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Traveling with Your Family Pet
Vet Tips and More....

by R. Brooks Bloomfield, DVM

Traveling with the family pet can be rewarding for all involved and a little forethought goes a long way in ensuring that everyone has a good time. In 21 years of practicing veterinary medicine, I have seen an enormous variety of "traveling pets". One family took their tarantula along. Others have had small primates, birds, all manner of reptiles; you name it. If it fits in the car, truck, or RV it is likely a species that has been someone's traveling companion. Considering this, some basic thinking is appropriate before you all pile in and head off. If you are moving, you may be stuck together for better or worse until you arrive at your new home. If you are traveling electively then you have a choice.

The first question that I consider when advising clients is why? Is this supposed to be fun for the pet or is it a necessity? Has the pet ever traveled before? Some dogs live for rides in any vehicle and are natural buddies for family trips. Others sit at the window and shake and drool the entire time while filling the car with unsavory aromas. Does your pet have environmental limitations? Some pets need constant heat and humidity. I have seen traveling iguanas but some have suffered severely in the mountain environment I inhabit with its year round frosts and arid air. Guinea pigs, for example, do not tolerate environmental changes well at all. They can travel if you can bring their usual habitat with them. This means the entire hutch not just a traveling cage. This applies to many other small pets as well. Altitude changes on the other hand affect all animals the same way they affect us. For the older debilitated pet, changes over 5000 feet can present real difficulties, and all animals need a chance to adapt if they are going to be physically active. Some pets really do belong at home with a sitter or being boarded. Sometimes that is the fairest choice for the pet.

Now that you have decided to bring along the entire family some advance preparation is in order. Depending on the species, environmental consistency can be critical. Always try to bring your pet's usual food including brand and flavor. Bringing water from home is a good idea for small pets. Dogs, cats, and some larger pet birds handle water changes in the same way we do; usually fine but not always. Talk to your vet before you leave about dealing with common disorders. Bring a good first aid/ emergency kit. Bring enough of your pet's medications to last the whole trip plus 20% for loss and delay. Make sure your pet is allowed at your destination and along the way. Find out where the animal hospitals are along the way and at your destination. Find out where to go in an emergency. Bring veterinary medical documents with you. At a minimum have a current rabies certificate for your dog and cat. If crossing state lines you will likely need a health certificate for each pet. They are not good indefinitely so plan accordingly but please don't call the day of departure wanting to come right in and get all your pets checked.

Make sure your species of pet is legal in all states you are traveling through or to. The pet gerbil is not welcome in California. Neither is the pet ferret, though both are legal and sold in neighboring states. Make sure that you have a way of restraining your pet at all times. A leash suffices for most dogs. A cage or carrier is essential for all others even if it isn't used on a daily basis. It is a good idea to use advance habituation if the cage/carrier isn't used regularly and is different from the one usually lived in at home. Some animals such as small dogs, cats, and birds associate the carrier with trips to the animal hospital, and the association isn't always positive, so feeding them in it and having it open and around for a while before departure may ease some apprehension. Make sure that you have some way of identifying your pet. For dogs and cats, a simple tag is easy and essential. For smaller pets, you can use photographs that highlight some unique feature such as a spot, splotch, scar, etc. Microchipping is the current gold standard for permanent identification of animals and almost any species can be microchipped by your vet, and registered. Most animal control and humane agencies have scanners and can reconnect you with your missing pet, if he/she is "chipped".

Be prepared for your destination. You should try to research common local hazards to your particular pets. Nothing ruins a family ski vacation faster than having the dog take a good long drink out of the toilet after a car ride only to discover that it was filled with antifreeze and you are headed for a life and death battle at the nearest emergency center. The same thing applies to rat poison/rodenticides. If the rental unit or second home only has Teflon cookware don't bring your pet bird, or bring your own pots and pans. If the local woods are full of skunks and porcupines, you probably don't want to let your dog out off leash. Even in some urban areas, coyotes are a threat to smaller pets. Cats and small dogs have even fallen (or risen as the case may be) to birds of prey such as owls and eagles. Plague inhabits rodents in some areas of the country. Dogs are essentially immune but cats are sensitive and the rodent fleas that help spread plague like cats too.

Speaking of fleas and ticks, a good control program should be started before you leave if that they are at risk. Heartworm preventative should be brought on trips longer than 30 days if traveling in heartworm territory. If you are gone less than 30 days then preventative medicine should be given when you arrive home or on your regular schedule if your dog is already on it. There are many regional challenges for pets too such as Lyme disease and other infections. Ask your veterinarian or contact the veterinary association in the state or locale you plan on visiting for accurate up to date advice.

As mentioned above, bring some documentation with you if possible. If you are going on a long trip and your pet has health issues a copy of your veterinary records can be very helpful. If you go to a regular destination such as a second home, I recommend establishing your pet(s) with a local veterinarian and familiarizing yourself with the local emergency center if available. A health certificate is a legal document and your veterinarian's license is on the line. A proper exam must be done and in the long run it is for the benefit of the pet. The old cat in early kidney failure may be in great jeopardy by a long hot trip and that won't be found without a good examination and bloodwork. If your pet is going to need vaccinations plan on doing them a few weeks in advance so they can stimulate protective immunity. Always keep in mind that the goal is fun and a sick pet quickly changes the attitude on a trip. If you invest a little time in advance, you can greatly increase the odds of having a successful travel experience with the "whole" family.

For more on traveling with the family pet, see our FAMILY PET TRAVEL section.

.... Dr. Bloomfield resides in Truckee, California with his family. He helped developed the Canine Companion Kit available at The kit contains everything you might need for an emergency at home or on the road.

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