So you want to bring your beloved “four footed” friend/s to Costa Rica. If you are moving here, like you I would never leave my best friend behind like the old sofa and other assorted things we leave behind.

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That known, let me share my knowledge and experience in the hopes that it will help ease your journey and peace of mind.

Let me first mention that pets come in a variety of species but to transport some of them can be challenging or even impossible. If your pet is other than a domestic cat or dog, your challenge may be out of sight. I came in to Costa Rica back in the year 2000 with five crates of pets.

I had one Golden Retriever, two cockatoos, one macaw, an Amazon parrot and an African Grey parrot. The dog was “cake” to bring in, but because the parrots and any wild species fall under the C.I.T.E.S. (endangered species) act, besides their appropriate health check and certificates, bird identification bands, I also had to present about fourteen pages of C.I.T.E.S. papers on each bird.

It was almost overwhelming. Now, in the time since because of the recent contagious avian diseases, all the world countries have become much stricter on transportation of wild animals. Today I am not 100% sure what you would need to present to import exotic species into Costa Rica, so for the purpose of this article, I am going to limit it to dogs and cats.

The very first step you must take is to check with the air carrier that you will be using because I have found that from one carrier to another, their requirements vary from “oh, we don’t ship pets at all”, to very specific requirements as to time of day and temperature, season, “in cabin” requirements as well as “cargo” requirements. Let me also say that the fee for their transport varies from one airline to another from almost highway robbery to extremely fair.

I say start there because if the airline refuses you or you can’t meet their requirements for some reason, you are “dead” at the starting gate. When checking with the carrier, I would recommend that you personally go to the airport where you will exit and speak with a knowledgeable agent.

I would like to tell you that you can just go to websites to get all of your information, however, websites can be behind with the latest information, I have called them many times on it saying “but that isn’t what your website says”. Also, strangely, it seems that not all employees within the airlines really know their policies because they seem to change on a whim. So, double check and triple check their requirements.

Also, it goes without saying that for the comfort of your pet, try to choose the most direct route to Costa Rica that would eliminate many connecting flights.

They will have requirements for transporting “in cabin” which normally means the pet must be small enough to fit under your seat in a soft, collapsible carrier and that the pet must be able to stand up in their carrier without the head touching the top, etc. Also, if you have more than one pet, they may have requirements per flight of how many pets can fly in cabin.

If your pet is too large, it must travel in cargo in an airline approved hard transport carrier (no wire or open carriers, it must be plastic, closed on three sides, etc) and all transport carriers marked appropriately with your name, phone number, “LIVE ANIMAL”, etc. Also, if you have more than one “in cargo” pet, you need to know the rules for that as well.

Again, do your homework and adhere to their rules to the letter. Sometimes you end up with “wiggle room” with a sympathetic agent if you don’t have all requirements met at the gate, but don’t count on it!

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Step two would be to determine as soon as possible the date you want to leave and this may be dictated by the airline if they have certain months of pet embargo due to climate, etc.

If you have a choice, try to choose the mildest climate for the pet, ie, spring or fall to avoid the extremes in temperatures and night flights during especially warm weather is going to be better than day time. Make sure your pet/s are healthy and free of parasites and are up to date on their vaccinations, and especially rabies.

The rule is that the vaccinations must be no older than one year or newer than one month. In other words, the vaccinations can be as new as a month ago to assure that you didn’t vaccinate your pet yesterday who was already incubating one of those deadly diseases.

So, if you want to leave soon, those vaccinations must be up to date but not later than one month prior to take-off. At this point I have to say, that will eliminate puppies and kittens less than seven months from travel. The reason is that puppies or kittens less than six months cannot be vaccinated against rabies and since the rabies vaccination must be at least one month old, 7 months is the minimum age that can travel.

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If you have the requirements of the air carrier memorized and met and your pet is healthy and current on vaccinations and you have a date for travel begin acclimating your pet to the carrier. Leave it open with soft enticing bedding in a corner of the home out of heavy traffic and normally they will automatically seek it out to sleep in. Unless traumatized previously, most dogs and cats will seek out a “snug, cave-like” habitat as secure refuge. If they are already attracted to the carrier, they will feel less nervous when the day comes for travel.

So, you have met all the air carrier’s requirements, your pet/s are healthy and up to date on vaccinations and free of parasites, your next step is their International health certificate from a qualified veterinarian. Again, adhere to your air carrier’s requirements as to exactly when you get the health certificate completed. The (very strict) rules seem to be by the airlines that the health certificate be issued no more than 8 to 10 days prior to take off. This is pretty obvious as they don’t want an animal with a six month health certificate that has contracted a disease in the interim.

Carefully choose the doctor because your vet must be certified (be sure he/she is) to issue an international health certificate. In the states, that doesn’t mean any vet. They must be members of the international health certificate organization and paid up by their dues to issue an international health certificate (as opposed to a domestic health certificate).

