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Traveling with a pet dog between the U.S. and Canada: The fine print

Last May, the Take Paws team wrote a really useful post about the requirements for taking your dog (and yourself!) from the United States to Canada, which saves me all kinds of work. I’ll just add that when you’re returning to the U.S., you follow the CDC’s rules, which state (in relevant part) that “Dogs must have a certificate showing they have been vaccinated against rabies at least 30 days prior to entry into the United States.” Please note that this is a more stringent requirement than Canada’s (which “does not require a waiting period between the time the animal is vaccinated for rabies and the time the animal is imported into Canada”), and make your plans accordingly.

Last week, however, I learned something new about traveling with a pet dog to and from Canada. In the process of getting our NEXUS cards, which speed up both international border crossings between the U.S. and Canada and (in the form of Global Entry) international arrivals in most U.S. airports, we were told to pay attention to the dog food and treats we bring to Canada and then back again to the U.S.

Going from the United States to the province of British Columbia, you may not bring with you any “Pet food containing beef.” The quoted language comes from the sheet we were given, entitled “For Entry to Canada Province of British Columbia Agriculture Products.” I couldn’t find an on-line link for you; instead, I found the general rules for Canada (look under “Personal Imports”), from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which require that your pet’s food be of U.S. origin but don’t specifically prohibit beef. We are most likely to travel to and from Vancouver, in British Columbia, so I’ll be leaving the beef products at home.

Currently, you may not bring “Pet food and pet treats containing lamb or goat, whether dry, canned, fresh, semi-moist, or veterinarian prescribed” into the U.S. “unless label on bag or can shows US origin. Beef, chicken, fish, pork and vegetarian pet food are currently allowed from Canada with a label listing the ingredients.” The quoted language comes from the sheet we were given (entitled “Bringing Agricultural Products to the United States from Canada”), referencing “the MINIMAL RISK RULE, effective November 19, 2007.” For further details, or if you want to make sure this information is current at the time you’re traveling, call the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Blaine, WA (Agricultural Inspection) at 360-332-1831 (alternative numbers end in -2351 and -1640).

One final note: To be on the safe side, we were told, bring your pet’s food and treats in their original packaging, so you can prove that you’re following the rules. And don’t overlook your dog’s treats! They count too, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that would slip my mind.

30 comments

  • Mia

    I recently travelled by car to Canada from the US and then back from Canada to the US by plane (going through US customs/immigration in Toronto). They hardly looked at my passport, let alone my dog’s rabies certificate (let alone the food I was taking) when I went into Canada. On the way back, the US agent glanced at the rabies certificate but didn’t ask to see my dog or food or anything (my pup was in her carrier on the floor, he didn’t even see I had a dog until he released me). In neither circumstances did the agents ask me anything about my dog, they just asked me generic immigration questions about me. They seemed completely uninterested in my dog.

    As a note, I don’t have a US or Canadian passport, so I expected them to be at least suspicious/cautious about me and my dog but they didn’t really care at all.

    Thanks for the great post though, I’ll keep it in mind next time I’m going to/from Canada.

    PS. My dog’s food has lamb…oops haha

  • Thanks so much for the report, Mia! Our previous trips to Canada and back were pre-Chloe — we’ve generally been asked very few questions, if any, so it’s nice to hear that that’s likely to happen when she’s with us too.

  • Jessica

    Thanks for the additional info. I knew about the rabies requirements but not the food. Do you know if you get caught with “contraband” dog food if they just make you throw it away or you get a fine?

    We want to take our dogs to Banff National Park someday.

  • Karen Friesecke

    I can answer Jessica’s question. A few years back when the mad cow mania was in fever pitch, I had to throw away a weeks worth of dog food when I was crossing the border to the US. I’ve crossed the border dozens of times with Jersey and I was asked about her food twice, most times the guards don’t even ask to see the rabies certificate.

  • [email protected]

    Thanks so much for the mention! We’ve also had very few questions when we’ve crossed the border (knocking on wood). The last time we came back from Canada into the US they even asked us to step out of the Winnebago so they could walk through it – but they never mentioned the dog food!

    I have heard from some of our readers, however, that they have had to throw away their dog’s food when crossing, so it makes sense to take the necessary precautions.

  • Sonja

    We have our Montecristo on a raw food diet. So we buy fresh on location and prepare. I had never realised that there may be an issue with the meat. There is no problem however, with the supplements.

  • Jade

    We recently traveled back from S.Korea with our yorkie. To my surprise, when we arrived in SFO, they did not check any of her papers, but they did take all our pup’s food at customs. They said any dog food that’s already opened is considered contaminated, even though the food was bought in the US. They wouldn’t let me keep the container (it’s a nice glasslock container), said it’s considered contaminated as well. We’ve traveled with our pup in past to overseas before, but usually through LAX, and we were never asked about our dog food.

  • Wow, thanks for the comment, Jade! How vexing — but it’s useful to have the heads-up that really anything can happen when you’re crossing the border. Maybe we’ll try to return with one unopened, sampler bag of dog food, so we’d at least have one bag to tide us over until we got home.

