How to travel to Italy with pets (dogs, cats etc.)

Our members tell us how to bring pets to Italy from America or Europe, with or without the service of a pet carrier.

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Option 1: transporting pets with pet carriers

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Moving countries is never a simple matter. Moving countries with your beloved pet(s) can be a bit more complicated. In November 2003 I moved from the Netherlands to Indonesia and brought my two cats with me. In October 2004, I made another move to Italy because of my husband's work and the cats came along with us. From my experience, making sure well in advance that vaccinations and travel documents are in order help reduce the worries of traveling with pets.

Health documents

Make sure your pet's vaccination is up to date. Our vet in the Netherlands issued a EU Pet Passport for our cats prior to our departure to Indonesia. This passport contains vaccination records and health check ups for the cats. Please note that rules for traveling with pets differ from each country. In April 2004, when we began the preparation for our move to Italy, our vet in Jakarta informed us about the new European regulations for the movements of pets within the EU and from third countries (this new regulation took place in July 3, 2004), which means that before traveling, pets must be:

  1. identified by a microchip
  2. vaccinated against rabies
  3. blood tested at an EU approved laboratory

The microchip and the vaccination must be accompanied by a certificate issued by a vet — some countries stipulate that this certificate should not be more than 2 days old, other countries stipulate a term of 8 days — or, if re-entering the EU, by a EU pet passport certifying compliance with the above conditions. The 3-month period referred to above does not apply to the re-entry of a pet animal whose passport certifies that a satisfactory blood test was carried out at a EU approved laboratory before the animal left a EU country.

The blood sample must be taken at least 30 days after vaccination and 3 months before the animal travels to a EU country. The blood test result must show that the rabies neutralizing antibody titer was equal to or greater than 0.5 IU/ml. The blood test for our cats was sent to a lab in Scotland since no such laboratory was available in Indonesia.

Additional information about European Union regulations may be found in the Italian consulate in New York City webpage about temporary import of pets.

Important reminder: always see to matters such as vaccinations and travel documents well in advance. Bear in mind that some countries impose strict quarantine regulations on every animal that enters the country.

Travel arrangements

Some airlines will allow you to bring pets in the cabin, however on some international routes this is not possible. In this case, your pet must go into temperature-controlled holds in the aircraft. On our move from the Netherlands to Indonesia, the cats travelled in the temperature-controlled holds of KLM (Amsterdam-Jakarta) and for the move from Indonesia to Italy, they travelled on Malaysian Airline (Jakarta-Rome). You can have the option to transport your pet as checked in luggage (on the same flight) or to transport them on separate flights. From my previous experience of moving countries, transporting the pets on a separate flight was the best way to not have to deal with luggage, jet lag and the confusion on where to go to pick up the pets in a new airport all at the same time. Knowing that the cats have gone through a long flight, I also want to be alert and ready to deal with any surprises. For our moves with the cats, I flew about a month in advance, and during that time the cats were under the care of family members until their scheduled departure.

Hiring a pet transport/pet mover is also worthwhile. The pet transport can recommend the best travel carrier, help with travel documents, arrangement for care during transits, and assist the pets through customs and quarantine check ups at departure and arrival airports. The pet transport companies we used in the Netherlands (DHL) and in Indonesia (Groovy Pet Transport) also provided us with door-to-airport and airport-to-door service. For the cats' move to Italy, Groovy Pet in Indonesia assisted with all the travel documents to enter Italy, unfortunately, however, we were not able to locate a pet transport company in Rome to assist with the customs and quarantine steps at Fiumicino airport. Finally we hired BAS Handler, a cargo handling company at Fiumicino to assist the cats on arrival. I contacted the company a few weeks in advance and was asked to fax them all the travel documents. Once they made sure with the Ministero della Sanità that all the papers were in order, I was told to come to their office at Fiumicino on the morning of the cats' scheduled arrival in Rome. We paid 200 euros to BAS Handler, which covers assistance through customs, veterinarian fee at Fiumicino and IVA. The cats arrived early morning in late October 2004, and after several hours of waiting for them to get through customs & check ups, the cargo handler staff drove the cats to the office where we've been waiting. It was a happy reunion!

