of his future flights. My insecurities aside, he is small enough that this is possible. Most airlines require both dog and carrier to weigh in at no more than 20 pounds. Taco and his airline-approved, collapsible Sherpa bag came in at a whopping 27 pounds (Taco accounting for about 22 of these) but the attendants made no remarks about this. To be fair, the Sherpa bag, I found, is considerably heavier than cheaper alternatives (I had an Amazon version packed in my carry-on just in case) but appears to be more comfortable for the animal. Airlines stipulate that the animal must be able to turn around with ease and some require they be able to stand. I can say that no one really paid Taco much attention to determine whether or not any of this was true but, as his owner, I made sure he was happy. He fit comfortably in his bag and slept through the entire check-in process.
Travel carrier requirements, as well weight requirements, differ significantly if your pet is flying in cabin versus if they are checked below. I can’t say that I’m an expert on the latter but I do know the carrier can not be collapsible and must have food and water supplies attached. This is usually the best option for medium to large dogs for whom in-cabin travel is, unfortunately, not allowed.
My biggest carrier-related fear wasn’t its size or weight, though. It was Taco’s possible aversion to it and consequent discomfort for our three-and-a-half-hour flight. For this reason, I purchased the two carriers — his Sherpa and his alternate — months in advance. I placed them in a central location in my living room and frequently lured him in with treats. Whenever Taco left the apartment for car rides, I asked him to get in one of the carriers first, instead of having him walk to the car. This way, he began to associate the carriers with adventures. It worked perfectly and, to this day, he is incredibly excited when I bring his carrier out because he knows he’s going somewhere.
Deciding whether or not to sedate Taco was as challenging for me as picking a carrier. Taco and I are very closely bonded. He trusts me with his life and is pretty much unconcerned about all possible threats as long as I’m by his side. He’s also a big fan of naps so I had less to worry about than someone with a hyperactive dog would. Still, I knew this would be new. Different. On his vet’s recommendation, I decided to give Taco a small dose of children’s Benadryl immediately before check-in. The dose was specific to his weight and age and was determined by his vet at one of our previous visits. I’m not sure if this did much to alter his behavior since, like I mentioned, he is a fairly quiet dog. He slept through check-in and boarding but take-off and landing were significantly more difficult for him. He did cry at those times and intermittently throughout the flight. Non-ESA dogs must remain in their carriers for the entirety of the flight, which is where Taco struggled the most. When he’s nervous, he prefers to sit on someone’s lap or at the very least be able to touch them. Thankfully, I was able to unzip his carrier and have him pop his head out with no objections from the flight attendants. It wasn’t a perfect solution but it was the best I could do at the time.
As far as potty breaks go, Taco didn’t take any at the airport because, well, he was asleep. Instead, I took away his water dish early the night before, avoided a late dinner for him, and had him skip breakfast the day of since our flight was at 9 a.m. I also walked him for about an hour before heading to the airport, which I think helped tremendously. When we arrived in Trinidad, I was too nervous to set him down at the airport, paranoid that some official would come running out saying I had missed something on the forms and he had to be returned for some obscure reason. So, we got into our car and traveled another hour home. There, finally, he was able to relieve himself but he never complained of needing to go urgently.
In all my travels, I’ve missed flights, made scheduling errors, gotten lost, and even canceled entire trips without travel insurance but no travel experience has been more stressful than flying Taco to Trinidad. Sadly, I think a lot of that has to do with the rigorous import system put in place locally. While I understand the need to protect local animal populations from foreign pests and diseases, I can say, as a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, that many of the vaccines Taco was required to receive are not common practice for local dogs and the large stray dog population is symptomatic of a culture with virtually no animal rights legislation and insufficient education and awareness about animal welfare. I know, for example, that taking him back to the States or to Canada would be a much easier process and I think it’s important to acknowledge the irony there.
Regardless, I am endlessly grateful that Taco made it to the Caribbean safely. He’s an island dog now and is loving every minute of it. I like to think he doesn’t remember much about that long, stressful day and that, when we’re ready to jet set again, I can be even better at accommodating his needs. At the very least, I hope I can be calmer for both of our sakes.