Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Dog at the airport

Until the last ten years, it was an unusual occurrence in a veterinary practice to be presented with a dog that the owner wished to prepare for foreign travel. This is no longer the case. With far greater public awareness of the pet passport scheme (first introduced by the EU in 2001) and increased immigration over the course of the financial crises of recent years, dogs are travelling the world like never before. The ease with which you can prepare your pet for travel depends on your destination, and we will discuss some of the differences between the more common routes.

While travel between the UK, Ireland, and other EU countries is almost as simple for our pets as for ourselves, anyone travelling further afield would be well advised to employ the services of a pet courier company. These specialised agencies will help ensure your pet complies with the requirements of both your destination country and your country of origin. They also generally have a good working relationship with the airlines, which have requirements of their own in terms of transport cage dimensions and veterinary certification.

Pet Passports

Pet Passport

Although the EU pet passport is not universally accepted around the world, obtaining one is a simple affair, and it provides a document that can contain a record of all the veterinary certificates and preventative treatments received in preparation for transport. The passport can be issued by your regular veterinarian, the only requirement being that your dog is first microchipped.

This involves injecting a very small chip under the skin of the neck, in the same manner as many other injections, such as vaccines, are administered. The microchip provides a permanent means of identification, which is obviously useful in case your pet is lost or stolen, but provides a guarantee that the passport details do indeed relate to your particular dog. Thankfully, most dogs are microchipped now as puppies, so this step has already be completed for many prospective travellers.

Rabies Vaccination

The most serious concern arising out of the increase in pet travel, for both national authorities and pet owners, is the potential for the spread of rabies. This is an invariably fatal disease which is endemic in many parts of the world, including regions within Europe. In the UK and Ireland, we enjoy the envied position of being rabies-free, without a single case of the disease having been acquired within our borders in decades. It is caused by a lyssavirus, which most commonly infects bats, but is also infectious to many other species. Animals (or humans) that become infected may show signs within days, or may enter an incubation period of up to one year. After the incubation period, severe inflammation of the brain and other nervous tissues cause behavioural changes (including aggression), excessive salivation, convulsions, and death. Clearly, this is a disease we would like to keep outside of our borders.

Several inactive (killed) rabies vaccines are now available, and all can be administered to puppies over twelve weeks of age. Note that the pet must be microchipped before the rabies vaccine has been given, otherwise the inoculation will need to be repeated. A single injection is usually all that is required for the primary vaccination course, meaning a booster shot is not required for at least one year. Part of the difficulty in international travel is that every country has different requirements, for example, the accepted duration of immunity for rabies vaccination varies between countries.

Although the duration of immunity for most rabies vaccines has been demonstrated to be at least three years, there is not a consistent acceptance of this fact across the world, as seen by the required vaccination frequency in:

  • South Africa: One year
  • Australia: Two years
  • New Zealand: One year
  • Canada: Three years (vaccination optional for UK and Ireland)
  • USA: Three years
  • European Union: Three years

For most countries outside of the EU, a rabies blood titre is required in addition to vaccination. This blood test is normally performed around 30 days after vaccination, and measures the pet’s response to the inoculation, as it is this immune response which provides immunity. Occasionally, a dog will fail this blood titre test, and need a second vaccination as a “booster”, followed by a repeat test. I have once encountered an unfortunate dog that failed to respond until the third vaccine, but this is extremely uncommon.

For travel within the EU, dogs are eligible for travel from 21 days after their rabies injection. Because of the potentially very long incubation period of rabies, most countries requiring a blood titre also have extended waiting periods of three to six months before allowing pets to travel. While puppies less than twelve weeks of age cannot be vaccinated against rabies, travel is permissible to some countries so long as their mother has an up-to-date rabies vaccine certificate. The details of this arrangement vary between countries, and anyone thinking of transporting such young dogs would do well to consult with a courier service to avoid any confusion.


The consequence of failing to comply with any of the requirements discussed here is that your dog is likely to be placed in a secure quarantine facility for periods ranging from weeks to months. During this quarantine period, contact with the owner is generally not permitted, and most countries will require the owner to pay any veterinary and boarding fees that accrue, which can be considerable. You will also be offered the alternative of having your pet euthanised – not an option that any of us would like to consider.

Vaccination Against Leptospirosis

Travel Vaccinations

Special consideration must be given to leptospirosis vaccination if travelling to New Zealand. Leptospires are a family of bacteria infecting rodents, farm animals, humans, and dogs, and are a common cause of severe illness, including blood clotting disorders and liver failure in pets. In a farm setting, leptospirosis most commonly causes abortion in cattle and sheep.

As a nation heavily dependent on its agriculture industry, New Zealand is particularly careful about importing “exotic” strains of leptospirosis, and requires a blood test to be performed for antibodies to this disease within 30 days of travel. Because our pets are routinely vaccinated against leptospirosis, a significant proportion will test positive, which is simply a reflection of their acquired immunity. In order to prove that this positive test does not reflect an active infection, these dogs will need to be retested two weeks later, to demonstrate that the antibody levels have not risen.