By the way, in the summer of 2000 I took my Jack Russell on a holiday to Italy. That time I was still living in the Netherlands. We flew Transavia from Amsterdam to Florence, and Mila travelled with me in the cabin. When I booked the flight over the phone, I was told that I would have to pay 50 euros for bringing Mila on board. However, when we checked in at Schiphol airport, the lady at the counter waived the fee, and Mila was allowed to travel for free. Mila travelled in a soft-sided travel bag and had to be placed near my feet. Since I was traveling with two friends of mine and we were sat next to each other, sometimes I would pick up Mila (still in her soft travel bag) and put her on my lap. She loves looking outside of the window and was quiet and relaxed the entire time. It's always better if you're traveling with your family/friend, so they can occupy the seats next to you. Mila is now enjoying her old age in a quiet farm in Holland with my relatives.

Important tip: if possible, arrange to arrive a few days (or weeks) earlier than your pets so that you do not have to worry about jet lag, luggage and nervous pets all at the same time.

Getting your pets ready

The most important thing is to get your pets familiar with their travel carrier. Three weeks before departure, I would put the carrier in the living room to give the cats a chance to get used to it. Once the cats got used to going into the carrier (and even sleeping in it), we took them for short drives around the neighborhood.

Important tip: allow your pet to get used to the travel carrier/kennel a week or more before the flight.

Day of travel

These are several tips given by our vets and pet movers:

  • Do not give your animal anything to drink at least 4 hours prior to departure.
  • Animals may suffer from airsickness. For this reason you should stop feeding your pet at least 12 hours prior to departure.
  • Do NOT sedate your pet for the journey, as it will take longer for the animal to adjust to its new surroundings and could result in the animal becoming under cooled (hypothermia).
  • Attach a label with the animal's name and feeding instructions to the side of the kennel.

Prior to boarding, the movers made sure that the cats have enough fresh water (in a bottle with a special lid that doesn't spill) and some dry food in their carrier, and changed the newspaper lining of their carrier if needed. During transits (for both moves, the cats transited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has a very good pet service) the cats were also fed and cleaned.

Our globetrotting cats have adjusted well to their new home in Siena and we all hope to stay put for a while.

Option 2: transporting pets without a pet carrier

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We chose to do the moving ourselves, because I am a control freak and wanted to be able to know the cats were with us and besides, we were on a bit of a budget and the quotes we had gotten from pet carriers seemed steep. However, having to do it again we'd probably hire a pet carrier.

We have two cats: a girl and a boy, aged 13 and 8 respectively. The 13 year old cat has traveled once already, from Calgary to Montreal and went across the USA-Canada border in a car, about 10 years ago. That was a smooth flight, but the trip was shorter. The other cat had never traveled and is bothered by the smallest trip in the car. Also he weighs 16 lbs, which makes him a "medium" animal, and we had to get a "medium animal cage", because air transport regulations say that the animal has to be able to turn around. With cage, he was about 20 lbs. The other cat is 11 lbs, about 13 with (smaller) cage. They are a bit heavy to carry by hand, something we thought we'd just do once.

Before traveling: we had microchips installed into the cats (it is not as painless as advertised), gave them a physical and gave them rabies vaccinations within 10 days of departure (well, the vet did). Had three styles of paperwork filled out, since we found that many. One was from the USDA, one for animals entering the EU and one was the Italian one. The cats did not get blood tests, as we were assured by the vet that we did not need them. We didn't.

We looked into airlines who carry pets overseas, and found that Alitalia does have a pet center both in Milan and Rome. (Air France does too, but we wanted to have fewer stops). The catch was that no local airline from Burlington VT would carry them. So we rented a car and went to Boston (a 3 hour ride). A caveat: we did this in mid-May, most airlines will NOT allow pets in airplanes past the middle of June, because it gets too hot. Same thing for the dead of winter, for the cold. They may make an exception for pets in the cabin, but most carriers only allow one or two for the whole cabin and they have to fit (with container) under the seat in front of you. Which means (in our case) even an 11 lbs cat is too big to fit in the cabin. However, the animal transport compartment is pressurized and in some cases may have some kind of air conditioning or heating. Also, all respectable airlines frown on sedating the cats (especially), since sedation at high elevation does something to the kidneys of the cat.

