Transporting cats to Europe from the US: a thorough, practical guide from personal experience, with an unexpected ending

May 5, 2011 § 7 Comments

For anyone moving to Europe, wondering if you will have to bid adieu, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye to your shaggy little friends, I now provide the educational tale of how I took my cats to Greece. Unusually, today I mean this blog to be useful, the post I wished I’d read before I did all this, so I will try to cut down on dumb jokes, though I include gratuitous photos of cats. Laws and rules do change, so please double-check my advice before you launch yourself and animals to a new continent.

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EU rules

First, check the embassy website of the country to which you are traveling. That is, do so unless it is Greece, whose embassy recently streamlined its website by removing all helpful information. A call to the consulate may be necessary. Me, I found info online, but in hindsight I really should have called.

Which country? The EU country you enter first. For example, if, like us, you pass through Frankfurt airport to go to Athens, then German rules apply. You should check the rules for each country you visit, but if it is all within Europe the rules are fairly uniform, except for a few exceptions, mentioned below.

There is a thing called a pet passport for people shuffling their chihuahuas hither and yon within Europe, but it only applies to EU residents. Travel between some member nations of the European Union, to my surprise, seems almost as relaxed as flights between states in the US. Sometimes there are no checks at all when you land. Sometimes it’s one guy in a booth with a glazed expression, waving crowds of people past him without looking at a single passport. (This is not the case for the UK, where border control is rigorous and suspicious.)

To read the rules on bringing a pet from outside the EU, consult EU regulation 998.

The major concern the EU has when you tote your beloved furball to their continent is rabies. The rules are strictest for Ireland, the UK, Finland, Malta and Sweden: they have no rabies and are keeping it that way. (See the UK DEFRA site for good info.) To take pets to these countries, you need to start planning your travel at least six months in advance, since months after the rabies vaccination a titre, taking several weeks to process, is required to prove the vacc is working. Depending on where you’re coming from, there may also be a quarantine requirement. Still want to take Mr. Whiskers?

Understandable.

The rest of the EU, including Germany, is much less stringent. And in dependable Teutonic fashion, the German embassy has excellent information online in English. Their website includes the required bilingual veterinary certificate. Cheerful news: if you’re coming from the US, you need only fill out the first four sections. But be aware the requirements must be met in a certain order!

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Microchipping

First, before anything else, the pet’s identity must be verified, with a microchip meeting the EU standard. If you’ve had the pet vaccinated for rabies before chipping, you have to vaccinate again afterward or it doesn’t count. Otherwise how can they tell it is the same Mr. Whiskers in both instances, and not Mr. Whiskers’s devious unvaccinated twin, Mr. Paperchewer?

The chip is a pellet the size of a grain of rice, which goes into the slack skin between the cat’s shoulderblades and contains an RFID tag with an identifying number, which can be entered into a database to find you and let you know your cat has got out again. A scary needle the size of a coffee stirring straw is used to implant the chip. Look away.

Not all microchips meet the EU standard, which is what? Honestly, I never found a good explanation. So I phoned up Home Again, the company that makes the chip that had been shot into my cats.

“Does the chip meet the EU standard?”

Home Again employee: “It depends which chip you have. You must ask your vet if the chip implanted is gobbledygook gobbledygook gobbledygook.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. I ask my vet what?”

“You must ask your vet—oh, hold on.” Clacking of keys. “Yes, your cats’ chip meets the standard.”

So that was done.

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Rabies vaccination

Next, I took the cats to be vaccinated. The EU says,

1. The anti-rabies vaccine must:
(a) be a vaccine other than a live modified vaccine and fall within one of the following categories:
(i) an inactivated vaccine of at least one antigenic unit per dose (WHO standard); or
(ii) a recombinant vaccine expressing the immunising glycoprotein of the rabies virus in a live virus vector;
(b) if administered in a Member State, have been granted a marketing auth­orisation in accordance with:
(i) Directive 2001/82/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 November 2001 on the Community code relating to veterinary medicinal products (1); or
(ii) Regulation (EC) No 726/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 laying down Community procedures for the authorisation and supervision of medicinal products for human and veterinary use and establishing a European Medicines Agency (2);
(c) if administered in a third country, meet at least the requirements laid down in Part C of Chapter 2.1.13 of the Manual of Diagnostic Tests and Vaccines for Terrestrial Animals, 2008 Edition, of the World Organisation for Animal Health.

May I suggest you rely on the expertise of your vet and show him or her this text.

When should you vaccinate? The EU says,

(c) at least 21 days must have elapsed since the completion of the vaccination protocol required by the manufacturer for the primary vaccination in accordance with the technical specification of the marketing authorisation referred to in point 1(b) for the anti-rabies vaccine in the Member State or third country in which the vaccination is administered

I interpreted this as 21 days from date of vaccination because I’m an ass and didn’t ask my vet what the completion of the vaccination protocol was. In the end it didn’t matter, as you shall see. But if I were you and not foolish me, I would again ask my vet.

