Pounding Hearts and Butterflies: The Woes of Pet Travel

I received a message this morning from Camilla.  “Tomorrow its time for Moomkin’s export permit examination…fingers crossed!”  My heart jumped a bit and a few butterflies fluttered into my stomach.  One week from today, Moomkin and I will both be embarking on the journey of a lifetime: him from a Chinese shelter to the Frankfurt airport via a Lufthansa plane, and me from my home in England down to Germany via my trusted Subaru Forester and with the help of an entire seat full of sugary snacks.  It always makes me smile when I think of how two such separate journeys can still end up in the same place.

I’d like to say that my pounding heart and butterfly filled stomach were the from excitement about Moomkin’s imminent arrival, but the truth is, they were really the result of nerves and dread.  Anyone who has ever traveled internationally with a pet knows exactly what I am talking about.  Tomorrow’s examination may seem like a little thing in the great scheme of challenges we have already faced, but Camilla wasn’t being silly when she said “fingers crossed.”  Bringing an animal from the United States to England is its own mini-nightmare (I should know, I brought 8 pets with me when we moved), but bringing a dog from China?  It’s enough to make even an experienced pet shipper such as myself cringe.

When Will and I moved to England two years ago, we were known around our new base as that crazy military couple who brought eight, yes EIGHT, animals with them.  Aside from the exorbitant fees involved in flying animals overseas, how in the world had we navigated the confusing and, frankly, terrifying paperwork of the importation process.  Have you ever seen the requirements for importing a pet to England?  There’s all these foreign forms and special microchipping requirements, plus having to make sure your dog had this done before that was done, and within so many days before traveling.  And this is after they did away with the quarantine requirement!

It was an intimidating process.  Moving with the military is always chaotic, and moving with pets triples the anxiety.  In our case, not only were we moving a far greater then average number of animals, but we were traveling through Germany in order to do so.  The cost of bringing eight animals directly into England stretched far beyond our already thin budget, so we turned to other alternatives.  The military will allow two pets to fly with family into Rammstein, Germany.  We got lucky, and they had room for three, so we packed our two largest dogs, Syn and Nefsi, German Shepherds, into the cargo hold, and snuggled with Mead, one of our Ragdolls in our first class seats.  My incredible parents agreed to make the trip with us, and took the other five assorted animals on a commercial flight into Frankfurt.  To this day, I’m not sure they know how truly grateful I am to them.

The lead-up to the day our zoo flew to Germany was far smoother than what Moomkin has been through in China.  Here’s how the two processes compare:

  1. Our pets had already been properly vaccinated with Rabies vaccines as puppies and kittens, and did not require titer testing to ensure they were protected.  Moomkin, on the other hand, was vaccinated upon his arrival at the rescue.  He then waited 30 days before they tested is levels with the titer testing.  He failed that test, so he was revaccinated, waited another 30 days, and then retested yet again.  He passed that time, but it delayed his transportation date three whole months!
  2. When traveling from the United States, you only have to wait 30 days after a Rabies vaccination before you can enter England.  From China?  Three months of in-house quarantine.
  3. In both cases, pets must be microchipped with a 16-digit chip prior to receiving the corresponding Rabies vaccination.  We actually had more trouble with this than Moomkin has, as a few of our critters had the wrong types of microchips, and required both re-chipping AND revaccinating ($$$).  Mead, our exceedingly fluffy and loose skinned Ragdoll, kept “eating” his microchips.  In the ten days before he flew, he was re-chipped and revaccinated THREE separate times.  SIDE NOTE: When we arrived at the British border, they were unable to locate the microchip listed on his paperwork!  It took tears and proof of the other three chips floating somewhere around his body to persuade them to let him through!
  4. Approximately ten days before flying, we took our crew to get their USDA Health Certificates and British and German customs form completed by a military vet.  This includes a brief examination to ensure the animals are fit to fly, and in the case of the dogs, an additional tapeworm treatment required by British law.  The military vet was experienced and confident.  It took about one hour to get through all eight animals, get their paperwork stamped, and be on our way.  Tomorrow, Moomkin will undergo the equivalent.  The difference is that this examination is for both health certificates and his export permit.  The examination will be considerably more thorough.  At this late stage of the game, it is still possible that Moomkin may not receive approval to fly.  Hence the pounding heart and butterflies.
  5. We had to drop the animals flying commercially at the cargo hold four hours before departure.  The process was smooth; the United PetSafe has it down to a science.  Then we dropped my parents at the terminal with the other two cats.  Germany and United Airlines allow small animals to travel in the cabin with the passengers, a god send for us, as the cost was minimal.  Will and I then traveled with the Shepherds and Mead to the military contracted plane, where we enjoyed a comfortable flight.  Our pets traveled in standard flight kennels, with standard paperwork, and no hassle about breed restrictions.  For Moomkin, a special crate had to be built to accommodate his size.  Camilla recruited a flight volunteer to fly with Moomkin so that he could fly as checked baggage rather than cargo (much cheaper).  His paperwork has to be submitted in Chinese, German, and English to permit him to leave and enter each country.  His breed, while not on Germany’s restricted list, has an unfair reputation for being aggressive, and there are always concerns when shipping those animals.
  6. Our pets flew through German customs without a single problem.  We drove straight through to England, and aside from Mead’s microchip trauma, we didn’t face any issues.  Moomkin’s journey will be a little different.  Upon arriving in Germany, he will go through additional customs scrutiny due to his origination point in China.  Once he is safely with Olivia and I, he will require one, possibly two, additional veterinary visits to complete his British customs forms and health certificates.  He will also need a second tapeworm treatment, because it’s only good for five days, and he will be in Germany for seven.  For us, there will be pounding hearts and butterflies until he finally arrives safely in England.

It’s hard for me to imagine having to leave a pet behind because the costs are so steep and the paperwork so intimidating.  Unless you are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for a professional pet shipper, you are stuck navigating the entire process alone; there is no clear step-by-step resource available out there.  It breaks my heart when I attend welcome briefings on base each week, and hear the sadness in service members’ voices as they pet my dog and admit they had to leave theirs behind.  Pets are family too, and for many service members, they are the only constant in an environment that can change at a moment’s notice.  When Will and I started P.E.T. we hoped to change that for as many people as possible.  It never occurred to me that we would one day be using P.E.T. On-The-Go, the program we developed to meet that need, to save a dog in China.

Moomkin’s journey highlights that amazing things that people can do when they “just say maybe.”  Once upon a time, Will and I said maybe we can help other military members keep their pets with them, even when the military calls them far from home, and we rose to that challenge.  In a week, Will’s latest “maybe” will start his journey to a new life and home.  That’s a pretty powerful result for a maybe, imagine what other amazing things we can all do if we just say maybe!

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