Traveling to the EU with a Cat

I write on this topic mainly because I have found previous blogs on this topic to be very helpful in demystifying the whole experience. Most of this is narrative, but I’ll stick some bullets at the end with important pointers.

Background:

We have an elderly (approximately 15 year old) cat that has now lived all over the South and Southwest thanks to both his prior owners and us. We knew he traveled OK by car, but as far as anyone knew, he’d never been on a plane. He’s pretty mellow when seated on your lap, but can be a little skittish in new situations.

To bring a pet to the EU, you must have a current rabies vaccine, and a particular microchip (it must be ISO-certified and has a minimum number of identifying digits). You are required to get an EU certificate of identity (verifying the chip number), health and rabies vaccination within ten days of travel, signed by a USDA-certified vet. This presented a problem to us because our lovely house-call vet (Dr. Bendall, if you’re in Austin) was no longer USDA-certified, so I had to find a local vet clinic (Austin Vet Hospital, also lovely) with a USDA-certified vet who would examine the cat and fill out the certificate. Prior to certification, the cat also had to be re-microchipped with an approved international chip, and then re-vaccinated because the EU insists that the vaccine be done after the microchipping. We had the vaccine and microchipping done in early September, since we thought we were moving pretty soon after that.

Anyway, we booked a vet appointment on the assumption that we would be moving the week we had planned (the second week of January, although as I wrote previously, our plane tickets were not purchased until two days before we left). The cat got a clean bill of health as always, with the vet and staff admiring how young he appeared to be. The vet filled out the certificate, which then had to go to our local USDA office along with a certificate verifying his rabies vaccine. The USDA office luckily was near Justin’s office, and had same-day turnaround to endorse the certificate, making it ready for EU customs.

Now the paperwork was set, what about the plane tickets? Justin had booked us on the most direct route possible, flying Austin to Newark on United and then Newark to Dusseldorf on Lufthansa. When booking, he asked the reservations agent and was assured that he was permitted to bring a pet on both flights (there is usually a cap on the number of pets that can fly in-cabin). However, long experience with airlines has taught us to verify such things. I called United to check (the flights had been booked through Lufthansa) and was rudely informed that no, we could not bring a cat on the United flight because it had been booked as a Lufthansa codeshare, and Lufthansa could not issue us a ticket for that flight that included a booking for a pet. Justin called, and rebooked the exact same itinerary (down to an identical confirmation number), except that now we were booked on the United flight, not on the Lufthansa codeshare (keep in mind, this is the same plane!) Now it was OK to bring a cat on both legs of the trip.

Moving day arrived. We had been advised by veteran cat flyers (my brother and sister-in-law had flown a cat back from Germany after their stint as expats) and the vet that sedating the cat might be a good idea. It was also suggested that it was a good idea to test the sedative on the cat prior to use, but due to the previously-mentioned accelerated timeline, this never happened. We decided to give the cat the sedative and hope for the best. It certainly worked, as approximately twenty minutes later we had what was best described as a drunk cat. He was losing track of his back legs and seemed pretty confused. Still hoping for the best, we shoved him into the carrier and headed off to the airport with our enormous pile of luggage.

The United check-in people were much nicer than their call center had been, and cooed at the cat and admired him while checking our certificate. Note to future travelers – have those certificates handy, you will have to produce them multiple times! We paid a hefty pet fee (in addition to our excess baggage fees) and headed for the part of the airport experience that had worried us both – security. Prior to security, we put the cat into a harness and hooked a leash on him, because we were a little worried he would be skittish and jump for it when out of the carrier. After all those worries, we took him out of the carrier, put the carrier through the X-Ray, and he sat calmly in Justin’s arms for the trip through the metal detector. He then did some people-watching from within the carrier on top of a seat while we caffeinated ourselves at an airport cafe.

On to the first flight! We fit the cat carrier under the seat, and that was when we started to hear sad quiet cat noises from it. He continued sort of a sad keening through a good chunk of the flight, but luckily it was pretty quiet and I don’t think the people around us could hear it. He seemed to be happiest when the carrier was on our laps, but unfortunately we couldn’t do that for the entire flight.

On arrival in Newark, we had to transfer between terminals on a shuttle bus. I got separated from Justin and was juggling both the soft cat carrier and my backpack. Luckily, some guys next to me were entranced by the cat (“It’s like you’re traveling with Garfield, man!”), and made sure the carrier didn’t fall off the seat while I retrieved my backpack before our stop. At the gate for our Lufthansa flight, we made the unpleasant discovery that we needed to pay another three-figure pet-in-cabin fee (and present his health certificate again), so I recommend future travelers doing the same thing stick to one airline if possible.

