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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Shipping Cats to Abu Dhabi

Mido & Tessa, NYC
Any fan of the Garfield cartoon will know that there is a bit of irony in transporting your cats to Abu Dhabi. The place is full of them. On the upside, they don’t seem to be very mangy and there’s also a sub-culture of folks who look out for them (more on that in the next post). The downside is that if you’re not careful, you’ll have a houseful of forlorn kitties in no time.  As one shop owner said to John and me as we passed his shop and rubbed one homeless kitties’ ear, “You want? Take. Cats are free here.”

To start, I’m not ashamed to admit that Mido (our orange fella) and Tessa (our tuxedo gal) are really like our children. I never thought this way about pets before, and often looked at friends who would make that comment like they were a bit weird. But we love these kitties with all our hearts. When the opportunity arose for Abu Dhabi, transporting the cats was one of the things that kept weighing on me. Was putting the Mido and Tessa through transport worth the risk? Is it morally/ethically okay? Is it in their best interest?

For Mido, who has been with us since he was eight weeks old, it was a no-brainer. He’s happiest around John and me and leaving him behind would be far more traumatic to him that the flight. For Tessa, I wasn’t sure what was best. She loves sitting on our porch at home, watching the birds, getting nose to nose through the screen windows with the deer and just generally being as close to nature without having to use any survival skills of her own.  She wouldn’t have that in Abu Dhabi (at least not at first). Her backstory is that she showed up on our doorstep with fleas, ticks, worms… kind of on her last legs. After a visit to the vet and a night with us we invited her into our posse, and she accepted – on her own terms, of course!

There is a lot of great information about transporting pets to Abu Dhabi, and pretty much any place around the world. There’s also a lot of stuff on the internet that will make your heart sink about the transport of animals, especially to warm climates and such. We’ve all heard the stories about hot tarmacs, pets getting loose through TSA security checks and such, and like anyone, I was really concerned. Sure, there are horror stories, but for all the pets that get transported around the world, day in and out, the statistics are strongly in the pet's favor.

Of course, that’s me talking now that the cats have arrived. But holy hell, people, I lost sleep, found myself in tears and even tossing my cookies as the day approached to ship them. I think in the end, the cats were calming *me* down, sensing something big was about to happen to them/us as the apartment in NYC emptied out, John was AWOL and my stress pheromones were probably off the charts. At one point, I even considered contacting a pet communicator, who could perhaps inform Mido and Tessa of what was going to happen. 

Yeah, cat lady crazy talk, I know.  
"Break out the calming treats, Mom's acting weird!"
Anyway, rather than go through the steps that are clearly outlined in many blogs and through American Veterinary Clinic (the company we used and had a very positive experience with in helping us on the Abu Dhabi side of things, and really, coaching us through the US side as well), I'll just go through some of the other bits that seem to be left out in other places, and might help another pet owner along the line.
    First off, we didn’t use a professional shipper from the States. The cost was bordering on obscene and some of the shippers we looked into either didn’t respond to us, got snarky with our questions, and also were pretty adamant (read: non-negotiable) that we should ship our pets using KLM through Amsterdam, making our cats go through two flights, putting them through a layover (in a ‘pet hotel’) and then on to Abu Dhabi. For us, especially with our one cat (who spits and hisses at the vet), we thought it would safer to fly direct, non-stop, despite the long trip.

The paperwork isn’t as scary as you think. For shipping from the United States, the steps go like this:

- Get the cat’s shots and check-ups done as soon as you think you might be moving to Abu Dhabi. They need to have their rabies shots up to date and I believe, no sooner than 30 day prior to arriving in the UAE.

- After you have the vet paperwork, you apply for a UAE Pet Animals Import Permit.
This is only good for 30 days, so you need to keep your eye the calendar. For John and I, we basically decided on a target date for the cat's travel and from there, began the paperwork around it. Again, we used American Vet for this and they were great.

- Once the Pet Permit is provided by the UAE, it’s time to check in with your air carrier. For us, it was Etihad and we began the paperwork with them for shipping just about two weeks out from the cat’s targeted flight date.

- With the verbal okay that there was space with Etihad, it was time to get the cats their second round of vet checks. This needs to be done within ten days of their flying and is signed off on APHIS Form 7001 which basically is a statement saying the cats were in good health, are micro-chipped and don’t have rabies.

- From there, I took the form straight out the USDA Vet at JFK Airport to get signed and notarized. I thought this was going to be a minefield of problems. Would I be able to find the place? (Answer: Yes. The google map location is very accurate). Would this be a long line like going to the DMV or getting a passport? (Answer: No. It took me ten minutes and the people are friendly, helpful and clearly animal lovers given how the offices are decorated with photos and drawings of horses, dogs, birds, cats and other animals and wildlife).

- After that, it was time to finalize details with Etihad and get the kennels. John and I decided we’d opt for slightly larger crates for the cats, so that we could fit in a litter tray. That was the $1,000 mistake. I bought crates that could fit a medium sized dog and when the costs were finalized with Etihad, it was only then that we learned that we pay on volume, not weight, for cargo. Cha-Ching! But we were out of time on that front. I had more breaking down of apartment/house to do and couldn’t go out and rent a car for another day to get smaller kennels. Also, I recommend PetMate products for air travel. They seem sturdier (especially in terms of the locks and such) and are also IATA compliant (need to make sure that there are vents in the rear of your carrier, among other things).

- With the back and forth of paperwork with Etihad, I was also informed that we would have to pay with cash or check. Personal check was fine, but credit cards were not accepted. So make sure you have the cold hard cash handy, folks!

- Finally, with these two giant crates, I ended up hiring a Pet Taxi to get us all out to the airport. Another option would have been to rent an SUV on my own, but I was so stressed, I was afraid to drive. Then I worried and worried and worried that the Pet Taxi wouldn’t show up. Or that it wouldn’t be big enough for the crates. When the Pet Taxi lady showed up, I started crying (with joy). It was a mini van with the seats taken out of the back… plenty of room for all of us!  They also waited for me as I finalized the paperwork.

- Once we got to the cargo area, I was introduced to the Cargo Terminal foreman, who told me he was a pet owner and animal lover and that he would be personally seeing to it that the cats were boarded and everything set with the pilots (cabin climate control, etc.) It helped that he also told me he is responsible for shipping live cornea to/from the UAE. I mean, if you have to handle that, then two little kitties are a piece of cake! RELIEF!

They let me hang out in the cargo area with the cats for a bit, but then it was time to go…

From what I’ve read online, the cargo area is dimly lit (not completely dark!) and definitely climate controlled, with pressurized air, etc.

Once in Abu Dhabi, John got word from AmVet that the kitties were deplaning. He went out to meet them. There, they waited for the UAE Vet at the airport to inspect the cats and make sure the microchips matched up. 

"You call this Business Class!?"
Mido, of course, hissed. So John helped a bit in holding him and such. The process was very quick (barring an apparent falcon emergency) and AmVet transported the kitties and John back to their new digs.

Tessa enjoys her sun and view of the Corniche
I think that might have been the toughest seventeen hours of my life, but the cats are settling in. They definitely looked a bit worse for wear even a week after I arrived -- a little tired and a bit skinnier (due to the fact that they don’t have their favorite Fancy Feast flavors and other pet food varieties here). 

Mido, one chillaxed kitten
But I think it's going to be okay. 

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