Bringing our dogs to Mongolia

In their winter gear

Getting our dogs to Mongolia during the pandemic was an intense process. And we went through it two and a half times, even though we only brought them once. It multiplied the stress of our move tremendously because of the paperwork and the uncertainty. A few people have asked me about bringing pets to Mongolia, so I thought it would help to write it out. Also, it was the single most incredible feat of bureaucratic prowess of my life. (If you aren’t interested in our particular story but just want to know what was involved in finally getting our dogs into Mongolia, scroll to the end. But also check with the Mongolian national veterinary authority, because sometimes things change.)

We did the dog import process the first time because we thought we were going to be able to get to Mongolia in November 2020. We had been on a waiting list for flights, which were tightly controlled by the Mongolian government because of the pandemic. There was a backlog of thousands of Mongolian citizens trying to get back home from various global destinations, but the government was also allowing some foreigners with work visas to enter. We got close in October, when I got a call that we could get on a flight to Ulaanbaatar. At the time, we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in the San Diego area, so I started the process of clearing out, finalizing packing (our suitcases had been ready to go since April, when I’d started clearing out our house to sell it) and getting serious about figuring out how to bring the dogs.

Amid reports on Facebook expat groups from people who had had to leave their pets behind to travel to Ulaanbaatar, I received confirmation from the Mongolian consulate in San Francisco that we could get permission to bring in our dogs. They sent me a four-page document in Mongolian, issued by the government, detailing the procedure for importing small animals to Mongolia during the pandemic. As far as I know, it’s still in effect. If we had been traveling before the pandemic, we would have needed only the International Health Certificate issued by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), required by airlines for dogs to travel. But now, we needed to get our dogs covid-tested before departure, as well as quarantining them at a veterinary facility for the three weeks we ourselves would be in quarantine upon arrival in Mongolia.

I tried calling some pet travel companies for help, but none of them could because the flights into Mongolia were government charter flights, not regular flights. They all told me, “We’re not doing Mongolia at this time.” That might change now since regular international flights are resuming. But at the time, it was a DIY project.

I broke the process down into three parts: Getting the USDA health certificate, getting the Mongolian import permit, and getting the dogs on the plane. There was a shortage of dog travel crates in the right size, but I managed to get two from a place in Florida. Our dogs are small, but I double- and triple checked the weight limits for traveling in the passenger cabin vs. in cargo for both MIAT (the airline we’d have to take into Ulaanbaatar) and Korean Airlines, the most likely airline we’d take to get to Seoul, my preferred transit destination. Tito would have been fine in the cabin, but Mussolini is what they call a chonky boi, and he weighs by himself the limit for dog plus case for travelling in the cabin. Our dogs are anxious rescues who have been together since birth (they are brothers), so we decided it would be better for them to travel the same way. Cargo it was.

Getting the USDA health certificate was relatively easy, just requiring a vet check-up, copies of the rabies certificates, and a trip to the USDA office near Los Angeles International Airport. For the import permit, we also had to have negative covid results for the dogs from an unspecified time before the flight, with the results certified on the export permit from USDA. Easy, except that our vet didn’t know anything about covid testing for dogs. It turns out there was one lab in the US at the time that did dog covid tests, IDEXX, on the other side of the country. We took the dogs in for their covid swabs first because the results would take four to seven business days to come back. At $200 each, this was only the beginning of our dog-related expenses. (In the end, our dogs had three covid tests each, once for each time we thought we’d be able to travel, and they had the distinction of being the only animals ever tested for covid by the veterinary practice.)

Then we took them in for the health exam and took the USDA certificate up to Los Angeles (only about a 2-3 hour drive) for their seal of approval. We also had to do this twice because we needed the USDA certificate to get the Mongolian import permit, which would take several days, and then we would need one again dated within 10 days of our flight to take the dogs on the airplane. Since at this point, I still didn’t know when the flight would be, I concentrated on getting the papers necessary for the import permit. Fortunately, my department secretary in Mongolia, Deegii, agreed to help on the Ulaanbaatar side of things. I could scan and email the necessary documents from the US, but she would have to print them out, bring them to the Mongolian national veterinary authority, and then go back one to three days later to pick up the permit, which she could then scan and send back to us. Without that document, we wouldn’t be able to get the dogs on the MIAT flight.