  • seb

    sorry i’m being a bit dense on this, but if i want to travel from the seattle to vancouver (driving) for a weekend with my dog and then return, does this mean before i go he has to get another rabies vaccine so it’s within the 30 days? even if i have proof he is current on his rabies shots and doesn’t require them for another year?
    thanks muchly!

  • Not dense at all, Seb! The language of bureaucracy ties me in knots too. In your situation, all you’d need is a copy of the rabies shot sheet that your vet gives you right after your dog gets his vaccination. If he’s not due for another year, then he’s well within the correct time. You just need to be able to show the border folks (if they ask) that he was vaccinated more than 30 days ago, which your sheet will prove. This situation is only tricky for people who have JUST vaccinated their dog — like, say, if he got his shot yesterday, and you go to Vancouver today and stay for a week, then when you get back to the border to come home, his shot will only be 8 days old, not the 30 days that the U.S. requires.

  • Bernadette

    I am from CA and will be traveling by plane to Bellingham. We will cross the border to Vancouver. My dog won’t be due for his rabies vaccine until october 2012. He gets his vaccine every 3 years. Is that going to be a problem when I go to Canada, i know it’s more than 30 days but more than 2 years. What else do i need aside from rabies vaccine and what should it say on the health certificate? This is the first time my dog’s traveling by plane (he’s 3 yrs. old). Thanks.

  • Hi, Bernadette! It doesn’t seem to me like it would be a problem. To get into Canada, you’ll need a rabies vaccination certificate, and it’ll “specify the duration of immunity,” so your vet will get a chance to point out that it’s a 3-year dose. See http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/anima/imp/petani/canin3e.shtml To return to the U.S., you only need to show that your dog has “been vaccinated against rabies at least 30 days prior to entry into the United States” (http://www.cdc.gov/animalimportation/dogs.html ), so the same vaccination certificate should work on your return. Take a look at the two links I’ve provided, if your vet needs guidance on what the rabies vaccination certificate should say. I believe that you’re covered, once you have that certificate in hand, but you should double-check with your vet as well. Have a great trip! Send pictures!!

  • Bernadette

    Thanks Mary-Alice. I’m excited to travel with my baby (shih tzu), I just hope he’ll be fine inside the plane. I want him to get used to being in the plane because we plan to take him with us when we travel to Europe. I bought the Large Sturdibag for him too. Do you have any suggestions as to how to calm the dogs while inside the plane?

    I also would like to ask about the health certificate; how many days should it be issued before we go to Canada? We are leaving on January 13th. Thank you and Happy New Year!

  • Hi, Bernadette! I can’t find anything that says the certificate needs to be done by a particular date. If I were you, I’d get it within 10 days of travel — just because that’s the usual timeline for interstate health certificates, for no better reason. Re calming your pup while on the plane: I’d start by exercising him with a really good walk before you leave, so he’s likely to be tired on the plane. Some people swear by a spritz of Travel Calm or Rescue Remedy — I haven’t noticed any effect on Chloe, though she may have been soothed a bit by the (fiercely expensive) D.A.P. spray. Some people swear by a Thundershirt — I haven’t tried one, because Chloe’s issues are only mild. I pat her during takeoff and landing, curled up like a pretzel so my arm can go in her bag while it’s under my seat. One reader leaves her foot inside her pup’s carrier during flight. Another reader brings top-quality treats, like chicken and string cheese, to improve her dog’s feeling about the carrier and the experience. I make sure Chloe can see me during flight, and during turbulence, I make sure to yawn and lick my lips where she can see I’m doing it (it sounds ridiculous, I know, but her trainer points out that those are the behaviors dogs use to calm themselves, and it’s been observed that people can calm a tense dog situation by yawning and lip licking). Those are my best ideas — I hope that none is needed, and that your trip goes smoothly. Please report back!

  • Bernadette

    Hi Mary Alice, i got the health certificate and rabies vaccination certification from the vet today. She signed it and she asked me to call USDA vets to ask if they have to sign it too. But she also said that it might not be needed. I checked online and the only office here in california is in Sacramento which is really far from me. What do you think? Is it really needed? We’re leaving in one week. Thank you!

  • Bernadette

    Hi Mary-Alice! I’m back or shall I say we’re back from our Canada vacation and I must say that I didn’t have any problem at all entering Canada. I just gave the lady at the border my dog’s health certificate and didn’t bother asking me anything. I even brought food and was ready to leave it there in case they ask me about it. It’s the same situation going back to the US. My dog was looking at the window and the officer didn’t also bother asking for the health certificate.

    We took Allegiant Air and they also didn’t bother checking out on my baby. It was such a pleasant trip except for the snow. My baby had fun there. We both did. Thanks for all your help, now we’re ready to go somewhere else.

  • Love it, Bernadette! So glad everything went smoothly and that you’re ready for more travel together. Thank you especially for the details about what you brought and what did and didn’t happen — it helps other readers know what to expect.

