How to move your cat to Germany

What’s the very first thing you research, when you just begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the prospect of that job overseas might be more than just a wish and a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be nice if that were an option?” What’s the deal breaker, the thing you absolutely need to check from the beginning, lest the whole idea be unworkable? Is it something about immigration laws, costs of living, or language requirements? Is it, “Can I bring my spouse?” Or do you figure that your spouse is clever enough to work things out for himself, that languages can be learned or relearned, that bureaucracies can be navigated and budgets can be worked out, and instead start with that most fundamental of all inquiries: “Can I bring my cat?”

In the case of moving from the United States to Germany in the summer of 2012, the answer was, “Yes, and it’s not even as difficult as you probably thought.”

germancatXerion mentally tallies the number of bratwursts she will require to forgive the indignity of being outfitted with an alpine hat while living in northeastern Germany.


When acquaintences learn that you are planning to move overseas with your cat, they will usually have one of two reactions:

  1. they think you’re kind of nuts for latching on to such a ridiculous plan, and honestly can’t understand why you’d subject yourself to the rigmarole rather than just find the creature a new place to live, or
  2. they are relieved that there is someone out there who is as stubbornly attached to a feline as they themselves are (or would be, if the question came up).

Our parents, meanwhile, were in a somewhat unique third category: they were at least as concerned as we were about making absolutely sure that Xerion could come with us. I believe this is due mainly to their sense of affection for their “grandcat” (in the absence of grandchildren, they make do as best they can), though there might have also been the subconscious fear that they would find themselves subject to a desperate plea to assume temporary custody.

I’m not sure it’s ever as easy to find a new home for a beloved pet as one expects it to be, but in Xerion’s case, I would have expected it to be nigh impossible. She almost certainly spent the first five years of her life on the streets of Glendale before being adopted from the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA in February 2005 — the latter thanks in large part to the fact that the folks there made the somewhat puzzling (strategic?) mistake of thinking she was spayed when definitely wasn’t. Thus, what at the time seemed like a perfectly friendly new pet was, in fact, a feral cat in heat.

In the end, after surgery and quite a bit of drama, she actually bonded very strongly not only with me, but also with Brian (whom I didn’t even start dating until several months later). She sits on our laps for hours on end and snuggles in bed at night, and we’ve been told that she mews plaintively when we’re away on a trip for too long. None of our friends and relatives, however, have ever risen in her eyes above the level of “pernicious threat”, no matter how gentle and kind they are to her, how clearly they are cat people, or how dearly they would like to have a friendship with her. Thus, there was never really any question; wherever we went, Xerion would be coming along.

Xerion was planning to go by cargo ship, since that’s the route her automatic feeder was taking. We had to inform her that it would probably run out of both batteries and food well before they arrived in Greifswald.

The requirements

As it turned out, the requirements that had to be met for her to come along on the plane with us to Germany weren’t actually that burdensome. The little beast only needed:

  • an RFID microchip (with the appropriate frequency)
  • a current (but not too recent) rabies vaccine
  • an examination by a USDA-certified vet (who would then fill out the appropriate form(s))
  • endorsement of those forms by a USDA office

Compared to some tales I vaguely remembered having heard about mandatory quarantines or outright bans (not that I recalled any details of such tales, mind you), this seemed like we were getting off relatively easy. Still, there were a few minor complications.

Microchip: Xerion came with a microchip when she was adopted, but this was a 128-kHz RFID microchip with a 10-digit identifying code, compliant with ISO standard 11785 Annex A. Meanwhile, according to the USDA, “Pet dogs, cats, and ferrets must be identified with a microchip compatible with ISO standard 11784 or 11785 or the appropriate microchip reader must be provided along with the pet.” Now, does that include Annex A, or not? I did a fair bit of online research, even going back to primary sources (i.e., various legal documents and ISO protocols), but was never 100% sure that the 128-kHz microchip wasn’t acceptable.

What was clear, though, is that the ISO standard is commonly associated with 134-kHz RFID microchips (with a 15-digit ID), and this is the frequency you can count on “most international ports of call/customs agencies” being able to read (per the AKC). Given that A.) I wasn’t too gung-ho on the prospect of arguing to a German customs agent, “You may not be able to detect her microchip, but I swear she has one and it’s legally compliant; just take a look at this sheath of English documents showing as much,” and B.) buying one’s own microchip reader is a $300+ investment, Xerion soon became a dual-frequency cat.

Rabies vaccination: It had been more than a year since her last vaccine because Xerion was an indoor cat in California, and the vet didn’t consider it necessary. Thus, she was legally considered unvaccinated (despite having had the vaccine previously). Fortunately, the E.U. only requires a minimum of 21 days to elapse after rabies vaccination before a cat or dog is allowed to immigrate, so this was an easy requirement to meet. (It’s good we weren’t moving to Japan, where the waiting period is much longer.)

Health certificate examination: Our vet’s office in California was awesome. For one thing, they always did a truly impressive job of caring for the inevitably ill-tempered patient we occasionally brought in. (She earned a “caution” sticker on her file very early on.) They were also incredibly on-the-ball with knowing the export/import requirements; plus, all the veterinarians there are accredited by the USDA to issue health certificates. Thus, it was a bummer that we couldn’t have Xerion examined there.

