Travelling With Animals

After several months of preparation, I finally embarked on my flight across the pond with our two pets, our almost 5 year old black cat, and our just over a year old Irish Setter. It’s a long story, but bear with me. I haven’t written anything about the process, as I thought it might be more interesting once I had completed the journey. Who knows, it might even be helpful to someone thinking of doing the same thing.

Moving house with a pet is not for the faint hearted. And if it involves a flight, it’s even more of a headache. Having flown with our cat to Texas from California last year – a blink-twice-and-it’s-over little 4-hour hop – I had at least some experience with the complexities of pet travel. Of course, that was absolutely nothing compared to the monumental task of flying long-haul and all the pre- and post-flight intricacies.

I’ll try and break the whole process down into chunks.

First piece of advice:
Don’t take your pet on a long flight unless you absolutely have to. I certainly understand now why people leave pets behind and find them a new home instead of bringing them along.

Second piece of advice:
Do not believe anything an airline publishes on their website. They all lie. You need to phone them, and phone them again, then ask them to send you an email confirming what they’ve just told you. If you speak to different people on the phone (and there will be numerous phone calls), you will end up with different pieces of information, but if you have an email confirming at least one of them, you can wave that into their faces when you’re at the airport.

Booking a flight:
If you plan on being on the same flight as your pet/s, be prepared for a phone marathon. You need to know that when you book your own flight, you cannot book your pets at the same time. There is a separate company that deals with the pet-related stuff, and they have nothing to do with the “human” flights.
If your pet has to fly in cargo, book their trip first. You will only be charged when you actually show up at the cargo gate, and cancelling your booking is easy, which is helpful in case you don’t get a seat on the flight of your choice. This doesn’t work so well the other way round. You might have found yourself a good deal in terms of price (and no cancellation option, of course), only to find that they won’t transport your pets. If you’re planning to travel from Austin to London on British Airways, know that they do not transport any animals during the months of June through September. This is because of heat, and the fact that BA do not have air-conditioned facilities at Austin airport. In case of a heat wave (not uncommon in this area), this heat embargo is even brought forward to May. This is not helpful when you’re planning to travel once school’s out in June. Also, BA do not accept pets in the cabin (except for service pets, but anybody who’s met our cat knows that he would never get a certification as such). All this information cannot be found online. I think they wait until you booked your flight and then make something up.
The alternative is United/Lufthansa from Houston, but this wasn’t particularly helpful to us, as we’d already booked non-refundable flights with BA.
Talking to various airline representatives and pet-travelling services, I also found out that flying a pet in cargo costs way more than the website states (the information available usually pertains to domestic travel). If you see a 3-figure number quoted online, add a 0.
And if you can avoid flying your pets into the UK, then do so. Pet-travel service agencies recommend taking your pets to continental Europe instead, such as Paris or Amsterdam, and then drive them to the UK from there. As if the transportation costs weren’t enough, UK customs fees are astronomical, plus, you need an official agent (hired at your cost) to pick up your pet and bring them through customs and to the airport vet, before they can be released to you.

Vet appointments:
Once your flights are booked, you need to get in touch with your vet and set up a few appointments for your pets. You will need an USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) accredited vet, who can issue a travel health certificate. There are various things you need to know; all the information can be found here.

All pets are required to have an internationally readable microchip implanted as well as a current rabies vaccination. The bad news is that as soon as an international microchip is implanted, it renders any rabies vaccination invalid, so you have to make sure that you have the chip placed before giving a rabies refresher. So if your pet just had their vaccination, but doesn’t have a chip, tough luck.
You also really, really have to watch your dates. These two procedures, for example, need to take place no less than 21 days prior to travel. The general health certificate from your accredited vet, on the other hand, needs to be issued within 10 days of travel. And once you’ve paid your $500+ for the rabies shot, chip and certificate, it’s off to the United States Department of Agriculture, where they’ll stamp the papers your vet has given you. For an additional fee, of course. The USDA branches are usually found in the State capitals, so we were lucky and didn’t have to travel very far. Make sure you do your research well in advance.

For pets entering the UK, you also need to have proof of a tapeworm treatment, administered within 5 days of travel. I was glad to be able to skip this step, however, I need to remember it for our re-entry into the UK later this summer.

Once you have all your relevant stamped documents, you need to send them to the airport vet at your destination airport (within 5 days of travel), and to your airline (within 3 days of travel), so everybody is informed that your animals will be on your flight and will enter another country. The German vet promptly replied to let me know everything was in order, however, her instructions on where to go upon arrival weren’t exactly clear. But I’d deal with that once I’d arrived in Munich.

Travel accessories:
For a pet travelling in cargo, you will need an airline-approved plastic kennel. If your dog is relatively young at the time of booking, and you think he might still be growing in the time between booking the flight and actually boarding the plane, wait until you purchase this kennel until right before the flight, not three months before the flight. Trust me, the words “that dog is too big for that kennel” do not sound very good when you turn up to check in and don’t have time to drive to the nearest pet shop to purchase the correct size. (Also, when you measure your pet, make sure you have at least two more people to hold him tight, so he doesn’t wriggle when you try to establish his height. Those extra inches make all the difference.) The good thing is that the cargo people at the airport usually have crates of various sizes in stock, which they’ll happily sell you at a nice, juicy marked-up price. They don’t, however, take your brand new, unusable crate off your hands, so you better have a back-up plan.