  • Mia

    Just re-reading this post as I am probably taking a trip to Canada via car next month and it occurs to me now that anyone could just put food that contains lamb, or any forbidden ingredient, into a bag that is for a non-forbidden food and the customs people wouldn’t know the difference. My dog eats two different flavors of food and they look exactly the same, even thought they have different ingredients. What is the customs officer going to do, taste it? haha. I mean some of these rules just seem so arbitrary sometimes. Sigh.

  • Maya

    Hi all!

    Although I have no connection to Canada, I am about to travel to Europe and thought I’d share my experience with the preparation to go to Croatia…

    My dog had to be vaccinated for rabies ‘at least’ 21 days before the trip, yet the health certificate needed to be completed within 10days of travel. This is where it became a pain, too. I had the requirement to have the USDA stamp the health certificate, and the nearest office was in a different state. The vet completed the paper work and made sure to fax it over for their review before I’d over night it [always over night wen given such a small window to get everything done- 10 days]. They had the vet change up things, very anal, and finally I got the ok to overnight it. Then, a phone call…….stating, the USDA vet reviewed the papers and they were wrong again. I don’t even need to go on with the stress we were put through by the USDA; I felt bad for the vet who had to re-do 6 pages five different times.
    It is important to also include a prepaid express envelope for a fast return of the documents.

    I found a website that offered information regarding documents needed for each country you are travelling to. I paid $12 for that service and to get the documents via email. However, once we sent it out to the USDA, they informed us about additional forms needed to complete, too.

    I am ready to leave in a few days is all I can say…….

  • Gadzooks, Maya, what a saga! I’m so glad you managed to pull it all together in time. Your experience with the packet of paperwork you ordered is much like one I had — I paid for a packet that turned out to be generic, out-of-date forms — and only learned from my vet (who, blessedly, has tons of experience with international paperwork) that the best way to get the current forms and requirements is to go to the USDA-APHIS site — and the info and forms are all free. Here’s the link (I know you don’t need it any more, but another reader might see this comment and profit from our sad experience): http://www.aphis.usda.gov/regulations/vs/iregs/animals/ Hope your trip is wonderful, and all of this pain recedes from your memory!!

  • Traci

    Thanks Mary-Alice for all of this information! I’ll be taking my dog to Canada this weekend, and I just wanted to make sure we have everything. He’s got a valid rabies certificate, and his food doesn’t contain beef, but is lamb based. However it is made here in the US, so it shouldn’t be a problem if they even ask.
    Thanks for the helpful info.

  • Denise

    I am travelling from the US to Canada with my puppy which will be less than 3 months old when we go and return. I understand that I do not need any rabies vac for her if she is less than 3 months ago, so going into Canada should not be a problem. But I can’t seem to find enough info on coming back to the US? What do I need if she is less than 3 months old? Just health certificates? How do I proof I am the owner? What would the custom needs? Many thanks for any advise provided.

  • Hello, Denise — Click on the link in this post behind the words “which state” and you’ll see the United States’ Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) rules about coming back to the US. Sadly, they address this issue, stating: “These requirements apply to all dogs, including service animals such as guide dogs for the blind. Puppies must not be vaccinated against rabies before 3 months of age, so the youngest that a puppy can be imported into the United States is 4 months of age.” Now, in all likelihood, no one will even notice your puppy as you cross the border — but the worry is that yours would be the rare instance where your dog IS noticed, and then you’d be in a pickle. I don’t know what you’d do, in that situation — perhaps board her in Canada for a month, until she’s old enough to get the rabies shot the US requires?

  • Kelley

    Mary-Alice, we are supposed to leave tomorrow for Canada. Crossing in Michigan by car. Our puppy is 8 weeks old. What happened? Not sure if we should leave her home.

  • Hello, Kelley — Going into Canada does not seem to be an issue — it’s the return home that would be. Here’s what I wrote to another reader, Denise, who had a similar question: “Hello, Denise — Click on the link in this post behind the words ‘which state’ and you’ll see the United States’ Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) rules about coming back to the US. Sadly, they address this issue, stating: ‘These requirements apply to all dogs, including service animals such as guide dogs for the blind. Puppies must not be vaccinated against rabies before 3 months of age, so the youngest that a puppy can be imported into the United States is 4 months of age.’ Now, in all likelihood, no one will even notice your puppy as you cross the border — but the worry is that yours would be the rare instance where your dog IS noticed, and then you’d be in a pickle. I don’t know what you’d do, in that situation — perhaps board her in Canada for a month, until she’s old enough to get the rabies shot the US requires?”

  • Mark Wakelin

    Is all i need is.rabies certificat to travel to us in november and bring back to canada in april which i plan to do next few years?

  • Hi, Mark — Assuming that your pup is over 8 months old and that you’ll be traveling with her, here’s what Canada requires: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/animals/terrestrial-animals/imports/policies/live-animals/pets/dogs/eng/1331876172009/1331876307796 On the U.S. side, the CDC rules apply, and here’s their nifty summary poster: http://www.cdc.gov/importation/pdf/dogimportation_us-canada.pdf At bottom, both require a rabies certificate signed by a licensed veterinarian, but the details are important, so I urge you to review them.

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