Since I was hoping we would be going via Seoul, and because I no longer trusted anything at this point, I also decided to get rabies titers for the dogs, just in case we got stuck in Seoul. Another $400 each. (I have yet to add up the total amount I spent on getting the dogs to Mongolia, but I will do that someday just for fun.) These weren’t required for Mongolia, but it turns out that the US has gotten more restrictive about importing dogs from places where canine rabies is endemic—guess where?—so it’s a good thing I did this not once, but twice, and they are valid three years, so we can bring the dogs back to the US in June 2024 if they are still alive and if that’s where we end up going.

So, I got the USDA certificates all signed and stamped, and then I scanned and emailed them—together with the dogs’ vaccine history, rabies certificates, covid results, copies of my passport and visa, and a petition stating why I wanted to bring the dogs to Mongolia—to Deegii. Two days later, she emailed me a copy of the import permit, an ornate document that put the USDA certificate’s bleak, bureaucratic, utilitarian style to shame.

In the meanwhile, I wasn’t quite believing we’d actually make it on a flight, but I was trying to get motivated to empty out our apartment and get ready to go. At this point, Emerson and I were both doing school online, as well, logging on in the late afternoon and in Emerson’s case logging off at midnight. I had the day to get things done, and I was basically calling the consulate in San Francisco nearly daily to check on the status of flights and everything. I sent US dollars to my university’s account to have money ready to pay for the ticket and quarantine hotel.

There were a couple of flight options from Seoul, but it turned out that was where most Mongolian citizens had gathered in trying to get back home, so it was nearly impossible to get on one of those flights. MIAT had been running a few direct flights from Seattle to Ulaanbaatar, and that would have been out best option. There was supposed to be a flight at the end of October, but I found out in early October it was cancelled and there would be no more such flights, so I set my sights on Seoul, because Tokyo, another option, wouldn’t allow us to stay overnight or bring the dogs, and there was no connecting flight that would get us to Tokyo before the MIAT flight from Tokyo to Ulaanbaatar. Well, there was, but it would have meant switching airports, which we couldn’t do because we couldn’t import the dogs or ourselves into Japan.

In the end, during one of my classes, I got a call from the consulate in San Francisco that we had gotten seats on the flight from Tokyo. I tried everything I could think of to get us to Tokyo by 1 pm on the day of that flight, checking routes via other cities and countries. But airlines had cut back on their flights, and while there was a possibility on Asiana via Seoul, and we could get the dogs to Seoul, the flight from Seoul to Tokyo was on a plane that couldn’t take dogs in cargo, and we couldn’t take Mussolini in the cabin.

So I had to turn down the flight in the end.

Can you see why this was stressful?

And no, we couldn’t leave the dogs behind. My hobby at that point was trying to find a place for them to stay until such a time as we could take them to Ulaanbaatar, maybe during the summer of 2021. I couldn’t find anyone to take them in at that time.

To shorten the story a bit, it seemed like we might be able to get seats on a November 18 flight from Seoul, so I was getting us ready for that. On around November 12, community spread of covid was detected in Mongolia, and the government cancelled all international flights.

At this point, I was beyond burned out from months of continuous stress and the mad frenzy of October and early November. We decided to give up and wait until spring in the hopes that international flights would resume. We moved to a much cheaper apartment out in the Coachella Valley near where my parents used to live in Palm Desert. We’d still be a few hours’ drive from LAX and San Diego, and in a familiar place. The pandemic was raging again in southern California, so I didn’t want to go somewhere entirely new. Moving just seemed risky.

We would go through this process again in May, when I was able to get us seats on a MIAT flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar. Mongolia was down to requiring only one week quarantine, so it would be better for us and the dogs.

This time, Korean Airlines proved to be the problem. Like many airlines, they had policies against short-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs in cargo because of their breathing problems; they can die in flight. Unlike most airlines, they listed chihuahuas as brachycephalic. When I got our dogs back in 2011, the rescue organization had labeled them chihuahua mixes (I eventually had them genetically tested, and they are 51% chihuahua and the rest an assortment, including Jack Russell terrier, cocker spaniel, poodle, and miniature Doberman Pinscher). After many phone calls to Korean Airlines, explaining patiently based on my dogs’ cranial measurements that they were nowhere near brachycephalic, I was finally told that because they were labeled chihuahua mixes on their veterinary paperwork, it didn’t matter whether their snouts were smushed or not. They would not be able to travel on Korean Airlines or Asiana. And we didn’t have enough time before the flight to redo the covid test and everything with “Jack Russell-type mix” on the paperwork, a breed approved by Korean.

