A quick guide to international cat travel
If you have read my story here, you will know my cat Larmlarm has moved with me from Hong Kong to Paris 11 years ago when he was only 6 months old. I organised the logistics myself and got approval to take him with me in the cabin on the plane. Later, we moved with him to Dublin by ferry. In total, he has travelled 10627.48km with me. Whenever I tell people about this, they usually find it very amusing, or feel very curious about how we did it. So here is a quick guide based on my experience, and stories from my customers who did international cat travel, I hope you will find it useful.
1. Plan early
I really can’t emphasize that enough. Depending on your destination, different cat travelling laws apply. Some countries might require you to go to your vet to get your cat passport at least 6 months in advance. So it’s never too early to start. Don’t wait until you get that job offer. I am not joking. Or you will risk having to leave your cats behind when you start your job in the new country. That will involve a different bunch of painful logistic arrangements – to find a foster family for your cats while they are waiting to join you in the new country. That will create a lot of stress for you and your cats who are being left with your friends or family. If you are reading this, the chance is you are thinking about moving to another country, so start today!
2. Do-it-yourself vs hiring an agent
You can either arrange all the logistics yourselves or hire a transportation agent who will do everything for you. I have never used an agent, so what I am going to do is – I will share my own Do-it-yourself experience with you. But a lot of my customers have used an agent to move their cats internationally, please go through the stories below to read about their experiences with using an agent. If you go down the DIY route like myself, you should start to…
3. Find out about the cat travelling law of your destination
Depending on the country, different government departments could be responsible for the enforcement of cat travelling policy. Usually, it’s the Department of Agriculture of the destination country, but it’s not always the case. When I first moved to Paris, it was the Ministère de l’agriculture, de l’agro-alimentaire et de la forêt . Later on, when we moved with my cat to Ireland, it was the Department of Agriculture. But recently, when my mom helped her friend to ask me how to commute with a dog between Macau and China, I found out it’s the Department of Food and Animal Inspection and Control (link: http://www.iacm.gov.mo/sis/default_e.htm) . So yes, it’s very confusing and it’s going to take you some time to do your research. If reading this paragraph gives you a headache, maybe you should hire an agent, because this is actually the easiest part.
4. Find out the law of your departing country
You might think the departing country can’t care less about what you are taking OUT of the country, but think twice. In my case when I left Hong Kong with Larmlarm in 2003, the Hong Kong Government had specific rules regarding exporting animals. So make sure to check you are covered on both sides.
5. Choose an airline (or ferry)
After finding out about the law bit, now you have to deal with the logistic bit. The government of your destination saying you can bring your cat in the country doesn’t mean you will be able to find a carrier to do so. No, I am not joking. A lot of airlines do not handle animals, period. No ‘what if’, no ‘but’. They just don’t do it. For example, I know Aer Lingus don’t handle cat travel within Europe, even though you can most definitely bring cats to Ireland. They wouldn’t let me bring my cat from Paris to Dublin, for example. We took the ferry instead. As a result, most of my customers came into this country with their cats via United Kingdom or Germany. Also, ‘cat travelling’ has two meanings. You have to check if that means you can bring your cat with you in the cabin or does that particular airline only allows cat being checked in as cargo. When I moved from Hong Kong to Paris with Larmlarm, he was only 6 months old. I was so worried about him being in the cargo by himself for such a long journey. So I decided to go the ‘cabin route’. If you decide to go the ‘cabin route’, be prepared: you will need even more time to research for an airline that does that. Most airlines don’t. As a result, you may end up having to take a transit just so that you can choose a certain airline. In my case, I finally found Korean Air allows small cats being taken on board in the cabin and we took a transit in Seoul. Different airlines might have different requirement regarding their ‘cat passenger’. Make sure to check with them and follow their requirement to the T. This is not the time to take your chances. If you don’t fulfill their requirements, they might not let your cat travel and you will be stuck or your cat will be left in a quarantine facility to await further arrangements. Make sure to double check the measurement. From my experience, most Customer Service staff in airlines and ferry companies don’t handle animal travel very often, so they might not know where to look for this information and could provide you with outdated information. With Korean Air, they have a specific measurement regarding the cat carrier box in cabin. So that takes us to…
6. Buy a good cat carrier box
Make sure to buy a good quality cat carrier box to ensure your cat’s comfort during the journey. Make sure it fits into the measurement requirement of your airline. There are cat carrier boxes out there which are specifically design for air travel, make sure to get one of those. They are usually more solid and can handle being ‘bounced-around’ a lot better. No matter how careful you are, the airport is full of people who don’t watch where they are going. They might be looking at the Departure / Arrival screen while walking or trying to run to their departure gate because it’s the last call. The last thing you want is the seam of your carrier box falling apart when moving around in such an environment. In my case, I double checked and double checked the required measurement for a cat carrier with Korean Air. I called their customer service 4 times to make sure the measurement was correct. We still ended up having problems with that. Due to an internal misunderstanding, the information their Customer Service department initially provided was different from the ground operation. I put in a complaint since I purchased this particular box based on the information I got from their Customer Service. They finally let me ‘slide off’ and use the box with the wrong measurement. You might want to get the confirmation of the measurement of the carrier box in an email as written proof, as my experience tells me airline companies and ferry companies tend to be unclear about this and might go back on what they told you earlier.
