Wednesday, June 5, 2013

International move with a four-legged family member

Crystal kindly requested that I do a more detailed blog on the process of moving your furry family member across the ocean, and being the obliging blogger that I am, here is more info about the whole process.  Warning: this may be a very boring post for those of you who are not interested in this process or who don’t have a pet.

My experiences, moving from France to the US and from the US back to France with Rasteau, have both been with Delta/Air France primarily because these airlines offered us the shortest trips between France and Ohio, which we personally thought was very important when travelling with an animal.  After all, the poor little creatures are trapped in cages the entire time, even when at the airport, without a bathroom and most of the time without access to food and water (though from what I understand this does depend on the length of the trip, the airline, and the mode of transport chosen i.e. in the cabin, in the hold or as cargo).  As an added bonus, for us at least, Delta/Air France allows you to bring your small pet in the cabin, rather than restricting them to the hold, on international trips.  This is not the case with all airlines, and from my research, it seems like Delta is the only major US airline that allows pets in the cabin on international flights.  On the way to the US we chose the cabin as we thought it would be easiest and we liked the idea of being able to keep an eye on the little guy throughout the whole trip.  On the way back, however, we decided we would give the hold a try.  I don’t really know the pros and cons of each option, so I think it is up to you to decide what you think will work best in your particular situation and with your pet.  Either way the cost was the same, $200 to have your pet on the plane (not to mention the added cost of having Lionel travel with super expensive Delta/Air France rather than my relatively cheap, but 21-hour long trip with Iberia).  However, if you travel with your pet in the cabin you do not get to bring a carry-on suitcase, only a small personal item in addition to the pet.  I personally think this is an airline scam.  You are paying extra to bring the pet soyou should still get your carry-on!  If the animal is in the hold this does not change the number of bags you get to bring.  In either case, I highly recommend making a reservation with your airline of choice as far in advance as possible as there are restrictions on the number of pets that are allowed to travel in the cabin and in the hold on each aircraft.  Definitely do not just show up at the airport the day of your flight hoping to get your animal on the plane as this is not a guarantee.  Each time Rasteau has flown he was not the only pet on the plane.

So first, more information on travelling with your animal in the cabin.  If your pet comes with you in the cabin the animal must be in a small, soft-sided carrier that can fit comfortably under the seat in front of you.  The airlines can provide you with more specific information regarding the dimensions of the carrier, etc, but it has to be soft-sided in case it has to squish a little to fit.  Also important to note is that you can give your animal sedatives if it is travelling in the cabin, but it is not recommended to do so if the pet is travelling in the hold.  From what I read, and from what our vets told us, apparently it can be fatal to drug an animal travelling in the hold, but I don’t really know why.  

When you arrive at the airport you have to present your pet at the counter so they can make sure the carrier is the right size and that it follows any and all regulations.  You then proceed through security and boarding as normal.  The only difference is, depending on the country/airport, you may have to remove your pet from the carrier to take it through security.  In our experience, in France they gave us the option of carrying Rasteau through the security check point or keeping him in the carrier to go through the x-ray machine with the other hand luggage.  In the US we had no choice but to carry Rasteau through.  There again, I don’t know which is better, but I’m sure there is research out there.  I’m sure it also depends on the temperament of your pet and their ability to escape from your grasp.  I can’t even imagine the stress if we had to chase a terrified cat through a major international airport!

When travelling in the hold you have to follow IATA requirements for a hard-sided kennel.  These requirements go so far as to dictate the kind of latches holding the kennel together, the materials the kennel is made of, the kind and number of openings, the dimensions based on the height/length/weight of your animal, etc.  I recommend doing a lot of research before purchasing a kennel to make sure you buy one that meets all the guidelines.  You should also check this against the guidelines provided by your airline.  In our experience, Air France required a kennel that went above and beyond the IATA guidelines but when it came time to actually make the purchase, the only kennels we could find that met the Air France guidelines were for large and extra-large dogs.  We thought this was a bit ridiculous as we certainly didn’t need a kennel that big for a small cat, so we checked the Delta guidelines, and they were very different from Air France, though the two companies operate codeshare flights.  The Delta guidelines were the same as the IATA so, after many frantic calls to Delta/Air France, we eventually followed the Delta guidelines.  Even though we had purchased the ticket through Air France, we were flying out of Cincinnati, which is a Delta hub, the flight was operated by Delta and we would be faced with Delta representatives at the counter who would have the final say as to whether or not our furball made it on the flight.  These kennels, depending on size and brand, can range anywhere from $30-$200.  