I tried other airlines, but travel was still impacted by the pandemic at this point, and while there was a United flight that could have gotten us to Seoul on time, the airline had laid off their ground crew in LAX and wasn’t allowing animals in cargo.

I was contemplating liposuction for Mussolini at this point.

But this time, my desperate social media pleas for a dog sitter until the summer when we could hopefully get back for them resulted in a friend coming forward to take them in for a few months. Kathleen and her family had had dogs, but their last one had passed away, and they thought it would be fun to have our boys for a little while. Emerson and I traveled to Mongolia via Seoul on May 19-21, while our dogs stayed behind in California at what we referred to as their vacation spa resort.

Why did we choose to travel without the dogs in May? Because I had bought tickets and done everything, and it was hard for me to switch gears constantly. And because Emerson’s health, mental and physical, was deteriorating from going to school online at night. We both would finish the year online, but we’d be in the same time zone, which was a huge improvement. Also, did I mention I’d been paying rent on a flat in UB since October? And we just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could get into the country we’d been trying to get to for nearly a year.

Fortunately, the international travel scene was improving, so during the summer there were many more international charter flights into Mongolia, some of them run by other airlines though still authorized by the Mongolian government. The process changed, so we were able to buy tickets into the country directly from airlines or Mongolian travel agents. I found out that Turkish Airlines had no restrictions against chihuahuas, though by this point I’d asked the vet to re-label them Jack Russell-type mixes anyway. We originally had tickets back to the US via Seoul, and then from LAX back to UB on Turkish via Istanbul at the end of July. We’d have three and a half weeks to do dog paperwork in San Diego.

We were excited about the idea of flying all the way around the globe. But of course, things changed again, and our Korean Airlines flight through Seoul was cancelled at the last minute because Mongolia had sent some covid-positive passengers to Korea, and Korea wanted a break from Mongolia for a while. Three days before our flight, I got us seats on Turkish airlines from UB to LAX via Istanbul. After a desperate taxi trip across the city to get to the travel agency before they closed at 6 pm to pay for our tickets by credit card, I even was able to buy them.

When we got back to the US, I started on the dog process right away. We’d double-checked with the national veterinary authority that the process was still basically the same. It was, except that we could bring the dogs home from the airport if they had a negative covid result within 72 hours of departure from the US. Impossible to guarantee, since the covid lab for canines was still saying four to seven business days for results (it took four days, so 96 hours). They would have to quarantine in UB pending a negative covid result on arrival.

So, in the end, I went through essentially the same process, only this time, we were importing our dogs via Turkey, which was a much longer trip. I had decided to break the trip up and spend two nights in Turkey, in a rural hotel near the Istanbul Airport, because it wasn’t too difficult to bring our dogs into Turkey (you just need a recent rabies shot and international health certificate). The only trick was that they required the USDA form to be certified within two days of the flight, so I had to do it twice again, once for the Mongolian import permit and once for the Turkish Airlines flight, picking up the latter on Friday afternoon before our Sunday departure.

At the airport

Have I mentioned that we really love our dogs? Especially after spending 24/7 with them for over a year during the pandemic. Emerson grew up with them and is especially strongly attached.

So, a summary of the final process last July 2021:

For the Mongolian import permit: a covid test, rabies certificate, and veterinary exam to get the certified USDA export permit (international health certificate, listing the negative covid result for each animal), sent to Mongolia by email with copies of everything and my passport and a petition explaining why I was bringing the dogs, including pet information (breed, color, age, weight, microchip number), our address in the US, our exact itinerary to UB, our address in UB, and my employment information. There was also a small fee attached to this, which I had to pay in Mongolian tugrugs. The Mongolian certificate is required for entry to Mongolia still, as far as I know, though most pet travel websites still don’t list it as a requirement.

For the airline (this will vary) and bringing them into Turkey: Rabies certificate, vet exam, and the USDA certificate signed and stamped within two days of US departure to Istanbul.

Upon arrival in Mongolia: They were taken from the plane directly to the SOS small animal clinic in UB, and we were able to pick them up after three days, when their covid tests came back negative.

It looks easy when it’s summarized like that. And it was a lot of work for pieces of paper that were only glanced at by a handful of people in the end. But having to abandon our animals in the US, as some people did who didn’t know that they needed those pieces of paper or who were told they weren’t allowed to bring their pets, would have been unspeakably awful.

Home with the dogs at last

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