Hello! So, for anyone who doesn't know, I recently (about 3 months ago) made a pretty big move from western Canada to Slovakia. I did this in order to attend veterinary school in Košice. Now, doing a big move across the world is difficult at the best of times, but what made it exponentially more stressful (apart from COVID) for me was my little cat, Bee. I adopted her in Canada after being her foster and consequently falling in love over the course of a few hours, and there was no way I was leaving her behind. So, after months of planning, research, stress, and vet visits, Bee and I got on our (3) planes and travelled, quite seamlessly, from Canada (through Germany, and Austria) to Slovakia.
This was one of the most stressful thing I've ever done, and I wanted to offer some sage advice to anyone who might be going through this in the near future. Perhaps I can help ease your mind a bit so you aren't on the verge of tears for weeks prior, like I was.
Firstly, a couple disclaimers here: I'm not a professional in any way (yet, lol) and my advice should probably not be taken entirely to heart. I can only attest to making the journey from Canada to Europe (and presumably vice versa) which has been made easier in the last few years. This advice, however, will also apply to those travelling with small dogs (in cabin) or ferrets, but NOT other pets. Furthermore, your cat might be different, your circumstances might be different, and it's important you weigh your options carefully before making this decision.
For example, you should consider things such as breed, age, general health and personality. At the end of the day, you want to do what's best for the animal. For a lot of cats, that will be going with their owner: but for some that won't be the case. For example, any cat breeds that are brachycephalic/snub nosed should not travel: not only will it be very uncomfortable for them, but it could even be dangerous. A lot of airlines won't even accept them on board. Cats with this condition include Persians and Himalayans. You should talk to your vet and research to see if this could be potentially dangerous for your cat. Also, some cats just won't travel well. Travelling is stressful on the cats psyche and body: so very old or frail cats probably won't handle it very well, and if your cat is exceptionally stressful (to the point that it could get aggressive) it may not be a great idea to travel with it. Remember, you WILL have to remove your cat from its carrier and carry it through security. When I did this, there was also a huge dog in front of us that started barking at my cat. You have to be confident that if something like that happens, your cat will not go insane and claw its way from you. There is only so much that Feliway can do (more on that later).
I can appreciate that thinking about leaving your pet behind can be heartbreaking: but if finding a lovely new home for your pet is safer and healthier for it than trying to undergo the task of moving, your cat will absolutely forgive you for this. I'm not going to lie, I even considered it. Bee was a really stressy little cat when I first got her as she was previously a stray, and I was so scared that she'd have a heart attack or something on the journey. But eventually I weighed my options and decided that she would be happier coming with me. Only you can make this decision for you and your cat! Trust yourself to make the right one. More on that later.
Now, onto a list of advice for this arduous process! You can do it!
1. START THE PROCESS EARLY
I mean, 6 months early, if possible. I originally was planning to move in May or June (COVID made it so I could only move in August) and my first vet visit where I mentioned my moving plans was at the start of January. It was during her yearly vet visit, and I thought I'd mention it. My vet immediately told me to start doing all my research as soon as possible.
Apparently, a lot of people start like... a week before they move to make pet arrangements. This leads to stress for them, stress for the animal, and is just not great. You want to be as organised and planned as possible, so that you can try to keep a calm energy around your cat. Regarding organisation...
2. KEEP A FOLDER WITH EVERYTHING YOU NEED, INCLUDING DOUBLES OF ALL FORMS AND DUE DATES
You're going to go insane if you don't know where everything is. I didn't do this until the last minute, so learn from my mistakes: have a folder with EVERYTHING you might need in it, from the second you start planning your pet's journey. Every form you happen across in your research: print 2 of them (seriously. have doubles of EVERY file) and put them in the file. Every booking, reservation, receipt: put it in the file. Heck, write out your checklists, print out this page, anything regarding your pet's move: THE FILE.
3. IF YOU DON'T THINK YOU NEED A FORM, TAKE IT ANYWAY
Kind of like the above point of always having doubles... NEVER assume you don't need a form for any sort of appointment or visit, or the journey itself. Have everything: vaccination records and receipts, dates of any procedures your pet has done, etc etc. It can't hurt to have it and it can save a lot of stress and hassle.
4. FIND A VET EXPERIENCED WITH EXPORTING PETS
This is a big one that made my planning way easier, and it doesn't necessarily have to be THE vet. My vet had a veterinary technician at the practise who was practically an expert at pet exports from Canada. I had done my own research, but when I went in to meet her she reaffirmed everything I knew and busted some myths for me. She was able to reassure me that everything would be ok, that they'd done it a million times, and make sure I had all the correct paperwork at that final appointment. She gave me numbers for the export vet (you have to go to a special government vet to get forms from your vet signed) and made sure I had everything I needed.
I would probably have been ok without it, but oh my GOD was it nice to have that backup and reassurance.
