Prior to our trip to Mexico City, I never would have dreamed of bringing our dog, Maebee, on a domestic trip that required flying, much less on an international trip that involved flying. However, when we were presented with the opportunity to spend two months in Mexico City for my husband’s work, we refused to leave her behind for that long. So, we were left with two options – 1) Matt drives 30+ hours each way from San Diego to Mexico City or 2) we find a way to take her on the 3 hour direct flight. If we had extra weeks on both ends of the trip for the whole family to make an adventure out of the drive, we would have strongly considered that option. But instead, it was going to involve Matt driving solo for every hour of daylight for 3 days straight to blast his way down there. I couldn’t sleep at night just thinking about it. We opted for option 2.
After some (unofficial internet) research, we decided that we would be OK with checking Mae onto a flight in her kennel. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there were 122 dog deaths on flights between 2005 and 2010. Over half of those deaths were short-nosed breeds such as pugs and bull dogs. American Airlines has had 33 deaths, injuries, or lost dogs since DOT started tracking this information – out of 660,000 pets flown – or less than 0.0055%. The idea still scared us, but we are very scientific people and tend to trust numbers and statistics from credible sources.
Then a friend introduced us to the idea of certifying Mae as an emotional support animal, something we had never heard of. We found an online service where you fill out a questionnaire, and then if they determine that an emotional support animal would “be beneficial to your quality of life” they provide an emotional support animal recommendation letter signed by one of their authorized therapists which allows you to take your dog almost anywhere with you – including on board an airplane for free (certain destinations and airlines have restrictions – so its not universal). I have a genuine anxiety of flying, and could without a doubt say that having Mae on board with me in the airplane cabin rather than below in the cargo hold would be much less stressful. This apparently was enough to qualify and within a week of filling out the questionnaire (and paying!) we had our official letter in hand. We then went an extra step and registered her with the official ESA network, which provided us with a certificate, badges and a red vest. They aren’t necessary or legally required, but it definitely makes things much simpler to not have to explain to everyone in the airport why your dog is not in a crate. Plus, I think most people expect it since most service dogs wear official vests or leads.
The next steps involved figuring out the logistics. There were two parts to the equation: crossing the border and flying.
Crossing the Border
We had trouble finding any information in advance about what we needed, if anything, to use the Cross Border Xpress to cross the border to the Tijuana Airport with a dog. However, we knew that as a backup plan we could always drive to the Otay border crossing and just drive Mae across, and then enter the airport from within Mexico, so we didn’t spend much time researching this. Crossing the border at CBX turned out to be no problem at all. We ended up not having to provide any documentation in either direction. I assume that you could be asked for proof of a rabies vaccine when crossing back into the United States since that is a requirement when driving over the border, but similar to our experiences when we’ve driven, the customs agent didn’t even make a single mention of our dog.
We made our reservations for our flights on Volaris online as we normally would, booking two adult tickets with a lap infant. The Volaris website specifically states that emotional support animals are allowed in the cabin with the passenger for no additional charge provided that the passenger provides recent (within one year) documentation from a mental health professional. There are three additional requirements:
- Immunization Record – including proof of a rabies vaccine “registered for a period of up to one year from the application date and at least 30 days before the flight date” (the one year part was a bit confusing to us – Mae’s last rabies vaccine was one that is good for 3 years. It was administered approximately 2 years before our travel dates and would be good for about a year after. From other websites we had interpreted the rabies vaccine requirement to be that the vaccine had to have been administered no fewer than 30 days before travel, but no more than 1 year – which Mae’s vaccine didn’t satisfy, so we were a bit nervous about this part. Our vet wrote on the record the date through which her rabies vaccine was valid. We were never questioned about it and it worked fine.)
- Deworming Record (Mae has never had worms, so has never been dewormed; however, our vet took a stool sample and wrote on the certificate that she tested negative for parasites. Again, this worked fine.)
- Animal Health Certificate – this must be issued by your veterinarian as an original copy and no more than 5 days prior to the start date of your trip. If your return flight will be more than 5 days later, you’ll need the vet to either explicitly state on the certificate that it is valid for the entire length of your trip, or visit another vet prior to the return to get another health certificate. (We went to another vet in Mexico City since it had been 6 weeks since our departure just to be sure and ended up getting the certificate for free.)
Prior to our flight, I called to confirm the requirements (which were repeated to me verbatim from the website, so provided no additional helpful information), and to “add” Mae to our reservation. I don’t think this was entirely necessary as we forgot to call to add her to our return trip and had no problem, but I think that flights have a maximum number of animals allowed on board, so in the case that other people also had support animals they could potentially run out of room if you didn’t book yours first.
At the check-in counter at Volaris (even if you have no luggage to check you’ll still need to go to the counter if you are bringing your dog) we provided the ticketing agent all of our paperwork for Mae. Technically only two forms are necessary – the ESA Letter from a mental health physician and the Animal Health Certificate (provided yours includes the vaccination record and deworming record/negative fecal test like ours did). To be on the side of caution and because I had made a bazillion copies of every document in our records for Mae just to be sure and wanted to feel that they were useful, we handed over an entire packet of info including her ESA Registration Certificate, a copy of her County of San Diego dog license and rabies certificate, and copies of her entire veterinary records. The Volaris agent filled out a form signing off that we had provided all necessary documentation and we were given a copy to show at security and to the boarding agent. On the return flight, the process was exactly the same (something we don’t always find to be true in foreign countries), so we’re pretty sure that’s standard practice.
Our on board flight experience turned out to be by far the most difficult part of the whole journey, although by no means on account of the dog. We had applied for the empty seat option through Optiontown as we had for our flights on our previous visit and so we expected that we’d get an entire row for our family (two adults, a toddler, and a dog). The flight ended up being booked solid though due to weather delays the day before, so instead all four of us were crammed into the window and middle seats. Mae curled up on the floor underneath my seat and pretty much remained there the entire flight (emotional support animals or service dogs aren’t allowed on the airplane seats and must fit under the seat of the passenger they are assigned to). She didn’t make a peep the entire flight and only poked her head up to snatch treats from Theo when we were force feeding him snacks to try to calm him down. Theo, our toddler, whose nap time fell precisely at our departure time, just about lost it immediately upon boarding the plane and spent the whole flight screaming, crying and scrambling back and forth between Matt and I. I still feel sorry for the poor guy who got the aisle seat in our row!
Our return flight was much more pleasant as we got the empty middle seat. Having all three seats felt spacious compared to what we had experienced on our flight down. The flight was also early in the morning, well before nap time, so Theo was a much happier camper and made for an almost-pleasant travel companion. Having Mae along definitely helped to keep him entertained too.
In the end we were extremely glad we brought Mae. She is part of our family and we only feel complete when she is with us. And, it turned out that Mexico City, and in particular, the La Condesa neighborhood, is a fantastic place for dogs with tons of amenities and dog-friendly establishments. More to come on that soon…
Safe and Happy Travels!
(Please note – we did not travel with our dog as a checked pet and so cannot speak to that experience or provide any advice on that process. Prior to checking your pet as cargo, please research the various requirements as there are many restrictions on breed types, temperature, flight patterns and layovers, kennel sizes, etc.)