Comprehensive Guide to Moving Abroad with Cats from USA to Europe

The second thought my husband and I had after I accepted a masters program in Germany was “How are we going to get the cats there?”. For us, it was never a question of if the cats would move to Europe with us, but how. We have two cats, Loki (age 6) and Odin (age 5), who we are pretty much obsessed with. We knew we couldn’t move to Germany without our little fur babies in tow, and thus began the grand journey of moving 2 cats and 2 humans from the United States to Europe!

The process of moving pets abroad is a long one that requires a lot of planning and organization. There are many steps and logistics involved, but if you set out an organized list from the beginning, it is totally manageable. The biggest considerations are the amount of time you need to get things in order and the cost. 

This guide is specific to moving US pets from the United States to Germany. As far as I know, the regulations are pretty consistent for the EU but make sure to check the APHIS website to confirm if there is any additional paperwork that you might need for your particular destination that isn’t required in Germany.

This is Everything You Need to Know About Moving Cats from the United States to Germany

Pre-Travel

Vaccinations, Micro Chips & Medication

Cats are required to have up-to-date vaccinations prior to moving to Germany. The required vaccinations vary based on which country you are going to, but almost all of them at least require a rabies vaccination. For Germany, that was the only vaccination that was required for the US-born cats, but we did need to disclose their full medical history paperwork, which included all of the vaccinations they received as kittens.

Related to vaccinations, all pets moving to the EU must have an EU-compliant microchip which is 10 digits long. If your cat was born after 2015-2016, they probably already have this type of microchip because it is now pretty standard. However, if they are older or don’t have that type of chip, they will need to get a new one. Make sure to time this properly because the microchip ALWAYS needs to be implanted before their rabies vaccine is issued. 

You might also want to discuss anti-anxiety medication with your veterinarian at this point. The travel experience is very stressful for cats, and some of them really act out, which is why most vets recommend a mild sedative + anti-anxiety medication for cats moving abroad. We were really hesitant to give these to our cats, and we tried some other options first such as pet-safe CBD oils. Unfortunately, those weren’t very effective and we wound up going with the pills. The vet prescribed us enough 10mg Gabapentin pills to cover 36 hours as well as an extra dose to test the effects on Loki and Odin before our flight day. After experiencing the cat-in-flight adventure, I am really glad that we went with the pills — more on that below. 

Paperwork

The most important paperwork you’ll need when moving pets from the US to Germany is called an EU Health Certificate. This is something you’ll fill out with your veterinarian and it is basically just a form stating that your pet is healthy and able to travel to your new country. The form will also include important information like the microchip ID number and vaccination history. 

Once you have this form completed, you will then need to have it signed by an APHIS Veterinary Medical Officer. You’ll need to send this form to the APHIS office via post or make an appointment at your local office. The timing on this form is the most challenging part, because it needs to be an original blue ink signature (can’t be emailed) and it MUST be completed WITHIN 10 days of departure. I recommend scheduling this appointment early so you know it will fit with your travel schedule and timeline. 

Booking Flights

A majority of airlines have a minimum weight requirement for pets to go in the bulk storage below (usually 10kg) and cats almost always will be required to fly in-cabin. As such, you will need to purchase a “ticket” for them at an additional cost. The pet fees range anywhere from $95-$350 depending on the airlines, and this information can usually be found on the excess bag fee pages of the airlines’ website. 

For most airlines, there is a limit on the number of animals they allow in the cabin per flight and the pets are registered on a first-come, first-serve basis. As such, I would recommend being a little bit flexible with your flight dates because your desired date might be full by the time you’re ready to book. In order to make sure that you are able to bring your pets along with you before purchasing your ticket, it is easier to call in and book your pet and human flight tickets over the phone at the same time. 

By speaking directly with a booking agent you can ensure that there will be room for your pets on the flight with you. We wound up having to book our third choice date because there were already too many pets registered on the flight with our 1st and 2nd choice dates. We flew with Turkish Airlines and once we registered the pets with our flight, I didn’t receive any kind of paperwork or confirmation that they were confirmed. As such, I called back several times in the weeks before our flight to make sure and everything was fine. Just wanted to be extra prepared! 

What is the Timing?

You’ll want to get a good head start on this paperwork before the flight. We started as soon as our move was confirmed, which was about 2 months before our departure date. The flights are another big logistic that you’ll want to get organized as early as possible. 

Regarding the official deadlines, if your pet needs an initial rabies vaccination, there is a 21 day waiting period you must observe before the EU health certificate can be completed. The health certificate must also be completed within 10 days of your arrival to the destination country. In other words, you’ll want to have your appointments with the Vet and the APHIS office made in advance to make sure you fulfil the time requirements.

