My friends thought I was bonkers when they heard I was taking my cat with me when I recently relocated overseas. Their first concern was the cost. Images of hefty pet relocation agency bills and cargo fees flashed through their minds. Once you’ve rescued a cat, or indeed any animal, it’s very hard to un-rescue them once you’ve become attached to them and they have firmly established themselves as a permanent member of your family. While travelling with your pet is not a cheap exercise, the price can be slashed if you know what you’re doing. And most of us don’t – at least not the first time – and pet relocation agencies rather bank on this, as I discovered myself.
Options for travelling with your pet
Pets can travel by air in one of two ways. Manifest Cargo is the obvious option, involving your pet being carried by an airline as cargo, imported and exported in the same way as other cargo. They travel in a pressurised cabin of the plane in their own crate. The advantages are that your pet will be taken care of under international animal handling regulations until you collect them at the other side, and you do not have to be travelling on the same plane.
The second, cheaper, route is to travel with your pet as accompanied baggage (sometimes called excess baggage) on airlines that allow it. The fare for your pet is almost always significantly cheaper because the pet in its crate is checked in at the same desk as you, at the airport. The cost is either based on weight/volume of the crate, or is a one-off price based on the airline’s excess baggage fees. The animal travels in exactly the same way as they would via cargo – it is the manner of how the pet is checked in that changes, and you are a little more exposed to hiccups such as changes in suitable aircraft, flight delays and the last-minute nature of the booking-in process for your pet (normally within a week or five days of the flight).
Most airlines will have a maximum number of pets they can carry in one trip, so do check if you have more than one, especially if you are going with the excess baggage option.
Requirements for travelling with your pet
You’ll more than likely need to seek assistance from a relocation agent approved by the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association (IATA), to brief you on the requirements and handle the paperwork if you opt for cargo. Costs add up, so do some research on the regulations according to destination country so that you aren’t asked to pay for anything you don’t need. I was almost talked into paying a whopping $250 for an import licence that I did not need by one agency. Luckily, my own research paid off. If you are unsure, ask for a sample copy of the ‘required’ document, and if the agent is unwilling or unable to supply one, this might hint at a similar issue.
The standard requirements common to most countries is a microchip, an accurate vaccination record (rabies especially), and the health certificate relevant to the country you’re travelling to. Keep your pet’s routine vaccinations and other treatments (such as de-worming and treatments for fleas and ticks) up to date in the run-up to your travel date, and record them accurately.
Buying a crate for your pet
Purchasing an airline-approved travel crate for your pet is an important step. Airlines have stringent rules about the size, materials and ventilation of the travel crate. It will need to be an IATA approved crate, which means that it is durable, lockable, lightweight and has the necessary vent holes to keep your pet comfortable during the journey. They come in different sizes, and it is crucial that the crate you buy allows enough space for your pet to be able to turn around, sit up and stretch out while they are inside. A pet that looks cramped inside their crate might be denied boarding by the airline staff on the basis that they can’t guarantee the comfort and health of the animal if it clearly doesn’t have room to sleep or sit. On the other hand, too much empty space can mean your pet could feel less secure, and experience a more bumpy ride than necessary. You would also be paying for unnecessary extra weight.
You’ll need to measure your pet’s height standing up (floor to highest point of his/her head or tip of their ears), leg height, length (from nose to bottom) and width (across the widest part, usually the tummy). Guidelines suggest adding 10cm to the height and length, and then finding a crate with suitable dimensions. You can usually purchase them directly from your vet or pet supply shop, or they can be ordered in for you. Another option is to buy a crate online if the product meets IATA specifications and you are sure of the dimensions. If you are travelling with more than one pet, they’ll most likely each need their own.
Accommodation for your pet
It’s often the case that you’re in a hotel or accommodation that is not your own home before you relocate if, like us, you vacated your house ahead of time to close down utilities and hand over the keys in good time. Remember to schedule any kennels/cat boarding dates, especially at peak times of year when spaces are likely to get booked well in advance. Having your pet securely looked after while your belongings are being packed and loaded is also helpful, to avoid the panic of discovering your pet has made a dash for the door amidst the removals chaos. Having any special food or a familiar blanket with your pet will help them with the transition, as pets (especially cats) are creatures of habit and will be feeling unsettled.
Consider whether you will need pet-friendly accommodation when you reach the other end. Most hotel booking engines now offer a ‘pet-friendly’ search tool to help you identify a hotel that welcomes furry friends. Have some tinned food, litter and any essential kit with you in your suitcase so that you are not scouring the streets in the middle of the night looking for pet supplies within minutes of landing, or trying to find the relevant vocabulary in your phrasebook!
Relocating your pet
It is natural to feel anxious about relocating with your pet, or indeed relocating in general. In the lead-up to my flight, I was reassured by many people who had done this before that it really would be okay, and that my cat would be just fine. It might be tempting to try sedatives on your pet with the very best of intentions to ease their anxiety. However, airlines can refuse to carry an animal that has been sedated – this is for health reasons, such as the risk of dehydration or an adverse reaction that might go unnoticed during the journey.
For me, the biggest challenge was having to wait, nervously, at the check-in desk for the airline officials to confirm my cat had the go-ahead to fly. She protested loudly the entire time. Eventually, I was asked to accompany her through special cargo security. She was wheeled by a porter through the airport and escorted into an area where her crate was scanned and paperwork checked. I was shaking the whole time but it was all over very quickly and I waved at her, hoping she would be alright. I’ll admit it did take her a while to forgive me when we were reunited at the other end 13 hours later. I found her waiting unceremoniously on the ‘oversized baggage collection’ counter in the baggage reclaim hall, attracting an audience of disbelieving passengers. She was hungry and a little cross, but otherwise unscathed.