Our move to Portugal entailed a lot of decisions, but some were easier than others. Such was the case with our cat Dali, who we felt needed to make the journey along with us. Here’s what we learned along the way.
A good place to start is PetTravel.com. They’re pretty much a one-stop resource for current information on moving your pet overseas and they also offer a variety of related services and supplies. If you’re in the U.S., the other site you should consult is the United States Department of Agriculture’s website which covers all the requirements for transporting a pet from America to a foreign country. Of course, the regulations vary whether you’re transporting a cat, a dog, or some other type of animal.
We had two options on how to move Dali from the U.S. to Portugal: We could either do it ourselves, or hire a professional pet transporter to do the deed. Since Dali isn’t the most trusting of cats—before we adopted her she spent time in an animal shelter and didn’t tolerate that well—we knew it would be wise to have one of us do the actual transfer. She’s most mellow with Harold, so he was designated as “cat wrangler” which meant his name and personal details would be on the official paperwork. Unlike larger animals, Dali is only eight pounds so she could travel in the cabin on most airlines, avoiding the extra stress of being in the cargo hold.
Not all airlines allow animals in the cabin, and if they do, they have size restrictions. (These restrictions probably don’t apply to service animals, but please don’t try to claim your pet as one unless it is certified as such). There are certain countries (looking at you United Kingdom) that do not allow pets in cabins on any flight landing at their airports. Cargo only. So, flying through London, for instance, wasn’t an option. Complicating the issue, Atlanta may have the world’s busiest airport, but there are no direct flights to Porto. So, we decided to use Portugal’s national airline, TAP, as they allow animals in their cabins.
To save having an additional flight from Lisbon to Porto, or taking the train (a roughly 2-1/2 hour journey), we connected through Newark. Let’s be honest, Newark is not the most exciting, or modern, airport in the world, but it did get Harold lined up for a straight shot into Porto to reduce the transit time by a few hours.
This plan limited our options as there was only one Newark-Porto flight per day, and only on Tuesdays and Fridays. United Airlines code shared this flight with TAP so the first leg (Atlanta to Newark) was on one of their planes. That meant we had to book the cat on two separate flights (calling each airline to do so) even though that entire trip was on one booking/ticket.
Also, United’s carrier size requirements were roomier than TAP’s, which seemed a bit small. However, in case TAP was going to be sticklers about that, we opted for the smaller size. No surprise, Dali was not amused. The carrier size is important as most airlines require your animal to be under the seat in front of you during the flight. Usually the flight attendants are pretty chill about that and you can have the carrier on your lap during most of the flight, but don’t count on that. In contrast, Jana saw two dogs on their owners’ laps during the entire flight from Newark to Porto, but those pets were incredibly well behaved.
Patience is the order of the day when booking your pet a “seat”. Not only do you spend a lot of time on Hold listening to what could be a bad rendition of a Gershwin song, but there’s a fair amount of logistics. It took Harold well over two hours to work back and forth between United and TAP, ensuring that Dali had a place on both flights. Also, there will be additional charges for her “seat”, though sadly Dali wouldn’t qualify for an inflight meal. Also, be aware that airlines limit how many critters per flight, so you may have to change dates as needed.
At this point you need to get your own veterinarian involved, providing he or she is familiar with the official documentation required. If not, use one who is because there is no room for error in this process. Everything must be perfect, or your pet will not be allowed in the country, but placed in quarantine while you get all that sorted out.
Between our immigration attorney in Lisbon and our vet in the US, we wound our way through the needed formalities. As per the USDA guidelines, Dali would require a rabies vaccination and a microchip plus a health assessment, in THAT exact order. Dali already had one microchip, but apparently it wasn’t EU compliant, so she had a new one inserted. Once the new chip was in, the rabies shot was administered, and she was given a quick physical.
Just to confuse issues, there are two veterinarians involved in this process – yours and the one in Portugal who will see your animal when you arrive. Our lawyer served as the go-between with that second vet, verifying that the paperwork was correct.
It is now we hit a big snag: The Portuguese veterinarian requested a rabies titer test, a process not needed for a pet coming from the U.S. This was a major problem as the test itself takes over thirty days to process and we didn’t have that amount of time left before we were scheduled to fly to Porto. We called our vet, who said there was no way the rabies titer was needed. After passing that info onto our lawyer, she got that sorted out and we heaved a huge sigh of relief. Our lawyer also scheduled having Dali meet with the Porto vet upon arrival at the airport. Note: this meeting must be scheduled in advance.
Also, your pet must be seen (yet again) by your own vet within ten days of the trip to verify the animal is still healthy. Once that was accomplished, we collected the physical copies of the paperwork and then drove those documents to the USDA office in Conyers, Georgia to receive the final stamps and authorizations. Which, except for the lengthy drive, was a relatively painless. All that paperwork, plus the details about the microchip were put in a plastic file folder to accompany the cat as she made her across the Atlantic journey.
Our next post will discuss the actual trip, what Harold encountered at the airlines, what it was like to have the cat “processed” at the airport in Porto, and what other follow-up visits are required.
Harold is a former software engineer. Jana is an author. Together they're exploring their new life in Portugal.