You might also want to buy a harness or have a soft cat bag handy. I heard some horror stories from some customers who have travelled out of Dublin airport. They said when they went though the security check, Dublin airport staff wanted to put the box through the x-ray belt. But since the cat obviously can’t go through the x-ray, they asked them to take the cat out of the cat box. Imagine holding a freaked out cat in the security line in front of hundreds of impatient people!!! We don’t know if other airports will do the same thing, but as far as we know of, there is at least Dublin airport who would have such a request. And no, they won’t let you use one of their rooms, someone have tried asking that question already.
7. Book and pay for extra luggage or freight
Depending on your airline’s policy, you will be required to pay a fee to bring the cat in the cabin. With Korean Air, Larmlarm was considered to be excess hand luggage. I paid about 200 Euro. I can’t honestly remember the precise amount because it’s 10 years ago, but it’s about that amount, it’s not something crazy.
If your cat travels as cargo, you will probably need to deal with some paperwork for freight and pay for that accordingly.
8. Vet visit
As soon as you are thinking about moving with your cat, talk to your vet immediately. Not all cats are fit for travelling. Cats with health issues or older age might not be the ideal candidates for travelling. If your cat tends to have ‘accidents’ on the short car journey between your house to the vet, he/she is not going to do well on a plane for 12 hours. You will need to discuss the options with your vet. Your vet might prescribe your cat with calming tablets.(You might want to consider taking some calming remedy yourself at this stage of preparation!) They should have a general idea what’s needed regarding vaccination and health certification. However, there is no way your vet knows the cat traveling policy of every single country on this planet. Make sure to bring along the print out of what’s required from the government authority of your destination, so that your vet is informed. Make sure to get documentation for all the vaccination or health checks done as required. Make sure to check the date is correct! I know it sounds like a small detail but the difference of one day can mean your cat will be left in quarantine. Your vets are only human and they could make a typo and put the wrong day or the wrong month. You want that to be corrected immediately and not when you are already in the airport. In my case, Larmlarm needed to make sure his regular vaccines were up to date. Since he was only a kitten, he had just had his shots, so he was ok. But he needed a rabies vaccine for his destination country – France. So we got that done at our local vet.
9. Second Vet Visit
Depending on the requirements of your destination, you might need to go back to your vet after a certain period of time for a second check. It could consist of a blood test to check if the vaccine is working, or a booster of the first shot you had at the last vet visit. That’s why planning ahead is so important in case you need more than one vet visit and you might need some time before the vaccine is activated in the bloodstream of your cat.
10. Government vet approval
In my case with Larmlarm in 2003, the Hong Kong Government required his health certificate being co-signed by the vet of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. I hope now you understand why you need to plan ahead, as you can see, the whole process can involve a lot of ‘appointment making’. For example, this government co-signing service had very limited appointment slots available.
11. Prepare the cat box
Your cat will be spending a long time in this box, make sure to make it as comfortable as possible. Soft towels, your smelly t-shirt that they like, and a water bottle are in order. Don’t forget to spray some trusty Feliway spray. Make sure to lock the door securely, you might want to tie it with something just to be sure there is no accident. We have already established that there are lots of people bumping around in the airport.
12. Before the travel day
If you are moving internationally, the chance is you have packed up your life in the old country. Your house is sold or the keys of the rental have been returned to the landlord. You might have to stay in a hotel for a few days waiting for your big move day. Extra thought is needed on where you can stay if you are travelling with your cat. I was lucky enough to get to stay at my mom’s, so that was all good. But if you have to stay in a hotel for a few days, you need to do extra research on finding a cat-friendly hotel. If your cat travels separately, you might need to check him/her into a cattery while waiting for his/her flight. I do occasionally get requests to be the ‘cat handler’ to bring the cat to Dublin airport to check in when the humans are already at the destination. (Of course, you can get in touch with me here if that’s what you need!)
