When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with dogs.
All I wanted was a dog.
A big dog, a little dog… any dog would do.
I just coveted the floof.
But… my parents were a hard “no,” and that was that.
I swore that as soon as I was living on my own, I would have a dog.
College came and went, post-college apartment-living-with-several-roommates came and went, and, then, along came Kevin.
We went to grad school together, got married, started our careers, and bought a house.
And throughout that entire period of time, I refused to shut the F up about getting a dog.
More importantly, I was no longer open to the idea of getting just any dog. The parents of my best friend in high school raised Fidelco dogs, so they always had German Shepherds at their house and I became enamored with them.
Anyway, Kevin was generally onboard with the idea, but he was a bit more circumspect about the whole thing. He’d had pets growing up and had experienced the joys and sorrows that came along with the endeavor. And he understood the sacrifices one had to make in order to responsibly care for a pet.
But it was one conversation we had in the early 2000’s that has haunted me for twenty years now.
Kevin: “You know, dogs can cost a lot of money.”
Laura: “What?! No, they don’t. You take them to the vet once or twice a year, buy some dog food, and you’re good to go. It’s not a big deal.”
Listen to me:
Never – EVER – in the history of mankind, has anyone, anywhere, at any time, in any circumstance, been as wrong as I was in that moment.
Honestly, if I had said the Earth was pancake-flat and paved with cheese, I would have been less wrong than I was about the cost of dog ownership.
Captain of the Titanic? “Full speed ahead, we can totally get there early and I’ll be remembered for all the right reasons!”
LESS wrong than me.
Owner of the Red Sox sending Babe Ruth to the Yankees? “I think this move is gonna be the start of some really great things for our team!”
LESS wrong than me.
The Donner Party? “Ya know, I think we can save ourselves a lot of time and aggravation if we just hang a left up there instead of going straight.”
Alas…LESS wrong than me.
And where, sometimes, you get to be wrong and then move on with your life, in this case, I have been reminded of my epic wrongness on a seemingly daily basis for nearly two decades.
Every pricey visit to the vet? Kevin reminds me.
Every order of expensive prescription food? Kevin reminds me.
That time we had to bring our dog to a high priced doggie behaviorist because she kept biting our friends and we didn’t want to get sued?
A History of Pricey Pups
It started with our first dog, Shasta. We adopted her at age 7 and she was just goodness and light. The sweetest dog ever.
She’d been with the same owner or owners her whole life but then, inexplicably, at age 7, she was dumped at a crappy shelter in Richmond, Virginia with strict instructions not to contact the person who’d dropped her off. Later, she was picked up by a local German Shepherd rescue from whom we, eventually, adopted her.
For the life of us, we could not understand why she had been abandoned at that shelter.
We figured maybe her owner had died or there had been a divorce or something. We simply couldn’t imagine anyone giving up such a well behaved, mild mannered dog.
The problem was, as she aged, she developed significant arthritis, so by the time she passed at almost 14 years old, she was on quite a cocktail of medications and supplements. But the creative way she cost us a bunch of cash happened when she was about 9.
Kevin was petting her one day when he felt a lump between her neck and her shoulder. Over the course of a couple weeks, the lump didn’t go away, and we convinced ourselves it was getting larger, so we made an appointment with the vet.
The vet was perplexed, and suggested a needle biopsy to see if she could extract some cells from the growth. When she inserted the needle under Shasta’s skin, it hit an object that was so dense, she couldn’t get a sample. The vet was confused and said she thought the object might be metal, so she suggested an X-Ray. That involved the administration of a sedative and then a couple images. Turns out the object was, in fact, metal.
The vet was as baffled as us when she suggested what it was: A bullet!
Was Shasta not the dog she held herself out to be?
Was she a puppy with a past? Was this whole “sweet abandoned senior dog” story just a charade? Part of some doggie witness protection program???
We didn’t know, and she wasn’t talking.
We should have known better: Shasta was no snitch.
Anyway, in what would later become a ritual, the vet shrugged, told us our dog was “weird but fine,” and handed us a big bill.*
Next up came Dixie. We adopted her at age 3 thinking she’d be young and healthy and definitely not the kind of dog that would provide more fodder for my annoying husband.
How wrong we were…
4 days after we adopted her, she suffered a huge seizure in our living room. Cue late night drive to a 24 hour emergency vet, cue referral to a doggie neurologist (we didn’t even know that was a thing at the time), cue MRI and spinal tap.
And then cue the all too predictable results: “Idiopathic epilepsy.” In other words: “[Shrug.] We don’t know. Your dog is just weird. Here’s a giant bill.”
In the years that followed, we took her to not one dog trainer, but two, plus the doggie behaviorist in a (not really all that successful) attempt to manage her particular brand of crazy.
And now we have Thor – another “young dog who should be healthy” who has been anything but.
Soon after we adopted him, we learned he had a belly full of worms, and either because of that, or just because he’s our dog, he’s had gastrointestinal issues ever since. We spent most of his first year with us visiting various vets trying to figure out what was going on with his stomach.
In the end, we put him on a miracle prescription dog food, and a twice-daily course of the indigestion medication Prilosec, and his problems have mostly resolved. Phew!
Getting to Portugal
So, what does all this have to do with Portugal? Well, as I explained previously, we had three main goals we needed to accomplish in order to move our lives overseas: 1) We had to get our visas; 2) we had to figure out how to move us and our stuff across the ocean; and 3) we had to sell our motorhome. And it turned out that #2 – getting our stuff – specifically Thor – to PT was the most expensive, most complicated, and most stressful part of the entire undertaking.
