How to pack a cat: taking your pet abroad

Oddly enough, the most popular blog post I have ever written is this one; a list of 10 points on micro-braiding your hair. I'm therefore going to draw the bold conclusion (not remotely assisted by the news at present) that there are people out there in search of FACTS. Allow me to present the post I would like to have read before starting this process: 10 tips for moving abroad with your pet. For understandable reasons, this will be highly biased towards a move to Japan!

(1) Check your destination country's website for animal import requirements

Regulations concerning animal import vary widely but I'd found most countries put up fairly comprehensive and user-friendly details on the web. For example, Japan has a super-nice FAQ here. As a rough rule of thumb, if you're moving between countries that share a physical border, the process will be infinitely easier than those separated by sea since importation of new diseases can't really be an issue. When I moved from the USA to Canada, the only essential paperwork for my cat was a rabies vaccination certificate and, if this was missing, the vaccination would simply be performed on the spot.

(2) Start early

I can't emphasise this one enough. Due to its rabies-free status, importation of animals to Japan is a tightly controlled process. The reason my move went smoothly was because I started the paperwork a year in advance of actually moving my cat. The absolute minimum time you will need to import an animal to a rabies-free country is seven months and most likely it will be longer.

(3) Microchip your pet

Regardless of where you are travelling, microchipping your pet for identification will be essential. Each microchip provides a unique ID number that will be scanned when you arrive in the new country to ensure the documents you have correspond to the same animal. Since all your documents must have this number on them, do this step early on. The microchip itself is only the size of a grain of rice and is injected like a normal vaccination into the scruff of the neck. Tallis didn't even blink, unlike when she was subjugated to a gentle tummy examination. Make sure your vet uses an international 15 digit ISO pet microchip which are recognised world-wide. Even if you are travelling domestically, you don't want to have to do this again at a later date.

(4) Vaccination type

Even if your pet is up-to-date with his or her vaccinations, double check the country's requirements carefully. Tallis had several years of rabies vaccinations under her belt (or rather, fur) but Japan required 'inactive' rather than 'live' vaccines to have been administered, so Tallis had to have an extra one. If this happens, check to see if only having one vaccine of the accepted type is sufficient. Japan required at least two rabies vaccinations, but accepted the live vaccine as the first one so long as the second shot was with the required inactive drug.

(5) To quarantine or not to quarantine?

As I mentioned in (1), each country has its own regulations regarding this matter. The cases I am most familiar with are those for the UK and Japan which are both rabies-free countries. Rabies can take up to six months to show symptoms and so, until recently, both countries had a non-negotiable half-year quarantine period for any cat or dog brought in from abroad. However, the use of microchips makes it possible to guarantee correspondence of the pet to the vaccination records so this step can be performed at your home in advance of travel.

For our preparations, Tallis had to have an additional rabies vaccination and then an official blood test taken one month later. The blood works had to be conducted at a recognised laboratory for which there was only one in the whole of North America, situated in Kansas. The test confirmed that the vaccine was present in sufficient quantities in her blood stream to provide protection. Six months after this now-officially-proved vaccine had been given, we were allowed to travel. 

This six month period did not require special quarantine conditions, since Tallis was already resident in the country. We just had to wait, but act as normal.

(6) Paperwork

Japanese bureaucracy being what it is, the paperwork we had to complete was extended but well organised. Two months in advance of our travel, I emailed an application form into the quarantine service division at Tokyo's Narita Airport, where I would be arriving. They confirmed that they now were expecting us on the date and flight I specified and sent a further list of forms to be completed. These had to be filed in by both me and my vet and certified by the government offices of our current country of residence. In the case of Canada, this was all done by the 'Canadian Food Inspection Agency'. I still find that disturbing.

The final touches to these documents can't be completed until a week before your travel, since they require a recent health check of your pet, so make sure you have sufficient time in the crucial last few days. For my part, I downloaded all these forms and then...

... promptly forgot all about them.

Fortunately, Tokyo was more awake and a week before my arrival date, emailed to ask for copies of the completed documents so they could check them over in advance. In a panic, I called my vet to discover they had sorted all this out for me while I was watching hockey games. This brings me to my next point...

(7) Find a great vet

If at all possible, find a veterinary practise who has sent animals abroad before. Strangely enough, the small Blue Cross Animal Hospital that sat in a nondescript concrete hut close to where I used to live had already sent 3 pets to Japan in recent years. I still don't quite know what to make of that. However, if you are even remotely within driving distance of Hamilton, Ontario, I thoroughly recommend going to this Blue Cross clinic on King & Dundurn Street. Their administrative assistant, Trish, has extensive experience with handling the international exporting of pets. Before I arrived, her record for getting through Japanese quarantine was 20 minutes. Now it is 5.

(8) Cabin or hold?

You may not have a choice as to whether your pet can travel in the plane cabin with you or must go in the pet hold. Larger dogs cannot fit under the seat and so must travel separately while all planes to Australia (and possibly the UK) do not allow pets in the cabin. Air Canada won't fly to Hawaii with pets at all, but transports them separately via its cargo service. I have no idea why, since this seems to be an airline, not state, policy.

If your pet can travel in the cabin with you, then you get the peace of mind of keeping your furry friend within view at the cost of space. Crates that go into the hold can be considerably larger than a carrier that must stuff under a seat. That said, Air Canada will not fly with pets in the hold if the outside temperature is too hot or too cold, apparently due to the waiting time before flight. I found this quite off-putting (why should my cat be outside except for loading?) which is one of the reasons I elected to take Tallis in the cabin.

Pets must be booked onto the aircraft in advance and there is a limit on the number of pets a flight will take, so do this early. You will have to pay a fee, but it is likely to be relatively small. For Air Canada, it was $100 to take your cat in the cabin to Tokyo. Carriers (both for the cabin and hold) must confirm to certain size regulations which will be listed on the airline's website. Soft carriers are often labelled 'airline approved' to suggest they are good for in-cabin use, but each airline has different restrictions so check before you buy. The carrier I bought was made by Sherpa and I found it to be good.

(9) Drugs, food, water and toilet

I didn't use any drugs with Tallis. Reading the web suggests that this practice has gone out of favour, perhaps because complications mid-flight are impossible to fix. The vet did give me a natural spray that is supposed to release pheromones to remind a cat of its mother, but I'm unsure if this made any significant difference.

I bought a stack of puppy pads to line Tallis' carrier and then let her drink and eat as normal. In fact, the shock of what a perfectly normal Saturday had become, meant she didn't eat or noticeably drink at all during our journey. I changed the puppy pad a few times in the aeroplane toilet to freshen up the carrier. For water, I tried ice cubes in a cup as a way of providing a less spill-able beverage.

(10) Cost

The total all-in cost of moving Tallis to Japan was not negligible but neither was it prohibitively large. The single most expensive cost was the official blood works which cost over $300 CAD. Then there was the extra rabies vaccination, the health check, a final de-flea spray and the airline's charge. In total, it was maybe $800-1000, spread over a year.

My final advice (which I refuse to put as point (11) for aesthetic reasons) is don't panic. If you start with plenty of time, this isn't a hard process and it's not that tough on your pet. Tallis had no trouble with the long plane journey to Tokyo and was her usual self within minutes of us arriving at home in Sapporo. My fears that this was all a ghastly and cruel act were unfounded... but I was assured this shouldn't stop me producing copious amounts of Tallis' favourite cat food.