Urvi Sheth was leaving Mumbai for Sydney, Australia, in 2020, for an advanced course in teacher training, and there was no way she was leaving without Uno. The dog, seven-and-a-half years old, had been abandoned by his previous owner and had been rescued from a dump yard by a non-profit, before he made his way to the Sheth household.
It was a two-way salvation. “Just before we got him in 2020, I had ended my five-year-long toxic marriage, had many personal losses and was suffering from depression,” says Sheth, 34. “Uno helped me put myself together and take control of my life . He healed me.”
But crossing international borders with an animal is complicated. Sheth was traveling during the first wave of Covid-19 and to one of strictest countries for animal arrivals. There weren’t enough flights for humans, let alone carriers with oxygenated cargo holds for pets. Blood tests are needed, and the only globally recognized lab is in the UK. Australia additionally mandates that a dog arriving from India spend 60 days in a second-world country before it is cleared for immigration.
Uno had to first fly to Delhi to catch the only available flight to Singapore. There, he spent 60 days, first, in a government-approved pet quarantine center for a month and then at a government-approved dog boarding for another 30 days. In Australia, he was quarantined in Melbourne for another 15 days before meeting Sheth in Sydney. “When I saw him after almost two-and-a-half months I was so happy and so relieved,” she says. Her hero: Shyamax Presswalla of Bark Traveller, who organized much of the process.
Pet parents across the country are increasingly taking along their furry and feathery friends when they travel internationally. Pet travel companies are typically witnessing a 35% annual growth as a result. “From April 2020 to December 2021, I have relocated 323 pets – dogs, cats, rabbits and parrots – to the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda and to India for these countries,” says Presswalla. He started with a dog boarding facility, The Bark Club, in 2016 and was inundated with enough queries for pet relocations that he started a separate service in 2018.
The service is its own advertisement. “Now that more people know that they can relocate their pets as well, they are not leaving them behind,” says Presswalla. The process is not cheap. It can cost anywhere from ₹2 lakh to ₹9 lakh depending on the size of the dog and the countries in question. Families move with their bird and the turtle pets too, though less often, and for which the rules vary from country to country. “Companies often bear the cost, along with the cost of moving their employees and other members of their families,” he adds.
Another Mumbai-based pet travel company, Furry Flyers, claims to have relocated 7,000 to 8,000 pets to and from India since their launch in 2008. “When we started, we mostly catered to NRIs, moving only eight to ten pets every year,” says Vinayak Prabhu, co-founder. “We have more nuclear families today and pets are a very important part of these families. People take them along wherever they go.”
Delhi-based pet travel company Petfly has been in business since 2016. “Airlines offer good services for pets now,” says S Nandlal, one of the company’s directors. There are special lounges and waiting areas at airports. “Even during Covid, we moved pets to Japan, Netherlands, Amsterdam, US, UK and Canada.”
Pet relocation rules are stricter than they used to be, as more travelers insist on taking their animal companions along when they move to another country. The pandemic has also made many countries more cautious. Up until July last year, you could take your pet to the US simply as excess baggage, and paying the applicable fee. Now, American immigration authorities mandate that the dog clears a rabies test and is micro-chipped with an RFID or radio-frequency responder for easy tracking. The chip must also be programmed with an identification number and the identification and contact details of its associated human.
In addition, dogs must clear a blood test to check if they are carrying any infections, have a health certificate from a local veterinarian, and no-objection certificates from government-approved vets in the country of departure and arrival. Then, there is the US’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) to contend with. You pet must have had the right vaccines at the right interval before flight to be safe from contracting or transmitting an infectious disease.
Getting the correct, airline-approved crate to fit your pet in while flying can also be a challenge. “Most readymade crates are not big enough to carry big mastiffs, which are banned by most airlines as they are considered dangerous. In some cases, we have had to get a customized crate made and also find that rare airline that would let a big mastiff fly in their cargo,” says Presswalla.
This is roughly what keeps pet-travel businesses in business. They reach out to their network of pet boarding facilities and quarantine centers across the globe to find dogs like Uno the right place to stay in transit countries. Anxious humans are kept in the loop throughout, usually via a Whatsapp group, that includes the client and the agent overseeing the pet’s stay abroad. There are regular updates about the pet’s status and well-being, during their stressful time away from familiar faces.
Long-distance flights and jet lag is hard enough on humans. It’s worse on animals. That’s why simple animal care – the regular walk, cleaning, and making familiar food available – are even more important when pets travel. And why few humans balk at the sum. “I have had a family spend ₹38 lakh to move four dogs and an owner even spent ₹8 lakh for a big mastiff,” Presswalla says.