Tips for Cruising with Pets in the Caribbean

If you review pet export requirements, you will soon find birds and even hedgehogs all have special rules and requirements or can even be denied entry.

For the past several cruising seasons, we have been taking our pets, three little Havanese dogs, with us to the Northern Caribbean and Windward/Leewards. Pets are onboard a lot of vessels in the tropics, from the large Bengal cat,who had a special five foot diameter exercise wheel in the cockpit of his vessel (Charlotte Amalie), to little Zoe, a Parsons Terrier on SV Sapphire, the pets share their captains adventures. And if you review pet export requirements, you will soon find birds and even hedgehogs all have special rules and requirements or can even be denied entry. Like cruisers, pets come in all sizes and types!

Plan head for pet care while on passage. Our pets are used to the boat, and it’s best to let the little ones travel a few times before you raise the anchor and head offshore. 

The author's pets on board
The author’s pets on board

What to do about Pet Food?

Carry pet food and decide how they will use ‘facilities’ on board. For pet foods, we carry several large bags for the first legs of our usually eight months in the tropics, picking up new supplies in the Virgin Islands, British Virgin islands or Puerto Rico where we find the obligatory Kmart or Walmart type stores and excellent veterinarians. In St. Thomas, Crown Bay Marina has not only an excellent pet store in close walking location to the dingy dock, but a veterinarian in walking distance as well; also one veterinarian, Caine, Cats and Critters near Red Hook, VIs also has locations on St. Johns and the British Virgin Islands. We send all our pet records ahead of time to them via email, just to make an appointment later easier. A consideration for all these vets is the transportation requirement, such as a rental car or taxi. A carrier for your pet may be needed, just be aware. 

Obtain critical pet medications ahead of time.
Obtain critical pet medications ahead of time.

Pet Medications

Obtain critical pet medications ahead of time. We take a years worth of heartworm medications (Sentinal), and twelve months of Frontline Plus (FFP), for each dog. We have found heartworm medication, Sentinel, provides some additional flea control, and FFP is required as an entry pre-treatment for almost every country in the tropics. With this combination, we have not had flea issue even in our long coated dogs or heartworm/worms. We also have a first aid kid with eye/ear antibiotics, CAPSTAR for emergency flea control, and Benadryl (know your pets dose), just in case. Of course, pet shampoo/conditioner/brushes are also on board. 

How to handle Pets and Bathroom Facilities on a Boat?

Cats are fairly dependable as to bathroom facilities, dogs are a little more challenging. Our pets are trained from birth to use pads; we carry washable pads as pet pads are not items found in just every location in the tropics. Like my field trial Labradors, the dogs are also trained to pee on command, which can shorten the ‘where should I, do I want to’ dances on shore. 

With food, a sanitary plan, and necessary medications on board, cruising will be much more comfortable. Practice your plan/idea first, however, there is nothing like a pet who refuses to use the correct ‘facilities.’

How to keep your Pets Safe

We follow some common sense rules while on the boat. Safety offshore,includes fitted and tested by each pet, Life-jackets. Like your gear, they have to fit and work. Bet sure to have a jacket which lifts the muzzle of the dog, some don’t have that feature. Your dog could be head underwater quickly. We also use our life jackets as a lifting method to get pups into and out of the dink,even when the boat is on the hard. Our dogs names are on each jacket, and we have them placed with leads, at an easy to reach location. 

Offshore, our pups are trained to stay in the cockpit, but just in case, we have lifeline netting from bow to stern. At anchor, the dogs love roaming topside and making sure no arrivals are ignored- they sit on the cabin top and observe the harbors. During weather, and during sail changes, the dogs are sent below and kept contained; they love their fold-able soft carriers, and the captains cabin. The carriers are also suitable for airline travel; just in case we need to take them in taxi’s or travel. 

These pets are your companions, they deserve attention and care. Like toddlers, our pets are never in the cockpit alone. In fact, following common sense rules for toddlers is similar to what you should do for your pets. 

 

For the past several cruising seasons, we have been taking our pets, three little Havanese dogs,  with us to the Northern Caribbean and Windward/Leewards.  Pets all have special rules and requirements or can even be denied entry. Like cruisers, pets come in all sizes and types!

Plan head for as getting your pets into and out of each individual country can be its own special challenge.

Images Courtesy of Joan Conover
Images Courtesy of Joan Conover

Cruising with Pets Import and Exit Rules

Each country you visit requires an import and exit/export documentation with timely health certificates. Our cruising plans for pets includes a simple timeline, May (heartworm tests and general checkup/dental/vaccines if needed), July/August titer tests, end of October USDA Export Certification for a 1 November cruise to the tropics.

While import/export requirement for pets needs careful attention to health records and documentation, it’s a similar process to crew entry and exit and is usually associated with the customs procedure. It’s not complicated IF you plan ahead and follow the import rules. If you are not willing to comply, you risk loss of your pet, quarantine at a government facility( at your costs) and possible fines and more.

This is serious, these countries are trying to prevent spread of disease – into and out of their borders,they are not the bad guys! Each country in the Caribbean can have separate and  special health challenges from vaccinations, feral animals and the increased disease issues found in the tropics. Be sure to check each foreign countries regulations on their websites before you leave your home-base.

For example, the Bahamas require an entry permit, good for one year, for one animal, and since they only take money orders, this is something to do prior to leaving on your travels. We send a copy of all our health records, with the import form, and money order to Bahamas before we leave the USA; the entry permits are emailed back to us. Expect the process to take several weeks, do it in the summer! Then we just have to present the emailed papers with the permit and a current health certificate  to customs on arrival.