Additionally, according to the IATA and most airlines (but again, not Air France) you should attach travel food and water dishes to the door of the kennel, and attach a plastic bag of food to the outside of the carrier, in case the animal needs to be given something to eat or drink.  This does not apply in all cases, but on longer flights, or if there are unexpected delays, the flight crew may be required to feed your animal and they must be able to do so without opening the door.  On a normal flight to France your pet would not be given anything to eat or drink, but if you had a long delay they would (not sure exactly what the time limits are).  Upon arrival at the airport, your pet is dropped off at the counter during check-in to be transported to the aircraft and upon boarding they usually make an announcement to let passengers know that their animal has been safely boarded and is indeed on the plane.  

However, when it comes to travelling with your pet in the hold, please let me give you this one very important tip based on our own very unpleasant experience bringing Rasteau back to France.  Be absolutely sure to verify that the type of plane you will be travelling on can in fact accommodate animals in the hold.  Even if you’ve made the reservation and have been assured by the reservations specialist that your animal will be flying on your plane in the hold, do the extra research.  We did not and when we arrived at the Delta counter at the Cincinnati airport we were very rudely informed that animals could not travel in the hold from Cincinnati to Paris because the specific aircraft used for that route did not accommodate pets in the hold (I think it was a 767).  You see, I had naively assumed that when we called and made Rasteau’s reservation (and subsequently confirmed it at least 5 times through various other phone calls related to the kennel requirements), that the reservations agents would have informed us if the type of aircraft Lionel was scheduled to fly on could not accommodate pets in the hold.  Seeing as we had to provide Lionel’s reservation information in order to make Rasteau’s reservation, this seemed like a logical assumption, but you know what the say, assuming makes an ass out of you and me.  

Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the airport, loaded down with luggage, a giant hard-sided carrier and a very stressed out cat, and we were so impolitely told, at first, just that animals could not travel through Paris.  What!?! I nearly screamed, completely confused as we had made the reservation months in advance, confirmed it, and never been told anything of the kind.  Not to mention our cat is Parisian, of course he could travel through his hometown!  I tried as hard as I could to calm down and asked, as kindly as possible given the circumstances, what our options were at that point.  We were rudely told that our only option was not to bring our cat.  Clearly not an option!  Finally, after a near panic attack, a couple of inappropriate curse words on my part and a few tears, another Delta representative came over to see what the problem was and kindly informed us that in fact, it was not that the cat couldn’t travel through Paris, it was the type of aircraft that was the problem and he couldn’t travel in the hold.  She, unlike the first bitch who was incredibly rude and unbelievably unhelpful (and now that I finally have internet and phone access I have to file my complaint), apologized for the inconvenience and explained that we could still get the cat on the plane if we could manage to find a soft-sided carrier to bring him in the cabin.  She also offered to check Lionel’s carry-on suitcase free of charge (and personally I think they should have offered more than just that considering all the money we lost on the fancy kennel and all the stress they put us through because their representatives are idiots) since Rasteau would now be counted as his carry-on and we hadn’t planned on that. 

So, off I went with my dad on a mad dash across the airport and out to the car, directions in hand, to find the nearest pet store to buy a carrier as quickly possible so that they wouldn’t miss the flight.  Luckily, as I was frantically running through PetSmart I found an incredibly nice employee who was very sympathetic to my problem and quickly showed me all the options and then let me cut in line to pay so I could make it back in time.  Once back at the airport, we got everyone checked in and I watched them head through security, secretly praying that a non-sedated Rasteau would not manage to claw through the soft-sided carrier in a panic on the flight (he has already managed to rip through two of them).