13. Actual travel day
You might need to go to the airport way ahead of your flight, as you will need more time for customer clearance than other non-pet-carrying human being. Also, in case of a problem with the paperwork (typo, bad handwriting, etc), it will still leave you enough time to contact your vet if you need to. If you have to check your cat in at the cargo hub, you will also need to arrive at the airport early to drop the cat off before you deal with your own check-in.
14. On the plane
Two tips from my own experience. First, try to be as discreet as possible. There is always one person who hates cats on the plane. I can guarantee you that. A passenger on my plane to Paris complained to the cabin manager saying she wanted my cat moved to the kitchen. I told the woman to move herself into the kitchen. My cat has his plane ticket. End of. Ask the flight attendant for an extra blanket and cover the cat carrier immediately. Number one, you avoid further stares from said cat-hating-passenger. Number two, darkness will encourage your cat to sleep immediately. That’s one good thing about cats – they can sleep loads. A 12-hour flight, for an animal that needs 16 hours sleep a day, shouldn’t be a problem.
15. In the case of transit, book a hotel
As I said earlier, I needed to take a transit with Larmlarm in Seoul. I had to wait 8 hours for my second flight, so I checked us into the pay-by-hour hotel. I took a shower, Larmlarm drank some water and fell asleep in bed next to me. If I were to do it again, I would remember to bring a mini litter tray though. I am pretty sure he would be happy to go to the toilet. So you might want to do that. I also want to give a special mention to the wonderful Frankfurt Animal Lounge. If your cat happens to take a transit in Frankfurt, as lot of cats travelling out of Ireland do, you might want to know they are in a world-class luxury facility.
I have never used the facility myself, but it looks pretty good! I am hoping to do an interview with the lounge in the future. When I do, I will come back here to add more information.
(photo credit: http://www.frankfurt-airport.com/content/frankfurt_airport/en/business_location/cargo_hub/animal_lounge.html)
On arriving to your destination, you might need to go through custom clearance or health check by a government designed vet. But for most Pet Passport Scheme participated countries, you can just take your cat straight home with you.
From my own experience, on arriving to Paris, the Custom Officer didn’t even want to look inside the cat box.
17. Settle in new home (upset stomach – boiled chicken)
After such a long trip, it’s only normal that your cat feels a bit tired. Just like humans, the stress could have upset their stomach. I know you will be tempted to pile on their favourite treats to praise them for being a good cat during the journey. Refrain from doing that. I don’t know about you but I can’t be eating a heavy dinner after a 12-hour-flight. I generally feel pretty crappy and want to pull my hair out. Your cat might also want to be left alone so they can take their time to explore their new territory. Set up beds, water bowl, food bowl, litter tray the moment you arrive to your new home. Keep the first meal light and simple, so as not to overload their stomach. Cold boiled chicken is handy if you want to give them a treat without upsetting their stomach. If your cat feels too overwhelmed by the new space, keep them in only part of the house. Set up all their stuff in one of the rooms and spend time with them. They will fall asleep soon enough.
Here are a few extra tips I have learned from my experience:
- Make sure to double check and triple check any information the airlines and the ferry company give you. Most staff in these companies have never handled an animal traveller, so they don’t tend to know where to look for the information. Don’t just trust what one staff member told you. Take the information he/she told you. Wait a few days, call again to make sure the second person says the same thing.
- If you are travelling in cabin, make sure to be discreet. There is always one cat hater on board. If you don’t want to get into argument with people, stay low. I got into an argument with a passengers on the flight from Hong Kong to Paris.
- Prepare ahead if there is a transit. If you need to wait for a long time at the transit, ideally, you should book a transit hotel room, so the cat can rest a bit and so as yourself! I wish I had a water bowl and litter tray with me, I didn’t have either.
- Ask for an extra blanket from the flight attendant. You can then cover the carrier, so that cat will sleep during the flight.
International Cat Care has a very good article on Travelling with your cat. You might want to have a look.
All in all, bringing your cat with you is not as difficult or as impossible as people imagine. It’s not even as expensive as people think! I paid about 400 to 500 Euro for my trip from Hong Kong to Paris, that’s including special cat carrier, vet bills, airline fees, etc. Having a cat is a life commitment. So if you love your cat, there is no excuse, and telling me you can’t bring your cat with you and HAVE TO surrender them to a shelter? It’s a whole bunch of bulls.
Have you travelled with your cat(s) internationally? Do you mind sharing your stories so to help other cat lovers?
I am starting a project to collect as many stories as possible on international cat travel. If you have travelled with your cat(s) internationally, we need to talk! Please get in touch here!