How Do You Carry the Cats? (Types of carriers, etc) 

You’ll need soft mesh carriers to carry your cats on board the aircraft with you. Check with the airline for size requirements because they will be going underneath the seat in front of you. Thankfully, there are lots of options for carriers available online! I would recommend getting one with a pocket on it, and bonus if you can fit the one with the expandable sides. These are especially if you are connecting or have a layover to give you little buddies extra room to stretch out.

Pro Tip — Trim your cat’s nails before putting them into the carrier or getting on the plane. One of our cats, Loki, was so stressed out during the flight that he started shredding the soft mesh of the carrier in a desperate escape attempt. He managed to rip a hole so big that his head and shoulders were out of the carrier before we noticed it! NOT ideal. 

Day of Travel

Getting the Cats Ready to Fly

On the morning/afternoon of your flight, you will want to limit the amount of water and food that you give your cats to avoid any in-flight accidents. We fed them their normal wet food the previous night and took away their dry food bowls about 4 hours before we left for the airport. Keep the litter box out until the absolute last minute. 

If you are administering a pill to your cat(s), I would recommend doing this for the first time before you put them in the carrier. The pills we had lasted about 6 hours, so we knew we would need to re-administer pills a couple of times. But at least this way, they would feel the relaxing effects during the security and check-in process.

Airport Arrival + Checking In 

Definitely get to the airport quite early. We arrived about 3 hours before our scheduled departure time just to make sure that everything ran smoothly. You will proceed through the airline check in line as normal, and once you are at the counter, you will turn over all of your pet paperwork and vaccination records. The airline staff will likely make a copy of it and weigh the pets. The check-in process took about 30 minutes for us in total, between the pets and the various bags we had. If you haven’t paid your fees for carrying on your pets, you will pay this at the airport. If you are extra nice to the check-in attendant, they might even put you next to an empty seat like they did for us–this was amazing because we could put one carrier on the seat and the other on the ground between us and still have our leg room!

Going Through Security 

I would not say that TSA agents are super accustomed to dealing with cats in security, and this part of the airport experience was the most confusing and stressful. We had to declare the cats to TSA, and then the TSA agents argued about what to do while we stood in line waiting to be helped. After a few minutes, they explained that TSA regulations state that cats must be taken out of their carriers and any harnesses in order to be cleared for security. 

As such, this part of the airport process can be a bit of a hassle as we had to take our cats out of their carriers and walk them through the metal detectors in our arms while the carriers went through the x-ray machine. Our one cat, Odin, is very shy and prone to bolting and hiding, so we requested a closed examination room to do the security screening. We did not want to go chasing a cat through O’Hare Airport! Similar to the check-in process, this experience took about 20-30 minutes to sort out.

Treats + Medicine in the Plane

The 6-8 hours of flight time is stressful for the cats, with all the strange noises, smells and pressure. To try and keep them as calm as possible, it is good to have their favorite treats handy. We gave them a couple of treats every hour or so. You don’t have to worry about most cats pooping during the flight — they typically constipate themselves from stress so the treats aren’t likely to make them go to the bathroom. 

You’ll also want to have any medication for your cats close at hand. As I mentioned in the vaccinations section, most vets recommend a mild sedative and anti-anxiety medication for long-haul flights. Once the initial pill we gave them wore off, both of our cats got very agitated. Loki started ripping through the mesh of his carrier and meowing extremely loudly while Odin was vigorously turning around in circles in his carrier. It was hard for us to see them so stressed, so we decided to give each cat another dose of their medication about half way through the flight.

If they are getting really restless, you can take them into the bathroom and let them out of their carrier for a little while. We did this for both of our cats. They walked around a bit and I put a pee pad out in case they needed to use the bathroom (they didn’t). Keep a close eye on them though! Odin, our scaredy cat, tried to pry off a panel in the bathroom to hide. Thankfully I caught him and put him back into his carrier before he climbed into the airplane abyss.  

Layovers + Connections

Having gone through the layover process, I would definitely recommend trying to avoid these if you can. Spring for the extra cost of a direct flight if it is available, because it would definitely be worth it to spend a little extra money to eliminate any extra time from the journey. Less time in transit is less time your pet is cooped up in a small carrier. I’m sure they’ll be thankful for any less time you force them in there. 

If you do have a connection or a longer layover, one thing you can do is find a family restroom and let your pet out in there for a while to stretch their legs for a longer period of time. You’ll also want to give them some water at this point. They will definitely be thirsty after all the altitude and dry airplane air. Our boys finished an entire bowl! If you have issues getting your pet into the carrier as is, it may not be worth the hassle. This is also a good time to re-administer pills if needed.

