In 2020, I made the decision to relocate and join my partner in Copenhagen. There was no doubt that my cats would be coming too.
Here I want to share my experience and give some tips on how to prepare for moving abroad with your cats and how you can minimise their stress.
I have had cats my whole life, so I’d say I understand them pretty well. But I also know each one is different, with their own personalities and preferences; just like my two, Monkey and Banana.
I had no idea where to start with the practicalities. It certainly wasn’t easy emotionally either. I knew that travelling would be stressful for them, which made me feel guilty, but rehoming was not an option. My cats are family, and I knew (especially with Monkey) that rehoming would affect them far worse. I also felt that doing so would be giving up my responsibility. When I got my cats, I planned to have them their entire lives.
While I know my cats’ personalities and how they behave and react day to day, I couldn’t completely understand how they would cope while travelling or the impact once we had arrived. I knew that I had a lot of research and planning to do, to minimise their stress during the travel. My actions would cause them some stress in the short term and I had to accept that, even though I knew they would have a much fuller life.
A bit about Monkey and Banana
Despite being around people from a young age, Monkey is anxious and unsure of everyone until he knows them well. He finds change particularly challenging and he doesn’t travel well. Preparations for a trip to the vet would take around 45 mins, despite the 5 mins drive and he would usually have an accident on the way. Monkey knows when the carrier is coming out of the cupboard and hides straight away. Coaxing him out and getting him into the carrier takes time. He meows the entire time, even though I always place him in the front passenger seat, and talk to him on the way.
A little under 2 years old, Banana is adventurous, curious and highly sociable. From around 12 weeks old, he became the OneKind office cat and travelled happily with me in his carrier, before spending the day roaming around the office. He would greet everyone who entered the office too. Banana was never phased by new people or surroundings.
Researching travel options
As my cats are quite different, it was important to tailor my preparations for each of them. I researched several options, road courier, flight courier, commercial flights (where they could travel with me) and even the train.
My considerations included length of travel vs. potential anxiety – would they be less stressed sitting on a train with me rather than being put in a plane? Or was it easier for them to just get there in the fastest time possible? I also reached out to members of an ex-pat Facebook group to find others who had been in a similar situation as me, to get their advice.
After weighing up all options, I decided flying would be best but I knew that the pandemic would likely make it more complicated. Having researched different airlines’ policies regarding pet travel, KLM was our only possibility. There were no direct flights so we would have to travel via Amsterdam, which meant an eight-hour journey.
My worries about the flight
Cats’ weight and size determines whether they can travel in the cabin or not. Sadly, Monkey was too heavy to travel in the cabin and he had to go in the hold. I felt very nervous about that, knowing the most anxious of the two would be away from me, in unsettling surroundings. Banana was able to travel with me in the cabin. There are very specific requirements on the carriers that can be used when taking pets abroad, so that took some time to organise.
I was most concerned about Monkey having accidents and being unable to do anything about it. The thought of him potentially sitting in mess really worried me. I worried about how he would find the journey, and how he would react when we arrived. Whenever we have moved house before, it has typically taken around 4 days before he eats anything.
I wasn’t as worried about Banana and although I knew there was a risk he would hide his stress, he had always taken new experiences in his stride.
My vet was fantastic in helping with the travel documents and vaccinations, as well as practical advice regarding travel. Due to Brexit, it’s important to start the process with the vet at least 4 months prior to your travel date.
It’s really important to prepare with plenty of time. I ordered Monkey’s carrier 3 months before I travelled and set it up within view. This would allow him time to get used to it and associate it with safety. Monkey was curious, although a little nervous around it – while Banana was straight in, climbing all over it! My priority was making sure that Monkey didn’t develop negative feelings towards it, in the way he had with the one he travels to the vet in. It had to feel safe, so the more I could do to familiarise him with it, the less anxious he would be on the day of travel.
I set it up in the living room and put one of Monkey’s blankets inside and had also ordered Feliway spray and calming treats.
I sprayed the carrier weekly and gradually, encouraged Monkey to go to it by placing some treats in there. Over time, I moved his food bowl closer to it and eventually, inside it. I didn’t force him or physically put him in it at any time. This allowed Monkey to associate positive experiences with the carrier. To begin with, I left the door open while he was inside.
Getting more comfortable
As the flight date grew closer, and as Monkey became more comfortable inside the carrier, I started to close the door. Initially just for 5 mins and gradually increased the time. Monkey learned to relax while inside and knew that I would open the carrier for him, without a trip to the vet in between.