The catch was that the examination for the health certificate needs to be conducted no more than 10 days before the cat arrives in Germany. Because we had various possessions and vehicles to deposit around the United States before we departed, we had to leave Southern California more than 10 days before our flight from JFK to Düsseldorf. Fortunately, my aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania (with whom we were staying immediately prior to our departure) helped us out by finding a vet in their area who was USDA accredited. It would have been much less stressful for everyone if we had been able to take her to her normal vet, though.

Endorsement: This is my least favorite part of the process, because there aren’t that many USDA offices (a little under one per state, from what I could see); they have limited hours, particularly for health certificate endorsements; and they seem to vary considerably in responsiveness to inquiries. I had a very nice conversation with the guy in the Sacramento office, and the New Jersey office at least e-mailed me back (if not with the information I asked about), but I never heard anything from either the Ohio or Pennsylvania offices.

Again, had we been leaving from the Los Angeles area, this would have been straightforward — well, as straightforward as a drive over to LAX and back during business hours can be. As it was, my aunt and uncle live close enough to the New Jersey office that Brian was able to take the paperwork over there; fortunately, there is no requirement that the examination and the endorsement take place in the same state. According to the form letter the NJ office sent me, though, most people some sort of express mail service, rather than doing it in person.

Either way, though, the combination of the exam needing to be no more than 10 days before arrival abroad (and less would probably be preferable, in case of a flight delay or somesuch) plus the the time required to get the paperwork endorsed means that the window for the appointments is uncomfortably small.

Speaking of things that can be uncomfortably small, here is a photo of me comparing the dimensions of the cat with the maximum carrier dimensions allowed by Air Berlin.

Transport preparations

When searching for an airline on which to book our flight to Germany, the two criteria most important to us were 1.) pets permitted in the cabin, and 2.) non-exorbitant one-way fares, preferably with a non-stop flight. It isn’t at all self-evident that there would exist a single airline with both of those qualities, so I think we lucked out with Air Berlin. When purchasing airfare on their website, you can specify during the booking process that you’ll be bringing a pet in the cabin, so Xerion’s “ticket” was booked at the same time as ours. They do also let you add a pet later — up to 48 hours before departure — but being able to do it all at once helped with our emotional security.

When we first started planning the trip, we knew we’d feel better if we were able to bring the cat on the flight as a carry-on (rather than having to check her), but we didn’t actually know that this would be better for the cat. Given the length of the flight plus the various transportation and waiting times on either side, maybe having a larger carrier with more space and a full-sized litter box actually would be healthier? Our vet strongly recommended keeping her with us, though, and we were happy to oblige.

However, the hard-sided pet carrier that had served Xerion so well for the past seven years was not within the size limit for in-cabin pets. Air Berlin’s guidelines allow a measly 55 x 40 x 20 cm (21.6 x 15.7 x 7.8 inches), with a total weight of 6 kg (13.2 lbs). The new carrier was still a little big, if you go by its advertised dimensions, but since it was soft-sided, we figured we would be able to compress it a bit, if needed. As it turned out, it fit under the seat without any problems.

Brian and Xerion at Air Berlin’s check-in counter in JFK International Airport. Despite traffic delays, we made it there with a whole six minutes to spare before the 90-minute cut-off.

The trip itself

The first part of our move consisted of a lot of driving (from Pasadena, CA, to Boise, ID, to Cleveland, OH, to Yardley, PA), during which Xerion demonstrated

  • that she if she wasn’t fully satisfied with the litter box provided, she was willing and able to go long periods of time without using the facilities. (We actually ended up getting a hotel room outside Omaha, NE, for a few hours, lest she feel the need to “hold it” an additional 800 miles on top of the 1200 we’d already gone on that leg. Of course, as soon as we got on the road again afterwards, she decided that the litter box in the car was OK after all.)
  • that she experienced no ill effects afterward from the above bathroom reticence.
  • that she had no interest in frolicking in the grass at rest stops, despite having been quite willing to walk on her leash outside our apartment building back in Pasadena. (When we tried this at the Little America Travel Center in Wyoming, she led me directly into the depths of a nearby hedge.)
  • that she could make herself at home fairly quickly in all the various temporary new quarters she found herself.
  • that in general she was a fairly stoic traveler (as long as we weren’t passing too many large trucks on the interstate, in which case the small space under the passenger’s seat started to look awfully inviting).

Once the cross-country driving was done, it was time for the health certificate examination. We had been non-trivially concerned that the stress of traveling might precipitate some sort of illness just in time for her to be declared unfit to move to Germany, but in the end, every potential symptom of a cold or other ailment we thought we saw turned out to be a false alarm. She very healthily growled and hissed her way through the exam, inspiring the doctor to comment, “With a personality like that, you’re lucky they’re taking you with them!”

