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Traveling can be stressful, even when you’re just heading down the road. Want to compound the difficulty? Try adding in an animal. While many of us head off with our beloved pets in tow, the process can be much more complicated with a service animal. I know: My service dog and I have spent the past four years wandering the world together, which has taught me quite a few things about how it’s done.
Let’s talk about flying with a service dog, what to expect and ways to make traveling easier for both of you.
1. Bring your paperwork
Did you know there is no internationally recognized service animal database? In fact, in the U.S., there’s no specific license for service animals. While this means more folks have access to aid from a service animal, it can also mean you’ll face more scrutiny, especially if you have an invisible disability. After all, there isn’t a magic piece of paper that’ll declare your animal certified for service.
But traveling with a four-legged passenger is always going to require paperwork, so bring it all with you — printed — in an easily accessible pocket. If you’re traveling internationally, this means bringing along your service animal's U.S. Department of Agriculture health certificate. If you’re going to fly, it also means completing an attestation of training.
And if you’re looking for a way to prove that your service animal is legitimate (because you will be asked when overseas), you’ll also want to bring along proof of training. Passing the Canine Good Citizen test from the American Kennel Club is a good start, and if your animal was trained by a professional organization, have a representative write a letter outlining the training methods, the name of your animal and that they belong to you.
» Learn more: How to fly with a dog
2. Find the right veterinarian
Where are you traveling? Depending on where you’re going, you’ll need some of the paperwork mentioned above, including the USDA-endorsed health certificate. This certificate lets other countries know that your animal is up to date on shots and is healthy overall.
Not all veterinarians are able to fill out health certificates, so you’ll need to find one that does. And although your vet may be able to fill these out by hand, the best ones can complete these digitally.
Because health certificates need to be endorsed by the USDA within a 10-day window, getting a paper certificate can mean waiting in line at an endorsing facility or overnighting your paperwork to an eligible office. Either way, you’re at the mercy of time and government bureaucracy to get your paperwork in order.
Those traveling with a service animal are exempt from USDA-charged fees associated with an international health certificate.
In contrast, vets who can upload a digital certificate can do so directly to the USDA, cutting out days' worth of waiting and money spent on shipping or gas. Note that not all countries accept these digital certificates, so you’ll need to research yours before traveling.
» Learn more: The best travel credit cards for pet owners
3. Pick your countries carefully
Sure, I’d like to head to Australia with my service dog. It’s a beautiful country with tons to explore — what’s not to love? But although I can fly to Europe and land with my dog without an issue, the same can’t be said for Australia.
All animals, including service animals, are required to undergo a mandatory isolation period upon arrival to Australia. For travel from the U.S., that time period lasts 10 days. This is a significant chunk of time for a vacation, and the separation of a service dog from its handler can be traumatic. So it’s a no-go.
» Learn more: The most pet-friendly airlines
4. Obtain a pet passport
Do you travel to the European Union fairly regularly? If so, you’ve probably watched in horror as those USDA health certificate fees have stacked up. Rather than visiting the vet every few months, consider getting your service animal a pet passport on your next visit to the EU.
Issued only by vets within the EU, these booklets allow you to skip health certificates when you travel to the EU. Certain conditions must be met (such as making sure vaccinations are up to date), but this can make traveling with your service animal significantly easier.
5. Research service animal regulations
Different countries have different laws when it comes to service animals. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees access pretty much anywhere within the U.S., the same can’t be said for the rest of the world.
While plenty of countries have regulations supporting access for service animals, some rules are outdated. Such is the case in the EU, where airlines are missing vital information as to what constitutes a “recognized service dog.” They’ve denied legitimate service animals on flights — so much so that the EU is trying to find a solution to the vaguely worded laws.
So you’ll need to do your homework when it comes to service animal regulations — wherever you’re traveling. Although you may be used to going to a restaurant with your service animal at home, regulations abroad may limit or otherwise restrict your options when it comes to traveling with that animal.
» Learn more: Emotional support animals may no longer fly for free
6. Consider pet-friendly accommodations
Do you need to book pet-friendly accommodations when traveling with your service animal? No, not usually, though this can depend on international regulations. But traveling with a service animal can already be difficult enough. If your hotel or Airbnb host doesn’t understand service animal laws or doesn’t believe your animal is legitimate, disputes can escalate quickly. It doesn’t matter that you’re right or that you have the right — it’s exhausting.
For an easier time, consider booking pet-friendly accommodations instead. This way, your hosts are already expecting the hair, fur and slobber that come with animals. Neither of you will be caught off guard or left upset.
» Learn more: The best hotels that allow pets
If you’d like to travel with your service animal
Service animals complete an important job. Whether they’re guiding those without vision or alerting for low blood sugar, their services can be lifesaving. Despite this, traveling with a service animal can be a tiring and poorly understood process, with little literature designed to help handlers. So use these six tips to make your next trip a little easier for you and that rock star by your side.
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