Interestingly enough, it seems that any vet in Costa Rica can issue an international health certificate to take an animal out of the country. The pet will get a cursory check up and will have to see proof (paperwork) of the dates of vaccination and de-worming and the doctor will fill out the international health certificate.

If “Fido’s or Fluffy’s” regular Doc can do it, great, if they aren’t certified for international health certificates, you will have to seek one that is. After that is completed, you will have to take the health certificate to a U.S.D.A. veterinary agent (and they aren’t located on every corner) for a final stamp of approval. Ask the doc who filled out the paperwork to direct you.

With all of the above completed, you are ready for “take off”. But you must see to the final details for the comfort and safety of travel for your pet/s.

To Tranquilize Or Not?

The current consensus seems to be that tranquilizing is not allowed. It would be nice if Fido or Fluffy would peacefully sleep during travel but the reality of the situation is that isn’t usually what happens.

Tranquilizers act differently in each animal; leaving some dangerously sedated and others wired for charge. Since you would not be able to supervise should a normal dosage happen to be an overdose in your pet, it is best not to drug them at all. Yes, some will be frightened and wired, but few die of a heart attack and again, the airlines don’t want them tranquilized. We didn’t tranquilize our Golden and yes, he was terrified after his short flight, but after he was with us again, he was none the worse for wear.

To Feed Or Not To Feed?

Both cats and dogs are carnivores which are designed to go some long time without food and do just fine. You will probably suffer more than they will. So, I would say feed them a good meal no sooner than 6 to 8 hours prior to take off to assure they don’t get motion sickness and vomit and have to travel the whole way in a soiled crate. Perhaps feeding a meal with a high moisture content to keep them from dehydration is a plus.

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A good and vigorous walk some few hours prior to take off to be sure they eliminate well will go a long way for their comfort. Pack a soft absorbent type of fabric, an old thick towel is great to serve as comfort for resting (don’t skimp, make it “cushy”) or to absorb any type of bodily “mistakes” is a great aid. A favorite toy (that they can’t consume and choke on) is a good comfort as well.

That’s about all you can do as far as the interior of the crate to keep them comfy. Remember to plaster in large readable letters all pertinent information on the outside of the transport crate such things as previously mentioned. Your air carrier may supply you with their stickers to fill out. You can also add a large arrow labeled “this side up”, etc. Put the information on all sides possible.

I was told those years back that as you enter the cabin for take-off, you should advise all flight attendants and pilot that there are animals in cargo.

Make everyone who should know, aware since they control the temperature and pressure in the cargo area right there in the cockpit. Maybe today that isn’t necessary, but I always believe in an ounce of prevention. Also, should there be any question or problem concerning your pets, prior to take-off, they can immediately seek you.

Now, with all documents in hand and pets loaded and everything a “done deal”, sit back and (nervously) enjoy the ride.

When you land in Costa Rica, pets will be waiting separately from luggage for you to present proper paperwork. Let me dispel one fear: Costa Rica does not have a pet quarantine. Your pet is accepted or rejected, it won’t enter “purgatory”. And let me say at this time I have never heard of a pet with proper paperwork rejected from entering and touring Costa Rica. Costa Rica doesn’t have the space or “man power” to maintain a quarantine area.

I think you will find that if you adhere to all the above regulations when you present your paperwork to the Costa Rican customs agent you will be fine. They will give a rather distant, (because they don’t know if your pet will eat their fingers off or not) and cursory glance into the crate to verify that it is indeed a dog as listed on the paperwork and the paperwork appears in order, they will give you a big friendly Tico smile and bid you and your best friend “bienvenido a Costa Rica.”

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I say this from my own experience and from many accounts of friends and acquaintances traveling to Costa Rica. I know people who regularly live part time in Costa Rica and their little friends travel back and forth with them without incident.

I have also had much experience helping people adopt little pets here to be transported to the United States with great success. To do that, again start with the airline requirements, and then be certain of the laws and requirements for the state you will be entering, and then, the health certificate here to leave the country.

Let me emphasize that I have given the best advice that I know, but remember that laws do change and airlines are subject to change on a whim, so, do your homework and be sure it is documented.

Best of luck to you and your friend and from one zoologist in Costa Rica, “Bienviendo.”

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Written by Gloria Dempsey. Zoologist in Arenal, Costa Rica. April 2008

If you would to contribute to the rescue and care of wildlife in Costa Rica and maybe help with the cost of a new portable X-ray machine, please send a US cashier’s cheque to our Zoologist friend in Arenal Gloria Dempsey:

Gloria Dempsey
5717-28 Nuevo Arenal – Tilaran
Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

Or you can email Gloria Dempsey at

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