The overnight flight to Dusseldorf was uneventful. Prior to takeoff, a flight attendant came by to ask us if we were the ones flying with a pet (she kept saying “dog”, even though we corrected her to “cat”, so we chalked that up to a translation error). She wanted us to know that under no circumstances could the pet come out of the carrier, which was no surprise to us, but I guess someone must have done it some time. Anyway, once flying commenced, there were some more sad cat noises, but less than on the first flight – I suspect some of the sad noises were the confusion at the combination of the sedative and the flying. He even slept for part of it, and drank some water when presented with a plastic cup of it through the carrier hatch. When we got up to disembark, the people behind us were amazed to discover we had a cat in a carrier, which confirmed that the sad cat noises were inaudible to other people over the general plane noise. We were thinking of re-sedating him for this flight, but I think not sedating him was the correct choice; he seemed much happier once the sedative had apparently worn off.

Next up was immigration and customs. After we reacquired our embarrassingly large pile of luggage, we headed through customs, going to the ‘something to declare’ section. The Dusseldorf customs agents were not feeling particularly strict at 6 am, and were entertained when we stopped in front of them – we had to point out which piece of luggage held the cat. Once again, we pulled out our EU pet entry certificate. The customs inspectors proceeded to admire the embossing put on it by the USDA, and then marvel at the cat’s age – cooing at him in German that he couldn’t really be that old, could he?

[Side note: my brother and sister-in-law told me that if you are shipping the cat as freight, sometimes you will be asked to declare a value for your cat. We did not have to do this, thankfully, but in case we did, they told us you should value the cat as less than 20 euro to avoid paying taxes on the cat. Honestly, judging by the costs incurred to move the cat, not even mentioning the costs in vet bills, food and litter over the years, I can’t even imagine declaring the cat to have a positive economic value. Positive intangible value, yes, economic, not so much.]

The upside of arriving at 6 am was that the customs inspectors weren’t feeling particularly strict. The downside was that our appointment to get into our apartment wasn’t until 1 pm. What to do until then? Justin had the bright idea of booking us a pet-friendly efficiency hotel room (which I took to calling “the fifty-euro cat and luggage locker”). It was a godsend to have a place to let the cat out of his carrier, wash up, change clothes, and we even splurged on the breakfast buffet. The particular chain we stayed at was Ibis, which worked perfectly for our needs.

Getting the cat out of the carrier in the hotel room led to an unpleasant but not completely unexpected surprise: he had peed on himself in the carrier. He was not happy (and neither was I, since I had picked him up to get him out of it). Justin took his superior German skills off to the closest supermarket (once learning from the hotel clerk that the word for cat litter was “Katzenstreu”). He brought back some foil trays to use as a makeshift litterbox and some litter.

While Justin was off on this errand, I bathed the cat. If you’ve seen a European efficiency hotel room, you can imagine the comic potential here, since the sink was about the same size as our (thankfully) undersized seven pound cat, and there was literally nowhere to turn in the bathroom once he was wet and angry. Luckily he was upset but also kind of shell-shocked by this point, so he made only a cursory attempt to escape his fate and mainly just looked at me sadly while I repeatedly rinsed him off in the sink. Although he was a pitiful sight post-bath, he smelled much better and he cheered up pretty quickly. Once we taxied the cat, us and our luggage to the new house, he discovered new down comforters to sleep on and heated floors to lounge upon, and he’s been pretty happy ever since.

Pet Travel to the EU Tips:

-Utilize your local USDA office: not only did the Austin office have a helpful website, they also were available by phone for quick questions about how to fill out the form, who signs what, etc. They also had a .pdf that had detailed instructions for the EU form, which I printed out and took to the vet office.

-Try to book flights on one airline to avoid double pet fees.

-If you’re going to sedate your pet, try to test it out ahead of time and see if it makes them unhappy. It also could have a paradoxical effect, which you’d probably rather not find out about while on a plane.

-Use disposable pee pads inside the carrier if possible.

-If you’re going to be waiting to get into your apartment, find an inexpensive pet friendly hotel so you can let the pet out to stretch his legs and don’t have to take him on any errands you need to do.

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