Some of the complexity was a result of the pandemic.
Pre-Covid, most airlines had companion animal transport options. Most relevant to us (because they fly direct to Lisbon from the east coast) was United Airlines, which had an entire program dedicated to safely transporting domestic pets on their flights. But with Covid, the vast majority of airlines suspended their programs. They just didn’t want to deal with it and, to this day, many – including United – are still using Covid to justify their refusal to fly pets.
That left us two options.
One was to fly TAP – the Portuguese national carrier – direct from Newark or Boston to Lisbon.
We didn’t know much about the brand but soon learned that, among Portuguese nationals and expats, it’s commonly referred to as “Take Another Plane.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Even worse, because of Thor’s size, he would have to be transported by the cargo division of TAP. He would still fly on the same plane we were on, but he would be treated as “cargo” rather than “baggage” and handled by a separate division – at an increased cost and who knows what level of care.
Our other option was to hire a full service pet transport company who would arrange to pick him up in the U.S., kennel him for a day or two before his flight, then ship him in the belly of a Lufthansa flight – one of the few well regarded commercial airlines who still handle domestic animals – to Germany. He would then stay for several hours or overnight at Lufthansa’s facilities in Frankfurt before being loaded onto another Lufthansa flight to Portugal, where he would be picked up by the pet transport company, shuttled through the immigration process, and then delivered to us at our home. The transport company would be responsible for keeping track of him, making sure he was appropriately cared for while in transit, and completing all the immigration paperwork.
All of which brings me back to Dixie.
If you’ve been around since 2018, you know that we lost Dixie at age 9 shortly after she underwent surgery for a herniated disk. If you’re new, here’s the post. The short version is she needed surgery to repair a catastrophic injury but several days after getting the procedure, while still recovering at the veterinary hospital, she unexpectedly passed away. And while no one can say for sure that the stress she experienced during that time – being a naturally anxious dog in an unfamiliar place away from her people – contributed to her death, it certainly didn’t help. And we have carried that guilt with us ever since – even though we know there’s nothing we could have done differently and we’d make the exact same decisions today.
So when I tell you that we took extreme measures to get Thor to Portugal safely, rest assured that we didn’t make that decision lightly. Honestly, absent what happened with Dixie, we likely would have just hired one of these pet transport companies and been done with it. But after our experience with her, we were willing to do anything to avoid taking a risk with Thor – especially a risk which would require him to be alone – and likely terrified – for an extended period of time.
Not to mention, the quotes we’d seen from various pet transport companies for a dog Thor’s size were several thousand dollars, so we’d be spending a bunch of money no matter what we did.
There had to be a better way.
And it turns out, there was.
Necessity is the mother of invention and we soon found out we weren’t the only people facing this issue.
Not only are there many big dog owners unhappy with their limited pet transport options, but most of the airlines now refuse to fly any snub nosed breeds (Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston and Pit Bull Terriers, Boxers, Pekingese, etc.) because they can have breathing issues at high altitudes.
So, during the height of the pandemic, people who needed to move overseas started getting together via Facebook and arranging charter flights. Groups of 10 or 12 people splitting the cost of a small charter allowed dogs to fly onboard right next to their owners and avoid all the risky stuff involved in commercial flights. And, depending on the dog, the costs were, oftentimes, not much higher than going with one of these pet transport companies.
The idea took off and the flights are now happening on a semi-regular basis. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently published an article about them.
Long story short, not only did we fly Thor (and Kevin) on one of these flights, but we actually organized the whole thing.
Groups forms via Facebook – there are currently two big pages where potential flyers can find one another: Chartered Air Travel With Pets and the US/UK Dog & Pet Repatriation Private Charter Jet Group – but someone has to take the lead in getting a group together (you need a critical mass of people who want to fly the same route at the same time), finding an appropriate plane and operator, and making sure the group has a legal agreement that protects everyone. As is often the case, no one wants to deal with any of this, so Kevin and I did it ourselves. I got our group together and dealt with the flight brokers to find a plane that would work, and Kevin dealt with the legal issues, finalizing the group agreement and flight contract (we hired an independent lawyer to oversee everything, but Kevin did the majority of the drafting in order to keep the legal costs down).
In the end, 10 people took 7 dogs and one cat on a charter from New Jersey to Lisbon.
But as much as I’d love to tell you it was some high end experience, the reality is, these flights are anything but fancy. The furniture and floors are covered in blankets, animals lay wherever they can find space, and human passengers do their best to not accidentally step on paws or tails.
And just like on human flights, while the animals start their voyages with big expectations:
Reality is oftentimes a bit less glamorous:
Even the brightest eyed like Leyla here:
are ‘done’ with a capital D by the end.
At the end of the day, these are deluxe “buses for dogs,” but they provide safe, low-stress passage for the pets and peace of mind for the owners.
Interestingly enough, the entire rest of our move only cost $100. I was able to pay for my commercial flight using credit card miles and my ticket included one 50 pound checked bag. So I paid for a second one – $100. And Kevin and his fellow fancy flyers were able to bring two 40 pound bags each. So, all told, moving ourselves and our stuff cost $100 while moving Hairy Beyonce cost enough that I’m going to be listening to fricken Kevin remind me of my idiotic early-2000’s comments for the rest of my natural life.
Ah, well. He’s worth it.
Next up: Getting our visas, selling our motorhome, and our last weeks in the United States.
*Shasta’s vet said she had seen a couple dogs come in with injuries from hunting accidents and opined that might have been what happened, but there was no way to know.