Originally published at The Velvet Kerfuffle. Please leave any comments there.
(aka How We Traveled Internationally with 2 Cats)
I guess I should first explain that title. As many of you probably know, kittens spend a large portion of their time airborne — jumping from place to place, hopping on moving objects, climbing on things, falling off those same things, generally bouncing around like the crack-addled balls of relentless energy they are. Our older cat, Misu, has never been a slim feline. She was round from a very early age and has only grown rounder since. Ate like it was going out of style, climbed all over the furniture and walls, and made strange grunty-oinky-chirrupy noises that seemed to be a mix of everything. (Still does, actually.) So one day, I was watching her fling herself onto the curtains and abruptly blurted “she’s an amazing flying pigmonkey!” And it kind of stuck ever since.
The real purpose of this entry, though, is to explain how our two cats (Misu and Coco) moved here with us from Southern California to southern Finland at the beginning of this month. Many people seemed surprised that we were taking them with us, but not doing so was not even a consideration. We already knew we would, we just needed to figure out how. I did a lot of research before we started and did find a handful of very informative sites, but wished there were more personal records of people who had done it. The few examples I read really did help me make decisions and work out a plan of attack. It required as much paperwork (if not more) as human travel and a lot of forethought, but was totally worth it the minute they started exploring our new apartment. Scooping the litterbox on your first night pretty much makes any place feel like home
I guess I should also preface that the rules for admitting foreign pets vary per country and what we did is probably only completely relevant for the US-to-Finland trip. Still, it’s a pretty decent checklist to use as starting point, and I sure as heck know that I was looking for something of the like.
1. Airline approval and seat reservations
Yep, the cats needed tickets, too. We took American Airlines from LAX to NY Kennedy, then took Finnair from NY to Helsinki. They both went by the AA regulations, so we only had to worry about fitting those. What it came down to was that the cats had to be under 19 pounds each (when in their traveling cases) to meet weight regulations for traveling in the cabin. Otherwise they’d have to go in the cargo hold, which required a completely different set of paperwork and meant we couldn’t check on them during the entire 14 hour flight. Misu just barely scraped by, with the help of a diet the previous month, being a rather rotund kitty. They needed to be cleared by each airline — which meant reserving space on both planes (only a certain number of pets can go on each flight) and calling proper receiving authorities (in the case of our Helsinki leg) so they knew to expect us. The one-way passes themselves cost $100 per cat, I think.
Because they have to space the animals out in aisle seats for easy access, we also ended up getting much more comfortable seats than we usually do when requesting seats together. On the first leg, they put us side by side with the aisle in the middle, near the back where there were fewer seats per row. On the second leg, they just gave us an entire middle row near the back, so we were able to pile all our stuff in the middle seat, put up the arm rests and stretch out.
2. Airline approved under-seat carriers
Each airline has specific sizing regulations for under-seat carriers. They all end up being about the size of a small carry-on or duffel. We got soft-sided Sherpa (one of the older names in the business) bags because they’re light, somewhat collapsible, lined in sheepskin, boasted multiple zippered pockets for pet supplies, peek-a-boo mesh windows with covers that could snap up or down, and dual entry through the side or top. We lined the bottoms with puppy potty training pads and tossed a favorite toy in with each to give them something familiar.
It was important in our case to get these particular bags because, like I mentioned above, Misu was already a little over 14 pounds and that meant we had very little wiggle room for how much the bags could weigh before we hit the 19 pound limit. Cats also do much better in smaller, soft-sided spaces because it’s similar to the places they like to hide. Dogs usually prefer hard-sided crates because it gives them more room to move, but cats rather like feeling denned and confined when in unfamiliar surroundings, we’ve discovered. Cat carriers were considered a personal item by our airlines, so we were also able to bring on a standard sized rolling carry-on stuffed with all the things we needed during the flight.
3. AVID microchipping
“Great!” we thought, “they were both chipped as kittens, case closed!” But alas, there’s a lot of fine print here. Most vets in the US use 9-digit AVID secure chips, because they’ve been around for ages, work great within the States and there’s a huge infrastructure for them. However, they were created before pet travel regulations became a big thing, and thus there’s been some back and forth as the new rules try to accommodate old technology.
More specifically, it is recommended that people doing treks like ours use the 10-digit AVID Euro chip which is compatible with ISO (International Standards Organization) pet travel regulations. (They are now in the process of switching to even fancier 15-digit ones, but those don’t work in the US at all so unless you’re moving abroad for good, I’d stick to the 10-digit multi-continent-compatible ones.) Our girls have the 9-digit AVID secure chips which are the main sort used in the US and went through just fine, but it is apparently luck of the draw whether the place you’re landing at will actually be able to read 9-digits with their available scanners. All of them should be able to read 10 digits. It’s even suggested that people traveling with the 9-digit chips bring (or rent) their own compatible scanners for the officials to use, in case the ones at the checkpoint won’t read.
Our girls are young enough that they’ll probably see a few more moves yet, so we might end up getting them Euro-chipped as well in the future. They’re housecats and therefore not as likely to wander off, but anything is possible when it comes to travel.
