If life without your beloved cat or dog is inconceivable, is relocation outside the country impossible?
If your destination is Belize, then the answer is no. Belizean regulations are straightforward and above all, available online. The problem isn’t the paperwork. The problem could be the pet! The least cooperative party in our relocation was Tigger himself.
The import of all live animals, from your pet canary to your prized bull, is governed by the BAHA (Belizean Agricultural Health Authority). Although I had correctly followed their online procedure, I didn’t hear back from them for quite a while. However, a follow-up phone call put me through to the right person and paperwork went smoothly from then on.
According to BAHA, you need to submit an application form (available from their website), a current certificate of good health from a vet in your country of origin, and a rabies vaccination. There used to be some inconvenient requirements such as the rabies vaccination needing to be given 30 days before entry, but the certificate of health being no more than 10 days before entry—in other words, two trips to your vet. Fortunately for us, our vet in the States was hip to this little catch-22 and gave us several certificates of good health, one of them undated so we could fill in when we knew our actual departure date. That said, I didn’t see these timing requirements when I recently checked the BAHA website, so they may have changed this rule.
When you drive through Chetumal, border controls have quarantine officers at limited times only—Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, the good news is that when you fly, officers are available to meet your airplane. You pay an import fee of US$20 upon arrival. You can also get a pet passport (US$50). This allows them to come and go as many times as you please for a year. While a one-time import license can apply to several animals, the yearly passport applies only to one animal. You’d have to buy one for each of your animals if traveling with more than one.
If you’re driving to Belize, you can pop your pets in the car with you. Numerous posts by people who have done just that are available on Belize forums. However, if traveling for a week or at least four very long days through Mexico sounds like a greater hell than leaving them behind, then flying is probably your best and most likely option. It is also worth considering that when driving, you may take longer than the 10-day vet certificate requirement so careful planning is imperative.
United Airlines, which flies direct to Belize through Houston, has very clear instructions about traveling with animals. These instructions (available on their website) include regulations about how large the carrier crate must be based on the height of the animal at their ears and shoulders. Basically, you have to have a crate that’s big enough so your furry friend isn’t scrunched up. If this means a crate is too big to be considered hand luggage, it needs to be checked in.
I have a friend whose life partner happens to be a dog—a real, four-legged pit bull called Charlie. Of course, Charlie’s crate was too big to be hand luggage, but my friend got around the caging requirement by consulting a psychologist and professing a fear of flying. This got Charlie certified as a service dog. Now he can travel through airports on a leash and even sit right at her feet on the plane.
Bureaucracy Was The Easy Bit
My cat is no “teacup kitty.” Tigger is a 17-pound, king-of-the-hill tom cat. Using the guidelines on United’s website, I thought there wasn’t any way he would fit in any kind of carrier that wouldn’t need to be checked in. However, I forced him into a carry-on container and nobody checked how big he was. I thought having him with me might minimize his ordeal. Checking him in would have been purgatory because it is pitch black and gets icy cold in the bag area on a plane.
A few other tricks I did to ease the journey were booking a business-class ticket so there would be a chance of having enough room under the seat ahead of me to fit him in. I also bought a carrier with wheels and a leash to pull it along rather than carry it. Lastly, I chose an overnight flight because the total time elapsed on the journey was shorter.
Tigger is as physically strong as he is willed, and it was no mean feat to get him into the container in the first place, so I was less than thrilled to be taken aside at security in SFO and told to take him out of the carrier. As with so many security regulations, I didn’t see the point of this. There was see-through mesh so he could be viewed, and he was meowing so loudly that anyone with ears could tell he was a cat.
Airlines recommend not sedating animals; in fact, United say they will not accept sedated animals. Some people think that the conditions of the luggage area are already very hostile (extreme cold and darkness) so the animal’s body shouldn’t have to undergo any additional stress such as a sedative. However, both a friend who regularly travels with her dog and my vet recommend sedation. I did get a sedative from the vet and forced Tig to swallow it but it hardly had any effect whatsoever…
You have to book ahead for your pet to fly, and of course this incurs a fee. When my husband David and I did this two years ago, the fee was US$125. Your animal also uses up your carry-on allowance; you can still take a laptop or purse, but nothing larger than that unless you’re very lucky. It might be a good idea to book well ahead if you’re set on taking a specific flight, as there is a limit to the number of animals the airline will allow in the cabin.
Throughout the trip, from the time I left home until we arrived in Belize, Tigger yowled nonstop. I don’t mean a little friendly meow. I mean the loudest roar you can imagine coming from a cat; the most blood-curdling sound that suggested he was being skinned alive at that very moment.
My partner in crime, my husband David, was booked on a different flight to Houston, where we were going to connect and share the joy of traveling with Tig to Belize. However, David’s connection was delayed, and despite my frequent-flyer efforts, I couldn’t get him another flight. Tig and I glumly set off alone.
As I sat in business class with my yowling cat jammed under the seat in front of me, I was afraid that Tig was so loud we would both be invited to leave the flight. The woman behind me was deathly allergic to cats and demanded to be moved. The flight attendant was quite solicitous. Had I considered a sedative? Yes, of course, but to no avail…
At the same time, I was calling up all the magic I knew for there to be one seat left on the plane, so David (who had by then arrived in Houston) could get on the plane to Belize with me. I wanted the plane door closed so we wouldn’t get kicked off and open long enough for David to be able to board.
My paranoia may not have been undeserved. David, waiting unsuccessfully to board my flight, found the subject of conversation by everyone in the waiting area was The Cat on board.
When I arrived in Belize, after claiming my luggage, I went through the “something to declare” line. I was whisked away to a tiny quarantine office, which I shared with a Belizean confessing to bringing in some ham for the upcoming Christmas celebrations. Like U.S. security, the official insisted on taking Tig out of the carrier. I paid my US$20 and got an officially stamped receipt. It was easier for Tig to get legal than it is for a human or even a leg of ham.
Although Tig was only out of the carrier when in this tiny room, word about him spread quickly. When David arrived on a later flight, he said all the talk in the baggage claim and customs area was about the “giant cat” that had arrived that morning.
Because David was arriving four hours later than I was, I waited at the airport for him. I picked up the rental car even though I wouldn’t be going anywhere until my husband arrived; like that, I at least had a place for Tig and could take him out of his carrier to stretch his legs.
There was no shade in the airport parking lot, and even in December, sitting in the car was stiflingly hot. I turned the car and air conditioning on to cool off, then turned them off again until it got so hot I couldn’t stand it, and so forth.
At one point, I thought I could wind down the window just a bit, leaving the opening too small for Tig to escape. Even though he was at the back of the SUV when I hatched my plan, as soon as the window opened I found myself covered with a furry creature that was hotter than the wooliest sweater. So much for that idea.
In preparation of our move, David had purchased a leash for Tig. We fantasized about being able to take him for a walk so he could relieve himself but, although I tried to install this on the poor creature, I wasn’t successful. I no sooner had him out of the car than he escaped his leash and cowered under the automobile. I had to lie flat on my stomach, trying to grab a fury paw. While I was stuck under the car with my feet poking out, David finally arrived. Wondering what on earth I was up to, he managed to drag a demented Tig and me out from under the vehicle. Feeling a little dazed, we set off for our new home in Cayo.
Upon arrival, Tig did adjust to his new kingdom but he made me promise him one thing… no more airplanes!