This was the best I could do. For 3 weeks prior to the move, I gave both Monkey and Banana the Feliway spot on treatment and by this point, I had done everything I possibly could.
Banana was fine with his carrier and happily played inside.
I think we were all feeling a bit nervous, but I knew there was nothing else I could do. I accepted that although stressful, I had done my absolute to prepare them and keep their anxiety as low as possible.
Both cats travelled well in the car and Monkey only started meowing about 5 mins before arriving at the airport. Unfortunately, he did have an accident and I felt terrible. Nevertheless, I managed to clean him and the box up. I had also put puppy pads in the bottom of the carrier so changed those. Soon after, he seemed to calm down and relaxed and we headed to the terminal.
At the airport
The airport staff reassured me that he would be well looked after, and only placed into the hold shortly before take -off. This meant he was not in the plane for longer than necessary. Meanwhile, Banana and I went through security and while he was a little more nervous than usual, he was interested in all the sights, sounds and smells.
I watched Monkey being loaded onto both flights and I made sure to talk to Banana frequently too. He spent both flights safely tucked up under the seat in front of me, meowing only once.
After landing in Copenhagen and collecting Monkey, we made our way to the car. I immediately felt an overwhelming ease as I knew we were close to home and the journey was almost over. I was relieved that Monkey hadn’t had another accident. Unfortunately, that didn’t last, and he had another one in the car. So now I have learned that car journeys make Monkey the most nervous.
The early days in our new home
Up-rooting Monkey and Banana and travelling by plane affected them even more than I thought it would. The effects lasted much longer than a few days, despite my best efforts in minimising their stress. They were quick to find safe hiding spaces in the house and reacted nervously to new sounds. I chose to continue with the calming spot on for the first couple of weeks.
We had a lot of sleepless nights in the first month. Both cats like going outside, but it is important to keep them inside for a few weeks, until they know their new home. Monkey’s anxiety was particularly high. He expressed this through nervous behaviour, whining for no obvious reason, restlessness, scratching at doors and was extremely skittish around my partner and his sons. Banana, seemed ok while travelling, but he was also affected. He was more nervous than usual, a little shaky and would seek reassurance. He followed me around the house all of the time and cried at night.
I had brought their blankets and toys, so they would have some familiar smells and my partner had found the brand of food they were used to and bought scratch posts etc. to make sure they had everything from the very start and as many comforts as possible.
3 months in…
They have both fully settled, although it took around 6-7 weeks. The journey itself was not the only thing to consider. Our house is bigger, with more windows, there is a big communal green space, lots of other cats and people regularly walking by.
They are now completely happy and back to their normal selves. We gave them space and provided hiding places but also tried to reassure them. They love the green space as they have room to roam as we are further away from a main road. There have been some fights over territory but through perseverance of establishing routines and making sure they feel safe, I can confidently say they are extremely happy.
Tips for minimising stress
Moving abroad with cats was certainly challenging and I wanted to reduce their stress as much as possible. I pride myself on understanding my cats, ensuring to provide for their needs and respect their individuality. It was crucial to do a lot of research and get good advice from my vet, people with similar experiences and online sources, even though I know my cats well. The journey would cause them unavoidable stress, so all I could do, was prepare as best I could with their personalities in mind.
No matter how well we know our companions, a big change like moving abroad, or a house move causes stress and it’s our responsibility to make it as easy as possible.
- Speak to your vet and discuss particular traits of your companion to ensure you can plan as much as possible to reduce their anxiety. Every animal is different so it’s important to consider their individual needs. It will also provide you with reassurance.
- Do your research to establish the best mode of transport for your animals. Moving cats abroad is stressful for them.
- Ensure any courier company you use is reputable. Check reviews and speak to various ones. Ask lots of questions.
- Do as much preparation beforehand e.g place the carrier out openly in the house for a period of time.
- Use calming plug ins, sprays, treats or spot on treatment to help relieve anxiety – even for a time after you move.
- Take familiar items which smell of you or “home” – blankets and toys.
- Make sure their new surroundings have everything they need and in places they can find; litter boxes, beds, scratching posts.
- Ensure there are some “safe spaces” within the new home, where they can hide.
- Routine – keep as much of the routine as they are used to.
- Travelling is stressful for cats, so they need time in order to readjust.