Because antibody levels rise in the weeks following vaccination, before falling to “normal” levels, it is important that owners wishing to travel to New Zealand have their dog’s annual booster vaccinations done well in advance of this blood test. I have encountered one case in which a vet had vaccinated a dog immediately after drawing a blood sample for this test. The dog still had enough circulating antibodies from his previous vaccination to test positive, and his subsequent sample tested even higher, leaving the owner to reschedule the dog’s journey. This necessitated putting the dog in boarding kennels for several weeks after the family had themselves set out, as well as repeating all the tests performed to that point. All told, the owner estimated the added cost to be close to two thousand pounds! A lesson that will certainly be remembered by all involved.

Parasite Prevention

There are several serious parasitic illnesses which are of concern for travelling pets. As for all diseases, prevention is better than cure, and regimes have been established to minimise the risks to your dog. Again, these vary somewhat between countries, but the basic principles are outlined below.


Dirofilaria immitis is a parasitic roundworm that is widespread over much of the world. Because it relies on the mosquito to transport its larvae from one host to another, it is considered exotic to the UK. In endemic regions, it is a serious health concern and a common cause of severe illness in dogs and cats. Adult worms live in the large blood vessels supplying the lungs, and in severe infestations may also occupy the right side of the heart. They give birth to live young, called microfilariae, which circulate in the host’s bloodstream for up to two years while waiting for their opportunity to spread.

These microfilariae are ingested by mosquitos feeding on the dog’s blood, and then mature to their next stage of development in the mosquito’s digestive tract, before migrating to the insect’s salivary glands. When it next feeds on a dog or other mammal, the larvae are injected back into the host’s bloodstream, from where they enter the animal’s muscle tissue, further mature, and migrate to their adult location in the heart or pulmonary blood supply.

Though hard to believe, many dogs infested with heartworm show few signs, while others will develop a cough or heart failure. Once an infestation is established, treatment becomes difficult without causing injury to the patient’s heart and lungs. Emerging research suggests that the worms’ dependence on a particular bacterium called Wolbachia might offer treatment options in future, but this has not yet been firmly established.

Rather than running the risks involved in treating this disease, we wish to prevent it, and may do so by diligently using some readily available veterinary anti-parasitic drugs. These must be administered within four days of arrival in a heartworm endemic area, although some countries also require treatment pre-travel. Treatment intervals vary depending on the product, but most must be administered at least monthly while the dog is travelling.


While most of the tapeworm infestations we encounter in the UK and Ireland are caused by Dipylidium caninum – a fairly innocuous parasite transmitted by fleas – other parts of the world are afflicted with far more dangerous parasites, such as Taenia and Echinococcus species, which present serious risks to both canine and human health. Treatment for tapeworms is therefore a requirement for travel both out of and back into the UK, and must usually be given within a 1–5 day window of the journey.

External Parasites

Ticks and fleas, as well as being a problem in their own right, also transmit a number of serious infectious diseases. Similar to the situation of the mosquito transmitting heartworm larvae, many bacteria and other microscopic organisms have evolved to live within the mouthparts of these parasites, waiting for an opportunity to infect a dog or other animal. Infection with these “bugs” is termed vector-borne illness, and can diverse and vague symptoms, gravely affecting quality of life, and also being very often difficult to diagnose. An example which may be familiar to some is Lyme Disease, which can cause signs from chronic fatigue to muscle pain to organ failure, and is very difficult to treat successfully, even in humans.

Care must be taken to provide a travelling pet with adequate protection from these biting parasites by using approved veterinary products. Brushing or combing your dog’s coat after being outdoors is also a good idea while abroad, particularly if you have been walking in wooded areas or farmland, areas which ticks frequent. Preventative treatments also help ensure we do not inadvertently introduce these foreign insects to our shores.

Other Considerations

Woman and dog on holiday together

While I have outlined some of the major requirements for travel abroad with your dog, the exact regulations in terms of timings and approved products vary by country. Your veterinary surgeon is the person best equipped to help you plan your travel, and should certainly be consulted well in advance of planning travel outside the EU. In addition to the treatments and tests discussed above, there are some quite stringent testing requirements for travel to South Africa, for example, where multiple visits to the veterinary surgery at carefully specified time points are essential to pass inspection on entry to the country. The process can be a little confusing, even overwhelming, especially if travelling with more than one pet.

It is not unusual for a dog to fail one or more of these tests on the first occasion, and owners must be organised and flexible in order to deal with any delays which ensue. Travel guidelines are fluid, and the best point of contact for up to date rules is the embassy of the country to which you wish to travel. Most will have an information pack available on request. Alternatively, an easier, less stressful, though more expensive option is to use a pet courier service. These companies are usually very good at spelling out travel requirements in a step-by-step format that is easier for both yourself and your veterinarian to understand.

As a final step, you will need your vet to certify that your dog is fit to travel, usually within 48 hours of your time of departure. This involves a thorough veterinary examination for signs of illness or parasites, and needs to be performed on both legs of your journey. It is a good idea to identify the veterinary practice you wish to use on your return journey before your departure, and if possible to book an appointment in advance. Finding an English-speaking vet close to your point of departure for your return journey is usually possible by searching online and speaking with other pet owners who have previously travelled the same route. Indeed there are surgeries close to some of the busy European ports that specialise in just this sort of work. Booking ahead of time ensures no nasty surprises on your return journey.