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Jet, set, pets
The sad story of James Dean the cat being run over and killed on the tarmac at Delhi airport this week resonated with me for 13 reasons. That's because I have twice moved a total of 13 animals by air and I have never, ever been more nervous or worried about any flights in my entire life. Flying with children, with toddlers - heck, with a nineweek-old baby - all of that was a doddle compared to the stress and trauma (and eye-watering expense) of flying with pets.
My heart goes out to Ms Verma, it truly does. I have been there, done that, but happily my 13 animals all survived. Unlike poor James Dean.
In 2000, we were living in Mauritius, where my husband was posted, and over the years we acquired a menagerie of stray animals - three cats and three dogs. So, when we were posted to Johannesburg, the tears of the children at the thought of moving were nothing in comparison to the stress of preparing six animals for a flight.
After six years in SA, we again moved, this time to Delhi - with the same six critters plus another cat. The total journey time from our home in Jo'burg - Bombay - home in Delhi was an exhausting 24 hours, and I have to confess that it was the domestic leg, with Jet I might add, that stressed me the most.
It is unclear whether poor James Dean's cage was padlocked. IATA rules say an animal's travelling box must be locked, but and this was the scary part when I travelled - I was told to tape the padlock keys on the outside of the cages. Rules, apparently. I was beside myself with terror that someone would open the cages and my pets would escape.
It is of no consolation to Ms Verma now, but here are my own guidelines for travelling with your pets.
1. You must have IATA approved cages. All the specs are available on the website. Your animal needs to be able to stand, turn and sit down in his box, so for dogs this means a big crate. If it isn't the right size, the airline can (and should) refuse to ship the animal.
2. Get the box/crate well in advance and let your pet familiarize himself as much as possible with the box in which he will travel. I always put familiar toys and rugs inside the cages weeks before departure.
3. Lock up your cat a few days before you move. Seriously. The number of stories I was told about cats doing a runner the day the removal people came in was disturbing. They know something is afoot, and you really don't want your pet to bolt, now, do you?
4. Starve your animals for at least 24 hours prior to the trip. They are stressed enough as it is, so the last thing you want is the poor thing wallowing in its own urine and worse.
5. To tranquilise or not? I vote strongly for no. If the animal is drugged but in distress, no one will know. Conscious, they can howl, yowl and bark for attention
6. Don't bother with putting food or treats or chewies in the crate, they will all fall out. But water is a must. I would freeze water in containers (like plastic ice cream boxes) and tie them to the inside of the cage with wire. Yes, they had all melted by the time my menagerie (thank God) hit the conveyor belt with the luggage, but I like to think that they had some water during those long hours in the hold.
7. Put an extra layer of mesh inside the cage. You don't want people sticking their hands inside the cage, however well-intentioned. You don't want your poor pet putting its paw outside the cage and getting it stuck or injured. You don't want it to scratch anyone.
8. If the pet has a favourite toy or blanket, put it inside the cage.
9. Arrive well in advance for the flight. I seem to remember being required to check in our live cargo three hours before our normal check-in time. Accompany your animal as far as you can. Allow yourself loads of time. Travelling with animals is still somewhat uncommon, so you need to factor that in.
10. Having all the right paperwork and vaccinations is obviously a must - as a loving pet owner, taking your animal on an expensive flight, it hardly seems necessary to remind you of the paperwork angle. But do make sure you have extra copies of everything. And let me tell you 7 x vaccination/import permits etc add up to quite a stash of paperwork.
11. Tell the check-in staff you are checking in live cargo. Tell every single person in the airline. When you board the plane, tell the chief purser. Tell the steward in your section of the plane. Who cares if they think you are neurotic? Tell them over and over again that there is live cargo in the hold. All three times I flew with my cats and dogs, I was shown the written instructions that the cargo hold be pressurized, and mighty reassured I was, too.
12. When you arrive and collect your creature, do not open the box till you are safe and home, and can put the stressed-out, wet, hungry, dirty cat in a locked room - a bathroom is best. You don't want a runner on arrival. It is up to you whether or not to let your dogs out. I didn't until they were safely home for exactly the same reason.
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