First important piece of advice: bring lots of water, in a container that doesn't spill so much. The animal handlers can't give them anything unless you ask, and even then it isn't sure they will. As for feeding, the opinions vary: I would not feed them before traveling (but hey, my cats are pretty heavy and could survive a couple of days without food!), because if they get scared there might be "spilling" of some other (ickier) kind. It happened to us, luckily in the car ride, so it was easily fixed.

Once we got to Logan, we checked in and the cats had to pay their ticket. Based on weight, it cost us $180.00 for both cats, as animals are considered excess baggage. Of course we know they are not *really* baggage, but on paper that's what they are. Note: when we booked our flight we told the agent that we were bringing cats, but did not pay for them at that point, but they do need to know for the flight, as some planes don't have the animal compartment. As it turns out, big planes do and small planes don't. More on this later.

When we asked where or to whom to give the cats, we were told by the person at the counter that we had to go through Transportation Security Agency (TSA) with the cats. This is perhaps the most important lesson learned in all the story.

It is uncertain whether the Alitalia personnel or the TSA personnel was misinformed, or if info crossed over wrongly, but for pets you cannot go through the regular line (with the x-ray machine etc.), as you have to open the cages and inspect them — and it is forbidden to x-ray live animals, regardless of what the TSA says! We did not find out about this until the third time we went through security (my husband was carrying the cats all along). The TSA personnel can be a bit rude and unyielding when things that are unusual present themselves. Thankfully the Alitalia personnel could expedite some of the standing-in-line for us. Eventually, we got to the TSA private inspection room and the cat cages were inspected and given to a real pet handler. It is a bit nerve-wracking to give your pets to a stranger, but we had no choice.

Incidentally, the only reason we made the flight on time is because we got there nearly 3 hours ahead. The moral of this story is that if you are getting your pet through U.S. security, you may want to check with the TSA what the rules are (they change frequently because of various terror alert levels, see www.tsa.gov), and to be specific with the airline that you want to go to the private inspection room to begin with. It might be easier with dogs too, but cats may be harder to rein in, especially in a crowded airport (I know mine would have been).

Once we got to Rome, we actually saw the cats being transported elsewhere, as we were between flights. That was a relief. We had one more short leg to go, and as we sat on the plane waiting for departure the local pet handlers made me come off the plane and told me that we had to put the cats in the next flight as there was no pressurized compartment in the aircraft we had boarded. We could not catch the other flight with the cats, as the rest of our luggage was already on and it is a security risk to send luggage without the passenger. It is then that I asked them to give some water to the cats, but I can't be sure they did (even though they said yes when I asked), as both were quite dehydrated when they arrived, so bring your own for cases like this. Fortunately it was very breezy that day so they did not overheat. Overall, despite the water thing, I think the pet handling by Alitalia was done well in that they were prepared for occurrences like ours.

The cats arrived a bit late, but they seemed to have made the nearly 24 hour trek almost unscathed (thirst notwithstanding). The customs passage went well, as the guard finally found which vaccination certificate he liked best and let them through. Both cats had some sort of jet-lag that lasted about 3 weeks (I guess it included adjusting to the new place which is a lot louder than living in rural Vermont). They seem happy now. They have shed a lot, and they seem to be getting accustomed to afternoon naps. And morning naps.

In summary: when transporting cats from the US yourself:

  • make sure you know the latest security news and protocols (www.tsa.gov). Be firm when the agents ask you to do stuff that would be bad for your pet: they do back down;
  • have bottled water for them and a low-spill container;
  • travel in spring or fall;
  • needless to say, have them have all the shots and microchips;
  • make sure all aircrafts you will be boarding have pressurized pet cabins;
  • bring familiar toys/foods with you in the carry on bags for when they arrive if you can. Old smells do make a difference.

Additional grooming information: if you are moving cats from a cold place (like Vermont) to a hot place (like Sicily) your cats will shed a mountain of fur, regardless of the season. Make sure you take their comb or brush with you in the carryon. Or else make sure you know where the nearest pet store is. Ours is just around the corner.