Upon arrival in the country of destination you must take your pet through customs and then back through security if changing planes.  According to everything I’ve read online, when your pet travels in the hold, you have to pick it up with your luggage to go through customs, and if your pet is travelling in the cabin you just carry it off the plane and through customs.  Normally, from what I understand, there is supposed to be a quick check with a vet or at least a customs specialist to verify that the animal does not appear to have any diseases, but we did not experience this on either side of the Atlantic.  Also in customs they are supposed to verify all of your paperwork, but Lionel said that in Paris they didn’t even really bother to look at it.  Also, contrary to popular belief, most of the time your pet does not have to be quarantined.  Usually your pet is only quarantined if it appears unhealthy when/if checked at customs.  However, this does vary depending on the destination country.

As far as papers are concerned, for Rasteau to travel from France to the US he needed to get a passport and a health certificate.  Both of these documents can be obtained very easily from your vet in France.  The passport contains the animal’s ID information, microchip number and info on all check-ups, vaccines, etc and can be obtained at any time and then updated with each subsequent visit to the vet.  The health certificate must be obtained shortly before flying and states that the animal is in a condition to travel, not sick, not injured, etc.  

For the return to France, from what I understand we probably would have been fine with just his French passport, but I like to be overly prepared, just in case, so we went to our vet and got a health certificate as well.  In the US the health certificate is much more complicated than in France, probably because the US doesn’t have passports for pets so they have to include records of all vaccinations, etc on the health certificate, and it took our vet 5 days and multiple calls to the US State Department to complete all the paperwork.  The US State Department provides the forms to the vet and has specific forms depending on the destination country.  The State Department insisted we needed all of this, and according to their requirements, once the form is completed by the vet you have to bring it to the US State Department office in your state to be stamped, which costs maybe $20.  We didn’t know about any of this and found out a few days before flying.  This would have required a trip up to Columbus and we just didn’t have the time, so we didn’t end up getting it stamped, figuring that the airline didn’t require a health certificate and France didn’t seem to require one for a French cat with a passport, though of course the US State Department insists they do.  Another requirement for bringing an animal into Europe is that the animal now must have a microchip.  Rasteau already had one, so that wasn’t a problem for us.  The US, however, doesn’t require one.  Be sure to check with your airline though because some airlines do require documentation and others, like Delta, don’t.  The papers required also depend on your destination country and of course your animal’s origins.  For example, I know that it is much more difficult to bring an animal into the United Kingdom and it would require a lot more research and work.

Rasteau's passport

The ID pages of Rasteau's passport.  There is even a place to put a photo of your pet, though this is optional.

My overall impressions were that it is actually quite easy to travel with an animal, at least between the US and France.  Rasteau took it pretty well both times.  On the trip to the US we sedated him but he was still wide awake and freaked out at the airport in Paris, moving around a lot and meowing quite a bit.  But once he was settled on the plane he just passed out and slept the entire flight, only waking up upon arrival in Cincinnati when he was removed from his carrier to go through security.  Coming back to France he was not sedated because we thought he was going to travel in the hold.  He was pretty freaked out at the airport and from what Lionel said he didn’t really settle down until after take-off.  Upon arrival at the airport in Paris he was quite scared again but then he mostly slept through the flight to Bordeaux and woke up again when he was taken off the plane.  So overall I don’t really know if the sedatives made much of a difference because drugged or not he was scared at the airports and he slept through the flights.

I planned months in advance both times, partially because I’m a control freak and partially because I like to do everything possible to be sure to avoid potential problems (though that didn’t work so well this time around…).  I made Rasteau’s reservations a day or two after booking the tickets, shopped for an appropriate carrier a few months in advance, verified and reverified and then verified yet again all the documentation needed, both on the airline’s website and the border control site for the destination country (in this case Les Douanes Françaises).  I talked to the vet about 2 months in advance just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything and to make sure to have an appointment for the health certificate a week or two before departure.  In the end, problems can obviously still happen, as was the case for us this time around, but it really is not too difficult to travel with your four-legged friend (keep in mind, species outside of cats and dogs can be more complicated), especially with proper planning and preparation.  I know that there are companies that specialize in helping you move with an animal internationally, but I imagine it costs quite a lot more and in my opinion it is not really worth it in most cases as the whole experience is quite simple.  And I find that it really doesn’t cost as much as you would expect, especially if you already have a good carrier.  But what really counts in the end, regardless of all the stress, the expense and the hassle, is that your furry family member makes it alive and in good health, as Rasteau did.