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Airport veterinary authority

What else might I require for entry with cats? The website of Frankfurt airport informed me that the Veterinary Border Inspection Office of the State of Hesse would be glad to inform me. So I phoned the number listed. I recommend checking the time difference before you call. I got a sleepy-sounding woman who spoke enough English to tell me I had the wrong number, and gave me another that, phoned during normal German business hours, was out of service. I emailed the address on the site (poststelle.tgsh@lhl.hessen.de) and got no response. Their gladness to inform remains theoretical. I suppose this is called foreshadowing.

I still would recommend you at least try to contact the veterinary control at the airport you’ll visit first in Europe. There might be someone less useless on duty.

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Filling out the EU 998 form

No more than 10 days before you travel, a USDA certified veterinarian must complete a health examination on your pet and fill out and sign your form, and the state vet must endorse it. Not all vets are qualified to carry out the exam and fill out the form, but they’ll know who is.

What’s in the form?

  1. Info about you: name, address, phone number
  2. Description of the animal: species, breed, sex, birthdate, coat color
  3. Microchip info: number, location, date of implantation
  4. Rabies vaccination: manufacturer and name of vaccine, batch number, vaccination date, validity date

The fifth, sixth and seventh sections don’t apply to pets coming from the US. In case you’re curious, they deal with serological tests for rabies antibodies, tick treatment and echinococcus treatment, whatever that is.

I took my cats to the excellent vets at Smith Veterinary Hospital in Santa Fe and then drove the form in person to the state vet in Albuquerque, where it received an impressive embossed stamp with signatures and flourishes. Note: I had to make an appointment with the state vet for the endorsement. And I had to bring a valid ID to get in the building. It’s the government after all.

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Cats on a plane!

Now you are ready! But are you? Phone up your airline and ask what their rules are regarding pet transport. Ominous warnings on the Internet told me I needed an International Health Certificate for travel on most flights. But no one knew what that was, though the EU website assured me it was not the same as the form I had. The USDA site said my vet would have it, but my vet did not. Lufthansa told me that the EU form sufficed.

You also have to tell the airline you’re bringing pets. Do this early, since there is a limit to the number of pets they can take in the cabin. Also, make sure your pets have a place reserved on each leg of your journey. Some poor American guy holding his dog at the gate at Frankfurt was told there were already two pets aboard (ours) and they couldn’t take his. You snooze, you lose.

Each airline has its own carrier requirements, but basically the carrier must fit under the seat in front of you and will count as your carry-on bag. One pet per person is allowed in the cabin; if you have more pets than people, some must go in the hold, which has entirely different requirements about which I know zip.

If the cost doesn’t make you balk, the Sherpa carrier is the best. People do get turned away for having carriers that don’t measure up. The Sherpa is guaranteed to get on. We also got a cheapie non-Sherpa from Petco to carry the other cat, and though it got on it was crap.

I’m not talking looks. The cheapo bag was not as rigid, so it sagged, making it awkward to carry from terminal to terminal, and the plush bottom kept sliding up, then falling on the feline passenger. Also, one poke from Bowie’s nose opened the zippers and allowed him to get halfway out before I could shove him back. The Sherpa bag was impervious to cat nose attack. It also had zippered compartments on two sides in which we put the official paperwork, treats, a leash and harness, a few cans of trusted cat food, and a big Ziploc of litter, since a late night arrival made it unlikely we would be able to buy some in Greece.

Despite your pet requiring no extra room or services in the cabin—no seat, no place in overhead bin, no complimentary soda, no headphones—you will pay the airline something like $250 per cat or similar extortionate fee. And then I think it was 70€ each again when we transferred to the new flight to Athens. If everyone brought pets on flights, the airlines would be in no financial trouble. Also, you can’t take a front seat, since the carrier must go under the seat in front of you, and you might not be able to take an exit row seat.

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Cat comfort

We fed and watered them about four hours before travel time and made sure they used the litter box. No sedation: it behaves unpredictably at altitude, with potentially dangerous side effects. Once in the air, our cats fell asleep, though Bowie howled bloody murder during takeoff and landing. It is not a great idea to feed them in the air, since when they eat, they have to go. And there is nowhere for them to go. That is misery. Just let them sleep on their empty stomachs—just this once.

If I were doing it again, I would bring a travel litter box too. It would have been nice to let the poor guys go in Frankfurt. The toilet stalls in Europe conveniently have walls that go nearly to the ground. I would have put the cats one by one on their harness and let them find relief, since at Frankfurt it had been about 11 hours since their last chance. But I forgot. They were, as you can imagine, complaining loudly during our five-hour layover.

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Cats at security

When you go through security at the airport, you put the carrier through the X-ray machine, without the cat. The cat you must take out and hold as you go through the detectors. I recommend you give your cat a collar and tag with your cell phone number on it for this bit, in case the panicked creature gets loose when you remove it from the bag.