Expect A Lot of Attention

This is something I was totally unprepared for, but it was one of the few things that made our traveling with cats experience pleasant — people love cats and they get really doe-eyed when they see them in the airport. We had multiple people smiling at us or coming up to talk to us when they saw we had cats. One guy sat next to us for like 15 minutes cooing and talking to Loki trying to calm him down. It was so sweet! We even made our first expat friends at the airport. They were an American couple who had moved to Berlin with cats a year earlier, and they were giving us tons of great advice about life in Germany and making us feel much more comfortable with the process of moving our little family abroad. 

Packing List for the Flight

      • LEGAL PAPERWORK — most important 
      • Mesh carrier w/ soft blanket inside
      • Small blanket to cover the carrier (lowers stress on the cat)
      • Collapsible water bowl
      • Favorite treats
      • Bag of dry food
      • Medication & Pills
      • 2-4 Pee Pads
      • Pet-safe Wet Wipes (in case of accidents)
      • Zip Ties (useful for closing the zippers and any rips in the mesh)

Arrival in Your Destination

Customs Declaration

Once you deboard the plane and collect your checked baggage, you will proceed through the customs area. This is where you will need to declare your pets, so you’ll want to have your documents, including the EU Health certificate, ready. For us, the customs experience was super relaxed. They glanced over the paperwork for a few seconds, peeked into the carriers, and then waved us through.

Supplies at Apartment/AirBnb on Arrival

Having a seamless transition to a new apartment starts with having the right supplies. Ideally you’ll want to get any pet supplies, such as food, litter boxes, water fountains, etc as soon as possible to make the transition to the new home as smooth as possible. Litter boxes are especially important, as the cats will be ready to go to the bathroom after all of that travel time. We asked our landlord to purchase a litter box and bag of litter ahead of time, and it was ready and waiting for our cats when we arrived. We just paid him back in our first rent payment, and this was absolutely perfect, because both cats used the box within the first 15 minutes of us arriving. I’ve heard of other people backing a small bag of litter in their checked bag and using a lasagna tin to collect it. 

Getting The Cat(s) Adjusted

New Sleep Schedule

Guess who else feels jetlag? CATS! Just like you, your fur babies will have to adjust their waking and sleeping behavior to match the new timezone. Cats tend to sleep during daylight hours anyway but they will be especially sleepy the first few days. It probably took our cats about 4-5 days to adjust to the new timezone, and we had a few 3am meowing wake up calls before they got used to the new flow.

Comforts from Home

I would strongly recommend making room in your bags for a few of your cat’’s favorite things, such as a pillow or blanket or pet bed if you are able to. Don’t wash them! The familiar smell will bring your cat a lot of comfort, because it helps to remind them of their home while in a new space. This can also help speed up the adjustment process. Having these creature comforts from the start will help put your cats at ease. We brought all of their toys along, as well as their favorite blanket and our bed sheets.

Adjusting to New Food

The last thing you’ll want your cat to adjust to along with a new home is new food. Bring 3-5 days worth of dry food with you from the US, so that they can eat something familiar while you figure out where the nearest pet stores are and what brands they might like. If you have picky eaters, you may have to go through some trial and error to find new food they like, so being able to supplement that with their familiar food is helpful. 

Patience

Patience, young Padawan. Things are not easy for anyone when coming off a big move, but this is especially true for creatures of place like cats. Throwing them into an entirely new environment after a very stressful experience is a lot! Have patience with your pets as they learn the new way of life. They’re adjusting to a new country just as you are. 

You might discover some surprising behavior changes in the adjustment process. We were prepared for our cat Odin to have a really hard time adjusting, while we expected Loki to adjust quickly. It wound up being almost the total opposite! Odin adjusted almost immediately, and actually seemed to like our apartment in Germany much better than Chicago. He was visibly less scared and anxious, and he even started gaining weight! Loki on the other hand took a lot longer to like our new life in Germany. He was meowing throughout the night and seemed quite agitated for a few months. We tried our best to keep our home routines mostly the same to ease the adjustment, but it can take a long time. Be kind to your cats and to yourself — everyone will get there eventually.

How Much Does It Cost to Move Cats Abroad?

I’m not going to sugarcoat it — moving pets abroad is an expensive endeavor. Between the vet visits, vaccinations, flight fees, and new supplies, the costs can add up. The biggest variation in price is going to be the cost of the airlines fees, so spend a lot of time researching this. One of the main reasons we chose Turkish Airlines was the cost of the 2 tickets for us and 2 tickets for them was still cheaper than the direct flight. 

In total, we spent about $700 to move our cats to Germany from the US. It was $170/cat on Turkish Airlines ($340 total), another $170 for vet visits + vaccinations, and then approximately $200 to replace their various cat supplies like the litter boxes, scratch posts, water fountain, etc. 

Do you have questions about moving cats to Europe from the USA? Comment below and I can help!

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