Rasteau seemingly quite happy here in France, taking a nap in the bottom of our hall closet. 

Rasteau out in the garden, ready to pounce on something he saw move in the ivy.


  1. Michele,

    Great post! Thank you for all of the information. I have a couple of questions since I might be traveling with my cat in the future. Do you need to sit somewhere specific in the plane? Are there any rules that you have to sit in the back or near an aisle? Also, how did you deal with the bathroom situation? If the cat makes a mess in the carrier, did you wait until arrival to clean it up? Thanks again for the tips.


  2. Anne, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting! As far as I know there are no rules about where you sit on the plane, and in all my research with a lot of different airlines I haven't seen anything indicating that they have a preference. However, your airline could certainly confirm this. I was personally shocked that there weren't any rules. I was just imagining the horror of sitting next to someone on an 8-hour flight who is allergic to cats, but so far no problems. As for the bathroom situation, both times we just got puppy training pads to put in the bottom of the carrier. On the trip from France to the US they weren't even needed, but it was a shorter trip. On the trip from the US to France my husband said he ended up peeing in his carrier towards the end of the trip but the puppy training pad soaked it right up and it didn't smell. If he had ended up pooping, I'm not sure how we would have handled that but you would have to wait until you get to an airport to do anything because the carrier can't be opened at any time during the flight, whether in the cabin or in the hold. My husband had brought extra training pads with him just in case he needed to change it during his lay over in Paris, but he said he would have been too afraid to open the carrier anyway in case our cat escaped. Hope that helps!

  3. Wow! Thanks so much for providing so much awesome info!

    I imagine the guidelines for travelling between Canada/France would be similar to US/France, but I would have to check first. Not that I plan on moving any of my bébés for the moment, but you never know.

    Pinch is "too big" to go in the cabin, so I know he'd have to go in the hold and that idea terrifies me. He's a very anxious dog, and can be aggressive when he's stressed/scared, so I have no idea how it would be even possible if he weren't sedated...but, like you mentioned, I know pets in the hold cannot be drugged.

    I'm so glad that Rasteau survived all of his air travel with relative ease. I think you were probably a lot more stressed out about it all than him! So glad you were able to come up with a last minute solution concerning the whole "he can't fly through Paris" ordeal! I'm not sure I would have been able to handle it as well!

    Thanks again for this, and if I ever do need to fly with my pets, you know I'll be in touch ;)

    1. No problem, I'm happy to be able to help when I can!

      I would think it would be similar between Canada and France, but there might be a few differences. I was also terrified by the idea of putting Rasteau in the hold, but since Lionel was the one travelling with the cat, I let him make the final decision. Though in the end I guess it didn't matter very much! I can't even imagine being in your position and having so many pets to have to potentially travel with! It would be nerve wracking to say the least!

      I think the real positive with the hold is that if your pet is stressed or scared, you don't have to know about it. But at the same time, you have the stress of not knowing if they are ok mixed with the guilt of leaving them alone for the trip. But then, I might just be ridiculous for having such feelings!

  4. I don't have any pets, but I still found this post really interesting! I wonder if animals suffer from cabin pressure like we do?

    I did think that France would be like the UK, in that you need to have your pet quarantined. You learn something new everyday.

    I can't believe you had to go out and buy a soft-carrier because of a mistake the airline made! You should definitely complain.

  5. This just confirmed I hope never to travel with a pet, lol!!

    What a helpful, helpful post for people who would love to do so, however!

    And I am SO glad you all made it, safe and sound. I think Rasteau likes the new yard, too, huh. :-)

    Hugs from Denver!