Fortunately, Freddie at moments of panic goes limp, and I carried him through with no trouble. My brave husband carried Bowie, who, when I glanced behind, seemed with his arched back and extended forelegs to be doing a furious sort of tango. One security guard mentioned that back when they had the puffer machines, which shot air into your clothes to analyze for traces of explosives (useless), a guy tried going in with his cat and had to be taken to the hospital to treat the wounds.

Mirabile dictu, we have now made it through security four times with these cats with no incident, which amazed several guards.

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Shocking conclusion

Having landed at Frankfurt, we sought the airport vet to clear the cats for entry and to find out if we had succeeded in following all the rules or if we had screwed up big time and would have to put the cats in quarantine while I sobbed uncontrollably and took a hotel in Frankfurt for six months, visiting twice a day to tell the boys I loved them while Luca forged on without me to perform his duties at the lab.

Two border officials were stamping passports.

“Where do we find the veterinarian to clear the cats for entry?” we asked.

The border official looked bored.

We repeated our question.

He shrugged. “I don’t see any cats,” he grunted, then looked beyond us, in a final way.

“But we need to clear the cats for entry.”

“I DON’T SEE ANY CATS.”

We moved on to customs, where there was no one.

Now we were in Germany. What to do? We stopped an airport employee and asked for the veterinarian.

“I don’t know,” said the employee, and moved on.

We then asked the Lufthansa counter about the pet relief room rumored to be on the premises. (A woman at my gym told me she’d paid 20€ to take her dog in at Frankfurt.) The Lufthansa employee offered to call the vet to ask, and we hoped to ask about getting the cats cleared. But the vet was not around, and there was no pet relief room anyone had ever heard of. This all seemed terribly un-German, but there it was.

All right, we thought. We will do all the paperwork in Greece. We boarded the Aegean flight and landed in Athens. As we deplaned, there was no border control, no customs. Nothing but empty hallways, baggage claim, taxis and shops.

So we simply dropped the cats off at our empty new apartment in Varkiza, with litter and food and toys, went to our hotel, and considered ourselves landed in Greece.

Despite the curious laxity of Germany and Greece in the matter of animals at their borders, I do not recommend just turning up with beasts and no paperwork. It might work, of course. But isn’t traveling stressful enough without thinking your trip will be ruined at the airport because you are smuggling in little undocumented four-legged immigrants?

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To-do list

To sum up, if you plan on taking your cats over, I recommend you do the following, in order:

  1. contact the relevant embassy for the country of your port of entry to ask for the latest regulations
  2. contact the airlines for their requirements for paperwork and carriers
  3. make reservations at a pet-friendly hotel, and let them know how many you’ll bring (they may charge a per-pet fee)
  4. microchip the animal with a chip that meets the EU standard
  5. vaccinate the animal, letting your vet know the EU requirements
  6. wait the required time (21 days from completion of the vaccine protocol, whatever that means)
  7. no more than 10 days before date of travel, have a USDA certified vet examine the pet and fill out the EU 998 form
  8. get the form endorsed officially by the USDA state vet
  9. contact the airlines to reserve a spot for your pets and pay the fees
  10. on the day of travel, feed and water the pet four hours before departure, and let it relieve itself
  11. bring extra food and litter to be prepared on arrival—and add a collar with a tag in case it takes off at security
  12. on arrival at your port of entry, search desperately for the vet to clear your pet to enter the EU and if you find him or her, do me a favor and let me know where the hell s/he was and how it went so I can update this page

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Special note for travelers taking cats into Europe: on absolutely no account should you feed your cat the canned food sold here as Kippy, which, I spotted after the fact, boasts in Italian that it is not tested on animals. It has now been tested on animals. Litter box verdict: no.

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§ 7 Responses to Transporting cats to Europe from the US: a thorough, practical guide from personal experience, with an unexpected ending

  • Amy says:

    I haven’t read the post yet, but I’m just taking a break after the first paragraph to say that there is no such thing as gratuitous pictures of Freddy & Bowie. ALL pictures of them are absolutely essential.

  • Persolaise says:

    Wow! I’m sure this’ll be very useful to lots of people.

    I don’t have any pets any more, but you reminded me of the convoluted processes my mum had to go through every year to allow us to take our dog with us to Poland for the summer break . The silver living was that Polish Airlines allowed small animals on board the cabin and our princess was a chihuaha.

  • Effie Trihas says:

    Tania, thanks so much for the information. I’m going to be traveling from the U.S. to Greece with my cat. I live part-time in Hell(as) and part-time in the U.S. for now. You made me smile. I’ve had to endure the same insanity and inconsistencies with other issues.

  • Hilary says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been looking for exactly this kind of “how to” guide for moving our cat to Paris. Immensely helpful post, not to mention quite funny.

  • Kathryn says:

    Woe had I wished I’d found your blog before we moved to Germany with our cat and 60 lb dog for 5 months! LOL Your blog is terrific. I only wished I hadn’t had to do all this research myself. And, I never found the vet or pet relief place either.

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