Sabrina's Article: Traveling with Pets

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By Sabrina in Sicily


We chose to do the moving ourselves, because I am a control freak and wanted to be able to know the cats were with us and besides, we were on a bit of a budget and the quotes we had gotten from pet carriers seemed steep. However, having to do it again we'd probably hire a pet carrier.

We have two cats: a girl and a boy, aged 13 and 8 respectively. The 13 year old cat has traveled once already, from Calgary to Montreal and went across the U.S.-Canada border in a car, about 10 years ago. That was a smooth flight, but the trip was shorter. The other cat had never traveled and is bothered by the smallest trip in the car. Also he weighs 16 lbs, which makes him a "medium" animal, and we had to get a "medium animal cage", because air transport regulations say that the animal has to be able to turn around. With cage, he was about 20 lbs.   The other cat is 11 lbs, about 13 with (smaller) cage. They are a bit heavy to carry by hand, something we thought we'd just do once.

Before traveling: we had microchips installed into the cats (it is not as painless as advertised), gave them a physical and gave them rabies vaccinations within 10 days of departure (well, the vet did). Had three styles of paperwork filled out, since we found that many. One was from the USDA, one for animals entering the EU and one was the Italian one that I believe is in the Ex-pat site. The cats did not get blood tests, as we were assured by the vet that we did not need them. We didn't.

We looked into airlines who carry pets overseas, and found that Alitaila does have a pet center both in Milan and Rome. (Air France does too, but we wanted to have fewer stops). The catch was that no local airline from Burlington VT would carry them. So we rented a car and went to Boston (a 3 hour ride). A caveat: we did this in mid-May, most airlines will NOT allow pets in airplanes past the middle of June, because it gets too hot. Same thing for the dead of winter, for the cold. They may make an exception for pets in the cabin, but most carriers only allow one or two for the whole cabin and they have to fit (with container) under the seat in front of you. Which means (in our case) even an 11 lbs cat is too big to fit in the cabin. However, the animal transport compartment is pressurized and in some cases may have some kind of air conditioning or heating. Also, all respectable airlines frown on sedating the cats (especially), since sedation at high elevation does something to the kidneys of the cat.

First important piece of advice: bring lots of water, in a container that doesn't spill so much. The animal handlers can't give them anything unless you ask, and even then it isn't sure they will. As for feeding, the opinions vary: I would not feed them before traveling (but hey, my cats are pretty heavy and could survive a couple of days without food!), because if they get scared there might be "spilling" of some other (ickier) kind. It happened to us, luckily in the car ride, so it was easily fixed.

Once we got to Logan, we checked in and the cats had to pay their ticket. Based on weight, it cost us $180.00 for both cats, as animals are considered excess baggage. Of course we know they are not *really* baggage, but on paper that's what they are. Note: when we booked our flight we told the agent that we were bringing cats, but did not pay for them at that point, but they do need to know for the flight, as some planes don't have the animal compartment. As it turns out, big planes do and small planes don't. More on this later.

When we asked where or to whom to give the cats, we were told by the person at the counter that we had to go through Transportation Security Agency (TSA) with the cats. This is perhaps the most important lesson learned in all the story.

It is uncertain whether the Alitalia personnel or the TSA personnel was misinformed, or if info crossed over wrongly, but for pets you cannot go through the regular line (with the x-ray machine etc.), as you have to open the cages and inspect them (and it is forbidden to x-ray live animals, regardless of what the TSA says!!!). We did not find out about this until the *third* time we went through security (my husband was carrying the cats all along). The TSA personnel can be a bit rude and unyielding when things that are unusual present themselves. Thankfully the Alitalia personnel could expedite some of the standing-in-line for us. Eventually, we got to the TSA private inspection room and the cat cages were inspected and given to a real pet handler. It is a bit nerve-wracking to give your pets to a stranger, but we had no choice.

Incidentally, the only reason we made the flight on time is because we got there nearly 3 hours ahead. The moral of this story is that if you are getting your pet through U.S. security, you may want to check with the TSA what the rules are (they change frequently because of various terror alert levels, see, and to be specific with the airline that you want to go to the private inspection room to begin with. It might be easier with dogs too, but cats may be harder to rein in, especially in a crowded airport (I know mine would have been).

Once we got to Rome, we actually saw the cats being transported elsewhere, as we were between flights. That was a relief. We had one more short leg to go, and as we sat on the plane waiting for departure the local pet handlers made me come off the plane and told me that we had to put the cats in the next flight as there was no pressurized compartment in the aircraft we had boarded. We could not catch the other flight with the cats, as the rest of our luggage was already on and it is a security risk to send luggage without the passenger. It is then that I asked them to give some water to the cats, but I can't be sure they did (even though they said yes when I asked), as both were quite dehydrated when they arrived, so bring your own for cases like this. Fortunately it was very breezy that day so they did not overheat.  Overall, despite the water thing, I think the pet handling by Alitalia was done well in that they were prepared for occurrences like ours.

The cats arrived a bit late, but they seemed to have made the nearly 24 hour trek almost unscathed (thirst notwithstanding). The customs passage went well, as the guard finally found which vaccination certificate he liked best and let them through. Both cats had some sort of jet-lag that lasted about 3 weeks (I guess it included adjusting to the new place which is a lot louder than living in rural Vermont). They seem happy now. They have shed a lot, and they seem to be getting accustomed to afternoon naps. And morning naps.

In summary: when transporting cats from the US yourself

  • make sure you know the latest security news and protocols (; be firm when the agents ask you to do stuff that would be bad for your pet. They do back down.
  • have bottled water for them and a low-spill container
  • travel in spring or fall
  • needless to say, have them have all the shots and microchips
  • make sure *all* aircrafts you will be boarding have pressurized pet cabins
  • bring familiar toys/foods with you in the carry on bags for when they arrive if you can. Old smells do make a difference.

Additional grooming information: if you are moving cats from a cold place (like Vermont) to a hot place (like Sicily) your cats *will* shed a mountain of fur, regardless of the season. Make sure you take their comb or brush with you in the carryon. Or else make sure you know where the nearest pet store is. Ours is just around the corner.


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