4. Rabies Vaccination Certificate signed by your vet
The rabies vaccination (plus to titer or not to titer) is one big mess of confusion. Ask your vet. Ask the USDA. Ask the consulate for your goal country. Ask the airlines, too. Try to get some sort of consensus. Then do a bit extra to be safe. No, really. If you’re traveling to a rabies-free country (as in our case), there can be all sorts of restrictions and quarantines put in place for incoming animals. Some places put down the pets in question if they don’t have all the paperwork done. Serious business.
In our case, we were told that they needed up-to-date rabies vaccines that were given more than 30 days before the trip. Boosters, that is, and not original vaccines. Luckily, they fell into this category. We also got their boosters renewed about five days before the trip due to somebody else mentioning that they needed something *less* than 30 days before the trip. Then we got a certificate from the vet saying all of this, and had him sign it. We skirted the whole titer issue entirely. I only know a little bit about that portion, but apparently rabies titers are sometimes used in lieu of having the owner get new boosters. They need to be timed a certain time after a booster and be about 21 days before the trip, or something to that effect. There’s also something about what sort of vaccines is used (live vs killed) but that never came up for us.
5. De-worming and/or de-ticking
According to the officials we spoke to, we were only required to give our cats a dewormer 10 days or less before the trip. Some countries also require a dose of tick medication (most likely Frontline). Probably a good thing, since they’re already on Advantage and sticking them full of meds can be kinda scary.
6. State health certificate
The one that says “United States Interstate and International Certificate of Health Examination for Small Animals” and has 6 carbon copies attached to it. I believe that those taking their pets through cargo have another form to fill out. Make sure every space is accounted for. There’s a space to list the rabies information, one to list other vaccinations (our vet put in the FVRCP info here), and an “other” space that we put our worming information in. You just fill out all the proper forms and bring it into their office to have them look over everything and give their stamp of approval. No, really, they stamp every single sheet of paper with a little USDA star. Very thorough, the department of agriculture. They charged a processing fee of $45 but you can scoot in there practically the day before and they’ll take care of you, as long as everything’s filled out properly.
7. European health certificate
There was also a corresponding form from Finland to fill out. We printed this out from the Evira (the Finnish USDA counterpart) website and had them do all the paperwork at the vet. The USDA guy then ok’d it all and stamped it as well.
8. Harness and travel training
While we were researching and filling out paperwork over the course of several days, we were also harness training the kitties. We would put them into their harnesses for several hours each day so that they’d get used to traveling the entire way with them on. It’s recommended to have them in harnesses and leashes because it makes slippery felines much easier to secure, should they try to escape while being handled. The most critical moment is when you have to go through the airport security check. You’ll have to take the cat out of its carrier, send the carrier through the x-ray machine, and carry the cat through the metal detector before putting it back in the carrier on the other side. Even sedated kitties can get kinda squirmy when they see all the people bustling around and hear all the airport noises. Better safe than sorry, especially if the alternative is you having to chase after the cat down an entire terminal with the security guards in your wake.
We also took them on a few additional car rides to get them used to all the strange sounds they’d have to deal with. This also let us figure out any issues they might have so we’d be ready to deal with them better. For example, we discovered that Misu had much more travel anxiety than Coco, and was often the instigator when it came to starting the back seat yowling chorus. If she could be quieted, the younger one would actually stay much calmer. We also discovered that playing music and directing more air conditioning to Misu seemed to help her relax, while Coco liked to snuggle up to people through the fabric of the carrier and preferred to have her windows darkened or completely covered. So, much in the fashion of parakeets, we ended up keeping blankets over the cat carriers for the majority of the flight with stellar effect.
9. Pet medical histories
Generally a good thing to have anyway, for both human and animal family members. We had them printed up to make it easier on our new vet when we found one in Finland. However, it proved to be useful even before then, as verification of the kitties’ rabies vaccination histories.
OMG, I cannot emphasize this enough. There’d probably have been huge holes in the carriers, non-stop yowling and cats running amok if not for this crucial step. I had horrible mental images of Coco attaching herself to a pilot’s face in sheer panic and causing the plane to crash. Because despite all the preparation, it was still new to them and you can’t expect anybody to not be a bit anxious on their first flight.
Luckily, our vet gave us a small bottle of oral (chicken flavored!) sedatives to help calm them down. We gave them each 1mL 2 hours before we began driving, since that is where they get the most worked up. The stuff kicked in pretty fast — Coco was falling over and missed a jump within the first 10 minutes. By an hour, they were both curled up in little balls and drowsing. The stuff lasted for about 8-10 hours, but was clearly wearing off by the time we reached JFK, so we had to find a quiet corner in the terminal between flights and give them a second dose. That pretty much lasted right up until we landed in Helsinki.
Be forewarned, however, that each individual can have different reactions to sedatives, depending on their personalities and metabolisms. For example, although Misu was significantly larger (we thought we’d need to give her an additional .5 mL), she went under much faster because she’s so naturally mellow. Coco, however, turned out to be a fighter and she flailed like a nutjob for a good hour before running out of batteries. Also remember that sedatives should only be used on pets traveling in the climate-controlled cabin — it lowers their temperatures and metabolisms, which can lead to hypothermia and possible death if the animal is in the chillier cargo hold.
…and that’s about it! Good luck to others who are going through the same process and we hope that your trip goes as smoothly as ours did. May you have happy furballs with you where-ever life takes you!