For those of us who have never travelled internationally with our pets – in this instance, from The Gambia, West Africa – I hope the following answers a few questions and helps to alleviate some of the stress, and anxiousness, you, as we did, will no doubt feel. Make yourself a cuppa, get comfortable, and let us begin.
Over the many years, of living and working in The Gambia, for the past eight plus of those years we have had the privilege of taking care of a pack of the sweetest rescue dogs, for The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust charity, whenever we are in town. A year and a half ago, a dedicated team of volunteer vets from GHDT came to set up one of their regular neutering, micro-chipping, and vaccination clinics in the compound of the house where we stay. Stray dogs and cats, from around the area are brought in and given either, or all, of the aforementioned. Dexter was one of the dogs who came to the clinic that day. We had previously seen him roaming on our local beach, over the space of a few months, and he always, very timidly, came up to greet us – as most stray beach dogs do. Almost all of them crave a little love and attention. However, we noticed that the other stray dogs around the beach tended to chase him off. One of the local guys, who also takes care of some of the strays on the beach, told us that this particular dog was called ‘Dexter’.
After Dexter had been treated by the GHDT vets, he wandered around the compound and found Jason lying on the grass in the back garden, reading. Dexter promptly plonked himself beside Jason and, that was that, he never really left us. He shadowed Jason everywhere. We were hooked.
We first started to make enquiries about taking Dexter from The Gambia to the UK earlier this year after we had returned from an 8-week trip back to the UK and found that Dexter was still having a hard time being accepted by the rest of the pack we take care of. Being the youngest can be tough. Having witnessed it more than once over the past years, it can take some time before a long-established pack will accept a newcomer. And, Dexter was already super timid around most other dogs.
He also seemed to have an ear infection, so we took him for a general check-up with our local vet, Dr.Bart, at Kombo Vets. Whilst we were there, we asked him what the process was for taking dogs to the UK. Dr.Bart explained that if we wanted to travel internationally with our dog (this would be our first time), then Dexter needed to give a blood sample to check for the presence of antibodies against rabies. The sample is sent to Belgium for testing. If the results come back positive, protection against rabies is present in the blood. We would then have to wait three months before we would be allowed fly Dexter into Europe.This means that quarantining your pet for months, once you reach Europe, is, thankfully, no longer mandatory. Also, your pet has to be micro-chipped, and all other vaccinations need to be up-to-date. Your vet can advise you on what is required.
Although, we still hadn’t 100% made our minds up whether we would take Dexter to the UK we decided – because of the 3-month waiting period – to get the blood tests done anyway, whilst we were at the vets. This cost around £120.00. In hindsight, I guess, shelling out £120.00, then and there, we had pretty much made up our minds to go ahead with it!
We finally booked flights, in early July, for ourselves and Dexter – his ticket cost £345.00. The most expensive ‘extra hold bag’ we’ve purchased! – to fly back to the UK in mid-August, via Europe; as airlines no longer allow pets from Europe to the UK, unless they are service animals. We chose to book with Air France – Banjul to Paris, non-stop (many of the AF Banjul-Paris flights have a short layover in Nouakchott, but there are direct flights on certain days). Normally, we fly with Brussels Airlines but we wanted to avoid the layover in Dakar. Although it’s only one hour, it still means the plane takes off from Banjul, lands in Dakar, and then take off again. We wanted to avoid as much stress as possible on Dexter. What we did not anticipate was that we appeared to be the first people to fly their pet in the hold with Air France from Banjul-Paris (this is a relatively new route for Air France). Compared to Brussels Airlines, which are well-versed in flying pets from The Gambia to Europe. Believe me, the weeks leading up to our departure date, there were times when we wished we had booked with Brussels Airlines!
Before we booked Dexter to fly, a friend from GHDT told us that she had already booked three of her dogs with Air France, Banjul-Paris, leaving in September. Great, we thought, as we went to the AF office on Bertil Harding Highway to book our travel. A perplexed staff member, after speaking to her manager, told us “we are not flying animals, yet… maybe later in the year“. What?!? “But our friend has three dogs booked with Air France in September?” To which she replied, “then they will be refused boarding at the airport!“. We walked out of the office as perplexed as she was about our request to book our dog’s flight with AF. So, we called AF in the UK and explained the response from their Banjul office. They told us that it was not a problem. We promptly booked our flights, with Dexter, through them. Sorted! However, to be doubly sure, I printed off our flight confirmation, which stated clearly ‘Extra bag – Pet in Hold’ – and returned to the local AF office to make sure that they had our booking in their system. It was, but the staff still seemed unsure. When I asked them if there would be any problems at the airport when we checked in with Dexter on our departure date: “I don’t work at the airport, so I cannot say if they will let your dog board when you get there…it is up to them”. No stress, then! “Can you please give me the number for the AF office at the airport?”, I asked. “We do not have a number for the airport office…yet” (along with not flying dogs…yet). Admittedly, she did look a little embarrassed as she divulged this information.
