Everything You Need to Know Before Adopting a Pet While Traveling

Follow these tips to navigate everything from legal parameters to potential challenges.

It's easy to find love in Mexico. It might even be at your feet, chomping on the carne asada that slid out of your taco.

"They really choose you down here," Mackie Arbaugh says of Mexico's street dogs. She's the adoptions coordinator and social media manager for Cerritos Beach Dogs, a non-profit cafe and dog rescue in Baja California Sur. The rescue was founded in 2023 by a group of Mexicans and expats from the US, Argentina, Canada, and Australia. It scoops up orphaned pups from Cerritos Beach and sends them home with travelers.

"Most of our adopters are foreigners and tourists, I think because most people here already have their own dog," says Arbaugh. One look into a sweet puppy's eyes is enough to make travelers begin plotting ways to bring it across the border.

stray cat in Morocco

Beyond Mexico, destinations across Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe have long struggled to get their stray dog and cat populations under control. "There are hundreds of thousands of amazing pups in rescues all over the world,” Arbaugh says, “waiting to find their fur-ever home.”

But of course, importing animals into the States involves some planning. The CDC lists more than a dozen diseases that dogs alone can carry, which means there's a lot of red tape when it comes to bringing an animal in, ranging from vaccination requirements to airline age limits and vet-verified certificates.

Have you fallen in love with a pup at an international dog rescue? Or are you preparing to keep your eyes (and heart) open for a furry friend next time you’re abroad? Here's everything you need to know about adopting a pet overseas, including health inspections, transportation considerations, and more.

Woman with dog in France
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Adopting a stray vs. a shelter pet

Some places have so many stray cats and dogs you might be tempted to pluck one right off a busy sidewalk instead of adopting through a rescue or shelter. Often, tourists aren't even considering adoption until they come across an animal in poor condition that might need help. But according to Humane Society International, "Concerned individuals should be mindful that these animals may, in fact, have someone who looks after them.” They recommend reaching out to a local animal welfare organization or veterinarian to assess the animal's condition and find out whether it can be traced back to an owner.

Rescue organizations often cover the costs of spaying and neutering, and some will make sure the animal is up to date on all its vaccinations, so it's important to use these community resources before deciding to add a stray to your pack. Humane Society International recommends using worldanimal.net, a database of thousands of animal protection organizations across 170 countries, to find a rescue near you.

Entering the US with an animal

There are some animals you aren’t allowed to bring into the states from abroad. The US Department of Agriculture defines pets as dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, rodents, hedgehogs, reptiles, amphibians, and certain birds. Any animal outside of those categories is not legally a pet and may not be granted entry. Also, birds like ducks and pigeons count as poultry, not pets, but if we're only talking about a dog or cat, you should be okay so long as they're at least eight weeks old (required by most airlines and the US Department of Agriculture).

That said, the US Department of State is strict about dogs coming from countries where they’ve had a high risk of contracting rabies. Those countries include Brazil, India, Thailand, Morocco, and more than 100 others. If a dog does come from one of the countries on the CDC's list, then you'll need to present proof that they've had a rabies vaccine. Only one vaccination certificate issued by the CDC is accepted, as there are concerns about counterfeit documents.

Most states don't have any quarantine requirements for dogs and cats coming from overseas, but Hawaii and Guam do because of rabies concerns.

woman in Greece with cat
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Obtaining a health certificate

The CDC does not require health certificates for pet imports, but your airline probably will. According to the US State Department, it’s typical for airlines to require pet health certificates from within the last 10 days, regardless of the country’s requirements. Likewise, pets are always subject to inspection at ground borders, so you should never try to import an animal without this paperwork.

Every airline has its own requirements, but most will want to see the pet's breed, weight, age, and confirmation (in English) that your pet has been examined by a vet and is both healthy enough for travel and free of any diseases that could put others at risk. Shelters and rescues often provide this certificate or work with you to get one. Arbaugh says Cerritos Beach Dogs sends all its pups away with vaccination cards and health certificates obtained by a local vet within a few days of travel.

Arranging transportation

Arbaugh says the biggest hurdle to adopting a dog abroad is typically transportation. If you're able to drive, you might save an already-stressed pet from further anxiety on a flight. Brachycephalic breeds like pugs, shih tzus, and bulldogs, as well as Persian and Himalayan cats that have trouble breathing under stress, might be safer traveling by car, as would senior animals.

Some airlines require pets to fly in the cargo hold, which can be loud, turbulent, and just overall distressing. Also, flying with pets typically costs a fee of $100 or more each way, but it does—on the other hand—get you to your destination faster, which might be less stressful for your animal. The best transportation for your pet depends on their health and behaviors. Talk to a vet or the adoption agency to make an informed decision.

dog in car
Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Settling in at home

No matter which country your new pet hails from, you should always make the vet one of your first stops upon arriving home. This allows you to establish care, get your animal up to date on medications and necessary vaccines, and make sure there are no potential health issues of concern. Consider getting your pet microchipped, too, as a safety measure in case they get lost. Presumably, you won't have the luxury of taking time to prepare your new pet for the big transition as you make your trip home. But if you’re able to think ahead a little bit, ensure there’s a private area of your home where your pet can take some quiet time when they're feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Be patient with your new pet while they acclimate to their new surroundings and lifestyle.

Considering other ways to help animals abroad

While adopting overseas can be tempting, Humane Society International urges people to adopt in their home country before adopting abroad. The ASPCA has estimated that about a million dogs and cats are euthanized every year in the US to make space in shelters. If you feel compelled to contribute towards animal welfare while traveling, consider that adoption might not even be the best way to help. Transporting an animal internationally can be expensive, and the money might accomplish more if used to provide spay and neuter services for multiple pets, among other vital services. It might be best to donate money to local animal rescue organizations, or to ask them what kind of help they might need.

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Olivia Young is a freelance journalist covering travel, nature, and culture for Travel + Leisure, Atlas Obscura, Treehugger, Business Insider, and more. She is from the Appalachian foothills of Southeast Ohio and earned her Bachelor of Science in journalism from Ohio University. She began freelancing in 2017 after a whirlwind stint in the Los Angeles PR scene pushed her to move into a campervan in New Zealand. Today, she lives far from LA (and New Zealand) in Athens, Ohio, where she is building a tiny house in the forest. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, or at her website.