Cats are usually small enough to travel with you in the cabin, albeit also in an airline approved crate. Right now, only United and Lufthansa allow cats in the cabin on international flights, but this piece of information isn’t listed on other airlines’ sites. So if they claim you can bring your pet on board, don’t believe them unless someone gives you something in writing.
Unless your cat is a kitten and fits into the smallest hard-plastic carrier, he might be more comfortable in a soft-sided carrier. There is a huge selection, the best being the ones that can be squashed nicely, as the measurements listed on airlines’ websites are not what you find when you take your seat on the plane. If you fly United, try to upgrade if you can. Don’t fly Economy unless you have a guinea pig. Room under the seat in front you is about 10x15x5cm (4x6x2 of your sweet American inches).

Dogs aren’t allowed anything other than some absorbent pads in their crate. No toys, collars, blankets.
For your in-cabin companion, a harness and lead are essential, as it means you can take them out and let them stretch their legs from time to time without fearing their escape. They’re supposed to stay in their carrier for the duration of the flight, and under the seat for take-off and landing. I pulled the squashed carrier out from under the seat as soon as the seatbelt signs came off, and took my cat out a few times during the flight so he could climb around and look out of the window. Who knows what he thought, looking at those huge, pink, fluffy clouds. He probably thought he was in some kind of weird dream.

There’s an abundance of travel-related knick-knacks for pets, such as calming chews, Bach flower remedies and calming vests, but the cost of the whole process is painful enough without adding unnecessary expenses for things you might not even be allowed to use in the end. Asking friends for advice is always a good idea.

Food/drugs:
The airline guidelines state not to give your animals any food less than six hours before take-off. I consulted a few people for advice, and most said don’t give any food after the night before travelling. Which I did, much to the consternation of my pets. But it paid off – no soiled pads in either cage. The cat had a little accident in the car on the way to the airport, but I had anticipated that and put him in a cardboard box for that leg of the journey, in order not to board the plane with a smelly carrier. Water is allowed, and they filled the dog’s water containers (mounted to the outside of his kennel) with ice cubes before he got on the plane.

You have to sign a document that says you haven’t given your cargo-traveller any drugs prior to travel. My vet had prescribed some anti-anxiety drugs, which I tried out on both pets the week before our flight, to see how their reaction to different kind of dosages. Ultimately, I didn’t feel comfortable giving the dog any medication for the journey, as I was too worried about him being sick as a result of the combination of altitude and medication, and nobody being able to attend to him. I sprayed some calming, pheromone-based stuff on his crate before we got to the cargo gate, but as we ended up not using that one, and I didn’t remember to do the same with his new crate, he flew with no meds at all. And lived to tell the tale. I drugged the cat a little bit, as he behaved like a ferocious maniac on his last flight (despite drugs). For whatever reason (pink, fluffy clouds? see above), he was a complete angel this time, and I never had to top up his tranquilliser. He wouldn’t accept any water or food during the flights, but I didn’t expect him to. He’s a cat, after all.

Customs:
Now for the most fun part of the entire journey. Picking my dog up from the vet office in the cargo area at Munich airport. But first, the cat. If I’d brought somebody else’s rabied, unvaccinated cat with me to Germany, nobody would have noticed. After all the procurement of certificates, fees and stress I had to endure, nobody bothered to show even the slightest bit of interest in him or his paperwork the WHOLE WAY. Nobody checked his papers, or whether I had actually paid for his journey at Houston airport, and nobody did in Munich either. True, I had informed the airline we were coming, but there was no mention or payment confirmation on my ticket. I could have carried the little guy right out of the airport in Munich without any problem. It felt wrong, and so I went into the “items to declare” section when I got off the plane, but mainly to establish the whereabouts of the dog. None of the customs officers knew where I had to go. All they were interested in was whether the pets were pedigree breeds and whether I needed to pay tax. I told them they weren’t (they didn’t check), and so we set off to find the vet. Luckily, my parents were waiting for me in the arrivals hall, and we went on our way to the cargo area. After another twenty minutes of driving around, we finally located the vet’s office, only to be told that we needed to pay our customs bill and “storage fee” at the main customs office before I would be able to claim my dog. At least I was able to find out he had safely made it to Germany and was doing well.

So we set off again, driving through cargo city at Munich airport. It was a public holiday, so all was eerily quiet. We found the main customs office, paid one of the bills, but were then referred to the cargo gate desk (another location), where we had to pay the “storage fee”. After another little trek, we found said desk, then marched back to the customs office, got our stamp, and finally, made our back to the vet office. At this point, not having slept for a good 24 hours, the whole experience started to feel like a bad dream, and if anybody had demanded more paperwork, I wouldn’t have been capable of more than hysterical cackling.
When we got back to the vet office, my brave boy was already waiting for us in his kennel. When I called his name, he practically started doing somersaults in there, so much that the trolley his kennel had been put on started rolling down the hallway. He was beside himself with joy when I released him, and that joy alone made it all worth it. And if I’d thought it odd that nobody had wanted to check my identity, it was probably unnecessary at that point anyway.
Still, nobody asked to see the cat, who’d been patiently waiting in the car the whole time.

Another bill later, we were finally free to go. What an odyssey. I wish I could provide clear instructions on the whole process for people planning a similar adventure, but I suppose the experience differs each time and simply isn’t a straightforward one. I’m glad it’s over, but I can’t help wondering what our entry into the UK at the end of August will be like. All I know is that whatever obstacles they’ll put in our way, I think I can handle them.

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