At last. On the day of travel, we piled our bags, Dexter, and the large travel crate (see The All-Important Travel Crate, below), into our taxi-driver, and old friend, Buba’s, borrowed 4×4 (obviously, it required a bigger vehicle, this time, than his Gambia-standard Mercedes Benz taxi), and headed for the airport, early. Very early. Anyone who lives in Banjul, The Gambia, knows that it can take anywhere between 1-3 hours to get to the airport, because of the traffic. We weren’t taking any chances. We were determined to be first in the Air France check-in line. Which, we were – two hours before check-in opened at 5 pm! (our flight was at 9.50pm). However, this did give us ample time to walk Dexter around, to tire him out before the flight, whereby he managed to make many new friends, “that is a nice dog, I think you need to give him to me to take home”, said one of the security guards. “I need a guard dog”, another said.
At long last, the moment we had been stressing over for weeks arrived – check-in opened, and we were first in line, armed with two A4 folders: one contained print-outs of our flight confirmation, plus everything we had from AF showing that we were flying with our dog in the hold. We were leaving nothing to chance after the encounter with the AF staff on Bertil Harding Highway! The second folder contained all the travel documents needed to get Dexter into the UK, via France (see Travel Documents Checklist, below). To our complete delight – and a sigh of pent-up relief – the Air France staff at Banjul International Airport were a complete contrast to their colleagues in the Bertil Harding Highway office. They could not have been any more accommodating if they had tried. Dexter was a hit with them! Considerately, the ground staff even suggested that we walk him around until the very last minute he needed to go into the hold, which was around 8 pm so that he would not be in the crate for longer than necessary. So, we walked. Again. Around the grounds of the airport, we went, and Dexter made more friends. For those who aren’t familiar with the airport, there are a couple of outdoor local cafes, near the air traffic control tower. Great for hanging out with your dog, out of the crate, whilst waiting for your flight.
Eventually, it was time for Dexter to be boarded into the hold. We sprayed his crate one last time with the anti-anxiety essential oil spray, gave him one last treat smothered in Australian Bush Flower ‘Emergency’ Essence (see Keep Calm, below), and ushered him gently into his crate. I think he was so worn out from the hours of walking around the airport, that he was more than happy to settle into his cozy, calming essential oil-infused ‘house’. Now, Jason and I just needed to relax on the flight! As I mentioned, this is the first time we have flown with a dog, internationally, so relaxation didn’t come easily. Thankfully, the flight was smooth, and relatively short – 5 hours, 35 minutes. Although, I spent the whole time wondering if Dexter was barking away under our feet. But, then again, Dexter can sleep for Gambia, I kept telling myself! Then I’d drive myself crazy… what if he wasn’t even in the hold? What if they forgot to load him on, and he was still sitting in his crate in the loading bay at the airport? Worse still, what if the ground staff had accidentally loaded him onto the Air Senegal flight, standing on the tarmac next to us before we took off?! “It is the Air France flight, right”, the ground staff supervisor, Bakary, asked us as he took Dexter through to loading. Jason made sure we got his number, as the doors to the bay closed on Dexter. As soon as we were in our seats, onboard, he called him. “He is fine, your dog is on the plane”. Bakary assured us. I nudged Jason, “Ask him, is he sure it’s the right plane?!” . Bakary assured us that it was. It didn’t stop the crazy scenarios running through my head the whole flight, though!
On arrival at Paris Charles de Gaulle, at 5.45am the next day, after clearing customs, we went to the information desk at baggage reclaim to find out where we needed to pick up Dexter. We were told to collect our luggage first, then go to the oversized baggage area, and wait. After a brief, nail-biting, long 20 minutes, waiting like anxious parents for their child who had traveled solo for the first time, there was Dexter, excitedly jumping up and down in his crate! After loading the crate onto a trolley, we made our way to the exit, stopping at the ‘goods to declare’ customs desk to ask if we could borrow a pair of scissors, or a knife, to cut the zip-ties that we had been advised to use on the door to the crate – to further secure it – so that we could finally let Dexter out. Fully expecting to be asked to present all his paperwork, the customs officer kindly cut the zip ties, pas problem, and bid us au revoir, as we walked into Arrivals. Is that it, we don’t need to show Dexter’s paperwork to anyone at the airport? Apparently not.