5. FELIWAY FELIWAY FELIWAY
*COUGH COUGH* Feliway should absolutely sponsor me..... *COUGH* please???
But anyway, my point being is that I love Feliway, and it was definitely helpful in keeping Bee calm before and during the journey. It's an anti anxiety spray for cats, and it works using pheromones. Start using it a week before (they have air diffusers you can plug into an outlet, but I just got a spray bottle and gently sprayed my cat's favourite sleeping spots, and the travel container, every few days) to help your cat stay calmer during the moving process.
Also please remember, that the most stressful time for your cat may not just be the journey and flight: it will probably be when you're packing all your bags and packing up your house/apartment. Their territory is being all messed up and that will upset them hugely. I was so stressed about the actual journey I didn't really think about how stressful the moving preparation was for Bee: and that turned out to be when she was the most stressed and upset. Be kind and careful with your cat during that time, and make sure they always have a place to hide (where, naturally, you have sprayed feliway).
Start desensitising your cat early so you can make it a slow and natural process. Make sure they start getting used to pee pads, their travel water and food bowls, their travel container, their travel litter box... etc etc. The more safe and comfortable they feel with all of these things, the better the journey will go. Encourage them to spend time in the open container, after washing the interior with a load of your laundry (so it smells like you, and then smells like them).
You can also play (soft, then a bit louder) airplane noises on your computer, so your cat gets used to the noises. It's obviously not the real thing but it might help them be more at ease during the journey.
Another thing to do is get your cat used to a harness (not just a collar! A secure, comfortable harness) and going for drives in the car. Likely you will do some driving at least (I ended up doing around 8 hours of it over the course of the journey) and the more comfortable your cat is in a car, the easier that will be.
7. EXTRA FOOD AND LITTER
Take enough tinned food and dry food, or whatever food your cat is on and likes, with you to last a few weeks: at least enough to wean your cat off that food brand and onto something you can find in your new home. The brand of wet food I was using in Canada is not sold in Slovakia, so this was important to help Bee get used to the new tinned food I was feeding her. You never want to make sudden diet changes, so this is a crucial step. If you don't want to take it with you, you could order some of the food online to your new residence for the same purpose.
This also goes for litter: I knew I wouldn't be able to find the litter I used in Canada in Slovakia. So I took a large ziplock container of litter with me, in order to use while weaning Bee off of it. It really helped her to comfortably use the litter box and eat when we arrived.
8. BREATHE AND DON'T WORRY SO MUCH
Cats are incredibly susceptible to their humans' emotions. It is a myth that they do not connect with people like dogs do. They can sense energies and can be very empathetic to them. You need to make this process as calm and easy as possible for your little friend, so take a deep breath when you start getting really stressed. stay as positive and calm as possible, and your cat will feed off that energy and be calm as well.
9. TRUST YOURSELF
No matter who you are, or what you're doing; someone along the way is going to make an unwelcome comment about you moving your cat, whether it is intentional or not. I was not prepared for this and it greatly upset me sometimes. I had 2 people (complete strangers) during my journey tell me that they "would never do that to their cat". I had similar comments from my peers when I started at vet school and told a few people that I had moved my cat from Canada.
Here's the thing: this is not an inherently cruel thing to put a cat through. Maybe some people have a different opinion, but that's mine. It's not. As long as you have prepared, weighed your options, your cat is healthy, and you care about them, it is absolutely fine (and in many cases the right choice) to take your cat with you. Do NOT feel guilty about it. You made a commitment to your cat when you became its owner to stick by it and look after it. Sure, for some cats, travel is off the table, and for them, you do what's right. But for most, travel is a stressful few days (same as it is for us!) where at the end, they get to settle again with someone they know, trust and love.
I was guilty about what I was supposedly "putting Bee through". I worried she would resent me or hide when we arrived and never come out. That is not what happened. She was quiet and calm the whole journey. She sat on my lap cleaning herself and looking out the window while we drove. And when we arrived, she settled almost immediately, and slept in bed with me the first night. You cat will surprise you, and it will be ok, Trust yourself that this was the right choice, give your cat everything it needs, and then suddenly the whole thing will be over and you will get to be happy in your new home with your darling little angel.
Bee during the journey: in Munich, Vienna, and the hotel in Vancouver!
Well, that's my two cents on the whole thing. It's a stressful undertaking, but it is far from impossible and ended up being WAY easier than I thought. I'm not going into technicalities and logistics here because all that information is very freely available online and differs from country to country, but if anyone needs some more advice, feel free to contact me with any questions :)
Tiny school update: it is going well! I can't believe we're over halfway through the first semester (1/24 of the way through vet school, hooray! haha) and I've somehow managed to survive the credit tests and everything being online, so far. Still enjoying it and learning so much every day.
I hope everyone is well and having a good week so far. Kiss your cats for me!
Z & B