Finally, there was the transatlantic part of the journey. Although the trip quite was a couple hours longer and not quite as smooth as hoped, on the whole everything worked out — especially for Xerion. Unlike the two people with her, she didn’t seem to be at all bothered by things like traffic jams en route to the airport and overheating/delayed/maybe-rerouted Deutsche Bahn trains . . . The only time she was obviously not at ease was when she had to be taken out of the carrier to go through security, but honestly, is there anyone who likes their obligatory TSA encounters?

The plane didn’t phase her a bit. She was quite happy to partake in a portion of the chicken I got for dinner, and was even ready to climb out of the carrier and check out the rest of the cabin — presumably to find out if any other passengers had chicken they wanted to share. (Lest we be the cause of an emergency landing due to an unruly [feline] passenger and end up stranded in Iceland, we did not allow this.) We offered her water regularly, and we made sure she had some crunchies to chew on during ascent and descent, though of course we have no way of knowing if she would have had any issues with equalizing the pressure in her ears if we hadn’t done so. Once we arrived in Düsseldorf, the customs official took a quick look through her paperwork, handed it back, and sent us on our way.

Xerion seemed to be comfortable in her carrier throughout the trip. She was mute the whole time — as she always has been when traveling — but we never saw her cower or tremble, and she never refused a snack (which would have been a sure sign that not all was right with her world). She was even surprisingly tolerant of being schlepped around the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) while we tried to make sense of the conflicting information we were getting about which of the trains that were supposed to stop in Greifswald would, in fact, actually do so. (We happened to arrive on one of the hottest days of the year, and Deutsche Bahn was experiencing extensive, system-wide problems as a result.)

In the end, a little under 24 hours elapsed from when we left my aunt and uncle’s house in Yardley, PA, until we arrived at the Greifswald, Germany, apartment where we would be living for the next few months. The cat quickly made herself at home (and in doing so, made us feel at home, as well), evidently oblivious to the fact that home now was about 5700 miles away from its previous location.

In short order, Xerion decided she was a fan of German cuisine. And spiral staircases that provide ready access to the kitchen counter.


What are the legal requirements?
Obviously, this depends on your destination and origin countries. Get information from an up-to-date, official source. If you are traveling to or from the U.S., I strongly recommend the USDA APHIS (United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) website. They have a pretty extensive list of countries with the regulations for each.

Some airlines also require USDA Form 7001. Air Berlin is not one of those, but the vet doing the health examination filled out it for us, just in case. Be sure to check what other guidelines the airline might have. (Air Berlin’s rules, for example, can be found both in the luggage section of their website and in their General Terms and Conditions of Carriage.)

What about bringing your cat back to the U.S. again?
Given that she’s probably already at least 13 years old and we didn’t have a definite timetable for how long we’d be in Germany (merely “at least two years”), we figured we’d worry about that part when the time came. It looks pretty straightforward, though.

How much does it cost?
new microchip ($60) + rabies vaccine ($28) + examination ($95) + endorsement ($37) + new carrier ($54) + plane ticket ($123) = $397

Clearly, if your cat already has a soft-sided carrier, a 134-kHz microchip, and/or a current rabies vaccine, your costs will be lower. On the other hand, if you don’t have a nearby USDA office for endorsement, you’ll have the additional cost of mailing the paperwork back and forth.

What travel arrangements are best for the cat?
I imagine this will depend on your specific feline(s), so talk to your veterinarian; hopefully, he/she will be able to help you optimize things for your particular cat. Recommendations are also available from the AVMA and USDA. Naturally, the internet is a rich source both of scary stories, and possibly useful online advice.

Disclaimers out of the way, what worked very well for us was:

  1. in a soft carrier, which was located under the seat in front of us on the plane and on our laps on the train
  2. unmedicated
  3. without a litter box in her carrier, but with a supply of clean litter that could be used to set up the Katzentoilette as soon as we arrived
While the above may have been inspired by our experience, be assured that I exercised some artistic license; our cat did not, at any time, enter the x-ray machine. Also, for the record, torties are bloody difficult to depict in cartoon form.
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6 Responses to How to move your cat to Germany

  1. Christy says:

    This is HILARIOUS, yet so informative! You should share it everywhere! Miss you guys!

  2. Eve says:

    Thanks, Christy! We miss you, too!

  3. Kathleen Shipley says:

    Hey Eve and Brian,

    Hello from the Plymouth, Mi aunt and uncle! This set of guidelines is very clear and easy to understand. You explained it very well. I can’t remember how long you’ll be in Germany–but have you researched the process coming back into the US?

  4. Eve says:

    Hi Aunt Kathy! Requirements for importing a pet cat into the U.S. vary from state to state. In most cases, all you need is whatever health documentation is required by the airline you’re flying; other than that, the cat just needs to “appear healthy”. Hawaii has a quarantine requirement, and some states do want vaccines, but mostly it looks like it’s a little easier than going the other direction.

  5. Kate says:

    So… did Xenion actually have a leash going through the TSA security? And did the red light ever go off in the process for the kitty pat-down?

  6. Eve says:

    Yup, we did have a makeshift leash that we attached to her collar, though we didn’t end up using it at all. No, the trip through the metal detector was fortunately uneventful.

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