We had a little time to kill, before our pick up, so we walked Dexter around, outside the T2 Arrivals building to see if he needed to do his business. What he thought of all that concrete, car parks, and flyovers, is anybody’s guess. Bienvenu to Europe, Dexter.
After a lot of research, before our trip, on the different ways of getting Dexter back to the UK from Paris – car hire, trains, ferries, with all our luggage and a big crate, each permutation seemed like a logistical nightmare – we decided on a method of transport that Dr.Bart had mentioned to us, way back: Pet Couriers who would take us, in the comfort of a people-carrier, from Paris CDG airport to any destination in the UK. When we initially found out the cost, we baulked at the expense, but then after looking at all the other options, it really didn’t cost much more. And, it’s convenient and stress-free. I’ll take that, thank you!
We were picked up at arrivals, on time, by the pet courier, Usman, from Pet Travel Abroad (see below). Dexter did not have to stay in the crate and was allowed to sit on the back seat with me. We were taking him on the last leg of his journey to the UK in style and comfort. When we made the booking, the pet courier company sent us an itinerary, including the type of vehicle – big enough to take the large crate and our four pieces of luggage – the driver’s name, and contact number (which was also, conveniently, his WhatsApp. So, we were already in touch with him before we flew out of Banjul). They also booked the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle.
Two and half hours later, with a pit – and poop (for Dexter!)-stop en route, we arrived at the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle terminal, in Calais, and Usman pulled into the drive-through Pet Reception building where, for the first time since we departed Banjul International Airport, we were asked to show Dexter’s paperwork, including a Declaration Form for Entry into France, and the UK. Dexter’s micro-chip was also scanned, through the car window. And that was that, he was cleared to exit France and enter the UK. Usman explained that we could put Dexter’s folder of travel documents away as the Pet Reception cleared our dog for both France and the UK. We drove onto the Eurotunnel for the short 35- minute ride to Folkstone, and another one hour and three quarters later by mid-afternoon, we arrived at our destination, in Surrey!
Looking back, all that stress, in the weeks leading up to the flight – would AF staff at the airport refuse to board Dexter? How would he cope with the upheaval? Would he be ok on the flight? Are we doing the right thing? For all of that, one thing we have often observed – but forgot to remind ourselves, during those weeks – is that Gambian beach dogs are very resilient. They live tough lives, out on the streets; scavenging for scraps of food every day; trying to find the safest (and driest, during the long months of the rainy season) place to sleep each night. For Dexter, it was like he had hit the jackpot! He is one of the lucky ones. Rescued.
He got into that crate at the airport, no problem, and seven hours later, he came off the other end, at Paris Charles de Gaulle, wagging his tail, jumping around excitedly (admittedly, probably thinking, ‘ok, enough already, get me outta this crate, now!’), chomping on the treats we had ready for him like it was the best meal he’d ever tasted, and, above all, very happy to see that we were there at the other end of his long journey, to greet him, and welcome him to the next chapter, and adventures, of his new life. I think that we, Jason and I, are the lucky ones.
More adventures from Dexter’s new life, coming soon #DexterDogTravels
Helen, Jason, and Dexter
Travel documents checklist – for travel from The Gambia-United Kingdom, via Paris, France:
Proof of payment for your dog (or cat) ‘animal in hold service confirmed‘. This will be printed on your booking confirmation, under the named person/owner. Even though your pet should be on the airline manifest, any other proof you have may is worth printing off, just in case you need it at check-in.
Liability Waiver – to be completed, signed, and presented while checking in your dog (or cat), with Air France. This can be found on their website (although we were not asked to present this when we checked in with AF at Banjul International Airport, better to have it with you if you are asked)
International Veterinary Vaccination Certificate Booklet – fully updated
Rabies Test Report – Important: blood samples are taken by your local vet, to test for the presence of antibodies against rabies in the blood. Once the positive result certificate has been sent back, your pet will not be able to travel internationally for 3 months (£120.00 approx)
Export Permit – Ministry of Agriculture – Department of Livestock Services, Abuko, The Gambia (500D/£8.00 approx)
Local vets receipt for Health Certificate – stating the date of travel and airline (500D/£8.00 approx)
Local vets receipt for worming tablet (your vet will advise on how many days the pill has to be taken before the flight – 200D/£3.20 approx)
Declaration form for entry into France – to be signed by pet’s owner, stamped and dated by your local vet and Department of Livestock Services.
Declaration form for entry into the UK – to be signed by pet’s owner
The all-important travel crate:
Check your airline’s website for their specific conditions for transporting dogs or cats in the hold. This will give you all the information you need, including the spec for the containers that airlines accept – they have to meet the IATA (International Air Transport Association) standard. We bought ours from the Brussels Airlines office, Bertil Harding Highway, Kololi; £150.00 for the size we needed for Dexter.
