SAN FRANCISCO - Jossie and Laser, 10-week-old Labrador puppies, jumped eagerly out of their cage and swarmed over the nearby humans. The pair was bred to be guide dogs for the blind and was on their way to Seoul, South Korea.
In another room down the hall, two cats meowed as they awaited their flights to rejoin their owners in Key West, Fla., and Okinawa, Japan.
It was a typical day at Pet Express, a Brisbane, Calif., company that specializes in moving pets over long distances, usually by air.
It's one of the largest among several hundred companies worldwide that take on the challenges of helping to transport dogs, cats, birds and other animals when their owners relocate. And business is picking up.
Pet moving is an economic indicator of sorts. Corporations were sending fewer employees overseas during the recession, said Mark Botten, Pet Express director. In the past year, international postings have started to pick up again
Pet Express handles about 3,000 pet trips a year. O'Brien Animal Transportation and Service in Foster City, Calif., does about 60 a month.
Pet moving is not cheap. While cost varies tremendously, a medium-size dog traveling coast to coast in the United States with the owner handling airport drop-off and pickup might cost about $500, Botten said. The same size dog flying from the East Coast to Australia might cost about $3,000 -- not including the expense of required shots here and quarantine Down Under.
For logistics in far-flung areas, both California companies collaborate with others that are fellow members of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association ( www.ipata.com) or the Animal Transportation Association ( www.animaltransportationassociation.org). If no other pet-moving services are in a client's city, they will work with local kennels, veterinarians or other pet professionals.
The logistics can be intense. Besides airline rules about crate size and documentation, each foreign country has its own protocols. Quarantine can be a big issue, especially in island nations like England, Australia and New Zealand that are worried about outside diseases. That's where services such as Pet Express step in to work with owners and their veterinarians to minimize quarantine time.
"Our goal is to do the testing and waiting in the country of origin, ideally at home," Botten said. "It's called home quarantine, but they can still take walks and go to the doggy park; they can live their regular life."
When Johanna Vondeling and Frederic Gadelle moved from Berkeley, Calif., to Perth, Australia, last year, they worked with Pet Express to make sure their shepherd/hound mix, Jude, would only have to spend 30 days in quarantine instead of the possible six months.
"Quarantine is not your worst nightmare, but it is certainly not a doggy spa either," Vondeling wrote in an email. "The Perth facility only allows an hour-long visit three times a week, which is hard on animal and owner alike."
While her husband went ahead to Perth, Vondeling stayed with Jude in Berkeley for five months during which he had several rounds of blood tests and received various shots and flea-and-tick prevention treatments.
Her main tip: Plan early.
Pet Express started 33 years ago as a pet motel -- the largest in San Francisco. It still offers short-term boarding before, during (as "comfort stopovers") or after pets' transportation.
Some 95 percent of its trips involve dogs and cats (split evenly); the rest are birds and other exotics, such as the occasional horse or sheep.
Among the most challenging: poison dart frogs traveling from the National Aquarium in Baltimore to the Melbourne Zoo. "They excrete a deadly venom through their skin," Botten said.
Last year owner Gay O'Brien, owner of the O'Brien pet transport company, helped get four lions from San Francisco's airport to the Performing Animal Welfare Society refuge in San Andreas, Calif. The lions were rescued from a Bolivian traveling circus.
As attitudes toward pet ownership change and spending on pets soars (it nearly tripled from 1994 to 2009, hitting $45.5 billion), the market is ripe for pet moving. The United States is home to more dogs and cats (171.1 million) than children (73 million under age 17).
Some 2 million animals a year fly domestically, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Incidents such as escape, injury or death average about four a month -- less than one-hundredth of 1 percent.
"Every year every airline deals with a number of incidents and fatalities with humans, and no one ever hears a peep," Botten said. "If you have an animal with an incident, that's front-page headlines. The airlines are really concerned about their reputations."
Tips for flying with a pet
-- Prepare early. If you're going overseas, it may take six months for all the health checks and shots needed to avoid or minimize quarantine.
-- Make sure your pet's breed is safe to fly. Snub-nosed animals such as bulldogs, pugs and Persian cats, as well as elderly or sick pets, may have difficulty breathing.
-- Make sure your crate works. The animal should be able to stand without hitting its head on the roof and should be able to turn around. Make sure the door is securely fastened. If your pet is small enough to travel in a carrier that will fit under the seat, a soft-sided one is best.
-- Do not include a leash, bone, ball or other object that may become a projectile or danger.
-- Talk to the airline. If you're handling your own pet move, be aware that each airline has different rules and restrictions.
-- Do not use tranquilizers. Vets and airlines say the risk of an animal becoming ill is too high.
-- Visit your vet. Airlines will require a health certificate for domestic travel; requirements for international travel are much more complex.
-- Microchip your pet. Animals traveling with you in the passenger compartment should have a collar with ID. Crated animals can have a well-fitting collar or a break-away collar.
-- Freeze water in bowls for long trips.
-- Don't feed your pet during the six hours before the flight. Make sure it gets plenty of water and exercise beforehand.
-- Include an old T-shirt that smells like you to comfort the pet.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle research.