On the Move with Cats

The American Psychiatric Association recognizes relocating, or moving, as one of the most stressful challenges we can face. It’s right behind death of a spouse or family member, and divorce and losing/changing jobs. But there are things we humans can do to prepare and to take care of ourselves throughout the moving process. We understand what’s happening — and even with children, we can talk to them and help them process what they’re feeling and what to expect in their new home.

Not so with our four-legged furry friends. What our pets see is that their people are stressing, and one day all their furniture and other stuff with their smell on it is taken away. Then it’s a series of strange places to stay, maybe a long car ride (or worse, a crate and dark plane ride for a long, long time), and finally another strange house with all their stuff in unfamiliar places. Hey, what gives?! I suspect dogs may have an easier time with this adjustment — we haven’t made any moves with dogs, so I can’t say for sure.

But cats, especially indoor-only cats, are all about The Routine: I wake up when I feel like it, but My Bowls are filled at This Time, twice a day, even if I have to walk across someone’s pillow or tickle someone with my whiskers; I sit by This Window to watch the birds, and that Other Window at exactly That Hour when the sunny spot hits me just so; my people come home at This Hour and I spend half an hour letting them brush me and pay me the Attention I deserve… So what happens when The Routine is interrupted and Things Change?… Acting out (spraying, fighting, scratching furniture), loss of appetite or overeating, clinginess, depression, just about any reaction you can expect from a human… (See Cat’s-Eye View: When Our Pets Decide To Move Without Consulting Us)

In the last 11 years we’ve moved five times, twice literally across the world, with two cats. Unquestionably our toughest move in terms of pet travel was going from Germany to Hawaii because of Hawaii’s strict quarantine laws. Because Hawaii is rabies-free, they understandably want to keep it that way and so there is a long-standing 4-month quarantine on incoming animals (same is true in the U.K. and Guam, both also rabies-free). Fortunately for us, just a year or so before we moved there, the quarantine regulations were loosened to allow the pets to fulfill the quarantine period BEFORE you get to the Islands. It’s a very strict protocol, with numerous steps and expensive tests and fees. But if you’re considering bringing your pets with you when you move to Hawaii, it’s considerably better for your pet to follow this protocol than to allow them to languish in quarantine for 4 months.

What we didn’t realize when we moved to Hawaii, until it was almost too late, was that if you successfully by-pass the quarantine for your pets, there are no hotels — on Oahu, at least — that will allow you to keep pets with you! Actually when we moved in 2005, there was one hotel and one short-term apartment rental that did allow pets, but they have both changed their rules. So unless you have family or friends in Hawaii willing to house your pet, you might have to kennel your pets while you house-hunt — which defeats one of the purposes of avoiding quarantine.

One alternative we found on Oahu is to find advertised private vacation rentals that will allow you to keep your pets with you (we used craigslist). On this latest move, we found a high-rise 1-bedroom condo in the heart of Waikiki that was less expensive per night than any hotel, even those with special local or military rates. Make sure pets are okay, and that payment is made through some kind of system with guarantees (we used Paypal) so your money doesn’t disappear before you get a set of keys. You may be asked to pay a deposit, in our case the deposit was refundable once the Lessor knew there was no damage from the pets.

In Germany we have also booked with pet-friendly private vacation rentals, called Ferienwohnungen (or FeWo, for short), when entering or leaving the country. These are usually fully furnished private apartments, many of which include breakfast or at least Brotchen delivery service in the mornings. They too are usually cheaper than hotels, and provide all the amenities of home, including cable or satellite internet connections, washer and dryer in the unit, linens, and fully equipped kitchens. In general, it is much easier to travel with pets in Europe, especially Germany, than in the U.S. but your pet is expected to be well-behaved and clean. And it helps to know what to expect: many FeWo are attached to the landlord’s home, are located outside the main city or town, and the landlord usually speaks a smattering of English (but which was always much better than our German).

In the U.S., you can find lists of “pet-friendly” hotels and motels, but call directly to the hotel you’re planning to stay in — rather than the hotel chain’s 800-number — because these policies can change very quickly (“One bad apple” can spoil the whole bunch, Girl”). If you’re planning to bring more than one animal, ask if it’s okay before you get there — some places only allow one pet per room. And get the okay about pets in writing in your confirmation email. By the same token, some places that advertise only one pet per room may let you keep more than one cat or smaller dogs if they do not disturb other guests. But consider, hotels that accept pets (not counting premium 3 and 4 star properties, of course) are generally not centrally located and often require deposits or charge extra fees.

To prepare your cat for any stressful situation (vet visit, boarding, relocation) there are 2 products we highly recommend — one can be used by humans as well as pets, but the other is specific to cats. The first is “Dr. Bach’s Rescue Remedy”, a British homeopathic formula that includes over a dozen flower essences — it is sold in dropper bottles or sprays. I discovered Dr. B’s on the recommendation of the house mother I lived with in London when I was studying at Leith’s — a few drops in your tea or under the tongue helps to calm nerves in just a few minutes. A few drops in your cat’s drinking water does the same for your pet. When we know a stressful situation is coming up, we’ll begin adding the drops to the cats’ water every day for 2 weeks before the event. In cases like a relocation, we’ll add it to their water or put one drop in soft food throughout the process. Dr. Bach’s ($10-17) is available in the U.S. at many health food stores, Whole Foods markets, and on Oahu, at Star Market.

The other product is called Feliway spray — which is available by that brand name, or as a component in “Comfort Zone” spray in the U.S. As its name implies, Feliway is designed for cats. It’s a pheromone-based spray that calms felines. It was first prescribed by our German vets when Haiku and Laika were flying from Germany to Boston. The spray is used on your cat’s kennel, bedding, toys or other objects that the cat is around — don’t spray the cat itself! A newer product is the Comfort Zone plug-in room diffuser, which uses the same technology as those plug-ins that release fragrances into a room, except these have no fragrance (at least we don’t smell anything). This was particularly helpful when Haiku and Kio spent a week at our friend Mike’s home in DC before we joined them, and then in the series of hotels we all endured over the next 3 weeks, and finally our new home. One diffuser lasted about one month. You can find both CZ spray ($20 and up) and diffuser ($35-50) at PetSmart and Feliway ($13-25) on-line from Ashley’s Animal Ark. Once you have a diffuser you can buy just the refills. We’ve seen Feliway/CZ lessen stress activities such as constant mewing, clawing at kennel doors and floors, and “spraying.” But it also works in other stress situations — fighting among household pets or introducing new animals (or babies) to the family.

But just like catnip (25% of cats are not affected by catnip), one or both of these products may not work on all cats. We just wanted to share our experiences in case other people are looking for non-pharmaceutical alternatives to travelling with their feline friends. Everything in this series is based on our personal experience with the three cats we have travelled with, and is not intended to substitute for the advice of your own veterinarian.

Next post, Part Two: The benefits of kennel-training and what we learned about flying with pets in the U.S.