Note: Make sure you buy the crate in plenty of time to get your pet used to it. We put Dexter’s comfy bed and his favourite pillow in the crate. We set the crate up in the room he mainly sleeps in and enticed him in with treats, but did not close the door, to begin with. After only a couple of days, I went into the room first thing in the morning to find him asleep in the crate. So, I closed the door but didn’t lock it and left him for 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, and so on. Eventually, when he seemed very comfortable, with being in the crate, we began to lock the door for short periods, then longer periods, and so on. We also put the crate in the car a few times, with Dexter in it, and drove around. Doing this meant that, hopefully, it would not be so much of a shock when we finally left in a taxi, with Dexter, for the airport. Fortunately, for us, Dexter loves being in the car, so as long as the crate was enticing (chewy treats, inside, did the trick every time!) and cozy for him, he seemed fine. By the time our flight came around, he was more than used to getting in the crate when asked to.
One other thing you may wish to try, advice from a friend who flies with her dog back and forth from Banjul-Brussels often: leading up to your travel date, play airplane sounds for dogs, inside the crate (i.e. Youtube), to help familiarise your dog with the sounds/noise they will encounter.
‘Live Animals’ stickers – which should come with the crate. Adhere to the crate before you travel (typically, one on the front, above the door, and one on the side of the crate). The crate will also come with a water tray, which is fitted onto the inside of the door. If there is any delay, or your pet is on a long layover, during transit, the ground staff will be able to give them water. We also taped a clear plastic A4 folder on the top of Dexter’s crate – the front sheet had Dexter’s name, all our travel details, contact numbers, etc. And, we enclosed photocopies of all his travel documents (see above checklist). Note: no food or water is allowed in the crate, before loading.
Because we chose not to sedate Dexter with prescribed medication (although, many people do choose this option), we used a couple of things to help keep him calm the natural way – used before, on the day, and post-travel. Fortunately, we were able to order the following from Amazon in the UK, whilst Jason was there, and which he brought back with him to The Gambia. Unfortunately, they aren’t products that you can buy off the shelf at Right Choice Supermarket on Kairaba Avenue! Your local vet will also be able to make their recommendations on what to use to keep your pet calm when flying.
Calming Dog Collar – lasts for 30 days – hypoallergenic, infused with lavender essential oil, Lily Essential oil, Geranium oil, Ylang Ylang oil. We put this on Dexter a few days before we flew, and kept it on for a week or so in the UK.
Hemp Aid Anxiety Spray – organic, hemp, citrus, and camomile. This can be sprayed around inside the travel crate, on your pet’s bed, and also massaged into their fur. Start using a few days before travel, and on the day of travel. I gave one last spray in the crate before Dexter was taken through, to be loaded into the hold.
Australian Bush Flower Essence – ‘Emergency’ essence (they are available on Amazon, too) – I’ve been using their essences for many years and they are always in my travel bag, especially with this particular essence because I don’t like flying! And, they are perfectly safe for animals, too. Add 7 drops to your pet’s food a few days prior, on the day of travel (as with the hemp spray, I gave Dexter a few drops before he went through to be loaded into the hold), and post travel. This can be used as often as needed – for both you and your pet!
Pet Travel Abroad – ‘Transporting Pets and their owners to and from Europe since 2014. In that time we have provided thousands of successful transfers and each year we have doubled the amount of transfers from the year previously… Our pet taxis can transport you from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in Britain’
The fee was £610 – Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, France – Surrey, UK + £250 for the Eurotunnel (we were also traveling mid-August, the peak holiday season in Europe, so the train was more expensive). This company are amazing. They answered all our queries in a timely manner. Highly recommended. It made the last leg of our journey so stress-free, we could just relax and let Usman, the driver, take us home.
Note: On arrival in the UK, you must register your pet’s microchip number as soon as possible with Petlog UK, for a one-off fee of £19.00 (Petlog Premium). This puts your pet on the UK’s national database, with various perks – most importantly, if your pet goes missing, Petlog sends out an alert to animal professionals within a 30-mile radius of the address you are registered.
Huge thanks, and respect, to The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust team for the incredible work they do – which includes, taking care of dogs, cats, monkeys, and camels! Being a registered charity, means TGHDT are constantly fundraising. To enable them continue their work. If you would like to donate, please visit their Facebook page for the link.
Big thanks to Dr.Bart, at Kombo Vets for organising all the paperwork we needed to get Dexter to the UK, and for all the hand-holding (a.k.a. us stressing out!).