Exit requires a visit to a private vet, and several days for processing; we used a vet in the Abacos. Bahamas have a real challenge as several years ago, a parvo outbreak occurred and is now active in several of the island groups—they are serious about vaccines and exit permits. One vessel was not aware of this exit requirement, but if you try to entry another country with our pet, and a customs agent checks, you could be in real trouble. So think ahead, always!

Thank goodness for the internet and email contact with the various government veterinarians, as this is the first avenue for getting your pets into and out of the various island groups that make up the Tropics. Check for each countries site on the internet, rules do change. You will be both importing your pet, and then, just like the crew and boat, exporting them on leaving. Each entry and export provides you the paperwork necessary to enter the next island on your cruising itinerary.

For some islands(not rabies free ones such as the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas,and Bermuda), if you contact prior to entry, and do not plan to take your pets off the vessel or touch land with them, you can quarantine them on the vessel and do not have to do import and export paperwork. But check  with the government veterinarian first, get email permission. Make sure you have sent email a copy of your documentation to cover any last minute changes. This has worked well in the BVI, USVI, Sint Maartin, Guadalupe, Dominica, Puerto Rico (they ask for your USDA certificate number during customs check in), and Cuba. Good documentation makes all the difference.

Images Courtesy of Joan Conover
Images Courtesy of Joan Conover

What to do Before Starting Out?

For our pets, as part of the pre-cruise build up activities, we add the pets health certificate needs. This includes the immunizations necessary for the tropics, and a special rabies titer test ($180 dollars up and good for a calendar year) to allow entry into the more restrictive countries.

With the USDA Certification paperwork for each dog, copies of the rabies shot record, and in our case, Pet Passports with photo and microchip, we do not have issues entering foreign countries; we follow the most stringent rules (British Virgin Islands). It’s a good idea to make several copies of your paperwork and like our human passports, we put a copy in our ditch bag.

Plus, we make sure none of our pets needs a vaccination while in the tropics, because unless you are in the northern Caribbean, you will have issues getting your pet immunized. Since we do these vaccines and titers for our dogs anyway as a protective program, it just means planning ahead.

USA Resident Pets/Dogs. For the countries which have rabies, and you are going to visit islands such as the British Virgin Islands which are rabies free, pets need special blood testing for rabies vaccine levels. In the USA, FAVN Rabies titers take about 6 weeks for turn around from veterinarian to University of Kansas laboratory and return. While I will not cover what this involves, realize time is the real issue, and the rabies test needs to be done yearly .

With a titer, and the correct vaccinations for each animal (Distemper/Parvo, Lyme/Lepto, Rabies, etc), flea and heartworm/worm treatments, its possible to obtain from your veterinarian, the USDA Form for submission for export certification. It’s a few day turn around. See the US Department of Agriculture site for information on paperwork and information on foreign country regulations: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/export

Image Courtesy of Joan Conover
We enjoy cruising with our pets. Image Courtesy of Joan Conover

For the past several cruising seasons, we have been taking our pets, three little Havanese dogs, with us to the Northern Caribbean and Windward/Leewards. Pets are onboard a lot of vessels in the tropics, from the large Bengal cat,who had a special five foot diameter exercise wheel in the cockpit of his vessel (Charlotte Amalie), to little Zoe, a Parsons Terrier on SV Sapphire, the pets share their captains adventures. And if you review pet export requirements, you will soon find birds and even hedgehogs all have special rules and requirements or can even be denied entry. Like cruisers, pets come in all sizes and types!

Plan ahead for care while cruising with pets on passage.

Our pets are used to the boat, and it’s best to let the little ones travel a few times before you raise the anchor and head offshore. 

Cruising with Pets. In this case two dogs... Image Courtesy of Joan Conover
Image Courtesy of Joan Conover

Joy of Cruising with Pets Onboard

With a little planning, pets can be a joy on your travels. Plus depending on the pet, they offer an early warning system, at least on our boat. No one nears without at least one of our little dog alerting, making sure we know there is company. They are not narky, they alert, look at us for confirmation, and then sit and observe. They do know they have permission to run on the side deck 51 feet from bow to stern for exercise chasing dinghies that pass and make wakes. A 5 knot speed is okay, per our boy Ace. They sometimes use the upside down dink for a trampoline, which is one major reason for putting on lifelines. 

For us, the pest of ‘visiting’ persons on surfboards is stopped; most of these people are somewhat scared of dogs who bark. And when you see the feral animals that can be seen on some beaches, it’s understandable. One day I heard terrible growling from the bow of our boat where Ace was sitting. It was unusual for our dog to growl—as a Cuban Havanese he sounds like Kujo—the uninvited visitor was the one growling. While I have never seen a boat boy growl, both our dog and the young man were finally growling at each other. That particular young man never returned; boat dogs are a deterrent for boardings, or at least can be a type of warning system, especially with three dogs. 

This coming season, we again are doing paperwork and vaccines for our pets, early, just in case the winds blow us South again. It’s good to be prepared and to make sure our companions are healthy and protected from the increasing risks we are beginning to see with the ups and downs of climate change. 

Even if you don’t travel, ticks are carrying more diseases, heartworm is spreading, fleas are increasing,and diseases are impacting. This year, for the first time, we immunized our pets for Dog Flu. So it’s not just cruising, it’s also taking care of them for day to day life. They are your friends and companions, give them your care and love as they give you theirs.