When I met my New Zealand-born fiance, Jeff, in 1997, he easily won my heart. Well, he won what was left of it anyway. My cat, Lexington, had staked her claim to a good portion of it the year before, after she had been abandoned in a New York City apartment building. When Jeff asked me how I felt about the idea of moving with him to Sydney, my initial reaction was, "Absolutely, as long as Lexie can come too."
Presented with a choice between the man that I loved - whose U.S. visas had expired - and my beloved pet, I decided I wanted them both. I didn't want to choose. I quickly realized I wouldn't have to, provided that I was willing to devote a great deal of time, patience, and money to the task of transporting my cat from New York City to Sydney, Australia. Some of the more practical matters I learned along the way about the process of importing a pet from the United States to Australia will be included here.
However, the time, patience and money were not important to me. What I worried about in the days that I weighed my decision was how Lexie would be affected by the trip and the quarantine. Would the trip make her sick? Would the quarantine officials treat her well? What kind of medical tests and treatments would she be subjected to? These are the things that still weigh on my mind today. Her trip is one week away. In the weeks to come, I'll be sharing Lexie's experiences, from the trip to her quarantine stay, in periodic updates.
Tips on Importing Pets to Australia
I chose to complete much of the paperwork required to import Lexie to Australia on my own. I did so because the required information is easy to access via the Internet, and because help can be expensive. I did what I could on my own, and hired assistance for what I knew would be over my head. Some of the tips included here are geared toward cats, and all are specific to Australia, but the basics should apply to other scenarios.
Tip #1 - Do Your Homework
The following resources were invaluable to me while planning Lexie's journey to Australia:
Tip #2 - Pay Attention to Details
- The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) website is at www.aqis.gov.au. Bookmark this site. It includes detailed information on paperwork procedures, health certificate requirements, fees, and the phone numbers for each Australian quarantine facility.
- A portion of the website for the Australian Embassy's Washington DC post is dedicated to importing pets. The website address is www.austemb.org/library/pets.htm.
- The phone number for the Counsellor (Veterinary) at the Embassy of Australia in Washington DC is 202-797-3238.
The following is a list of details regarding the paperwork that aren't readily apparent, and can be important:
Plan ahead to significantly reduce the number of days your pet has to spend in the quarantine facility. The actual quarantine period for a dog or cat entering Australia from the US is currently six months, or according to the AQIS website, "a minimum of 180 days from the date of their satisfactory rabies test to the date of release from quarantine." I was able to reduce Lexie's estimated quarantine stay to the minimum 30 days by having her blood drawn for a rabies titre test 5 months prior to her departure. (The titre test proves a satisfactory level of rabies antibodies present in the blood from previous vaccinations. It does not prove the absence of the disease itself.)
Tip #3 - Learn Who the Players Are
- Titre test results are good for one full year from the date that the blood is drawn, not only for the six-month quarantine period. This is an important distinction to someone who is trying to synch their pet's departure up with their own.
- Make sure your pet's identification microchip is compatible with a reader brand supported by the AQIS. For details on which microchip reader brands the AQIS currently supports, see their website.
- Make sure all lab results include your pet's identification microchip number.
- Make sure the appropriate vet, in longhand signs all of the paperwork. For more information on vet requirements, see "Tip #3 - Learn Who the Players Are."
- Get vaccination certificates for every vaccine your pet receives before leaving the U.S.
- Affix labels from vaccine bottles to your pet's vaccination certificates. It's not required, but may be helpful as you are sending the information to another country where drug brand names may differ.
Tip #4 - Create a Timeline
- Your Vet. The vet you use for all of your visits and testing must have certain credentials. At this time, these credentials include USDA accreditation. Not all vets are have it. Refer back to the AQIS website for the latest requirements, and make sure your vet meets them. If your vet doesn't, give yourself time to find one that does who you are comfortable with.
- The "Official Vet." You will also need endorsements from an "Official Veterinarian." This is defined by the AQIS as "?a civil service veterinarian or a specially appointed veterinarian authorised by the veterinary administration of the country of export and able to sign certificates on behalf of that veterinary administration." Your vet should be able to help you locate an official veterinarian to sign off on your pet's paperwork.
- The Laboratories. Not all U.S. laboratories are recognized by the AQIS for titre test results. Kansas State University and the Atlanta Health Association are most often used for the titre tests. To avoid problems, make sure your pet's blood test goes to one of these facilities.
- Pet Transport Companies. I found companies that offered to handle everything from the entire paperwork process, to the transportation arrangements, to liaising with the USDA and AQIS officials, or any combination therein. I opted to complete the paperwork required to obtain the Import Permit myself, significantly reducing the cost. I did hire a company to review the Import Permit for accuracy after the final vet visit 24 hours prior to departure, make Lexie's transportation arrangements from Los Angeles to Sydney, and liaise with the USDA and the AQIS. I chose to have someone handle this part of the process for me because there is no margin for error at this point. There is no time to correct a mistake when your pet is in the carrier, at the airport, bracing themselves against the roar of the jet engines. I wanted this part of the process to go smoothly for my cat.
- USDA Officials. At the point of departure from U.S. soil, pets need to be sealed in their containers by a USDA official. This person also completes Certificate B, and endorses Certificate A, which must accompany your pet's Import Permit upon arrival in Australia. (The blank certificates are sent to you with the Import Permit.)
- Quarantine Officials. These are the people who will care for your pet during their stay at the quarantine facility. You must also arrange transportation from the airport to the quarantine facility and book your pet's accommodations with them ahead of time.
Upon review of the requirements put forth on the AQIS website, you will notice that the medical tests and vaccinations all must be performed a certain amount of time prior to departure. This is particularly true if you are trying to minimize the amount of time your pet will need to be detained in the quarantine facility, and/or synch your pet's departure up with your own. I had a 1999 calendar up on my refrigerator with all of the steps plotted out. This will help ensure that you don't make any mistakes in this very time sensitive process.
Tip #5 - Get Help
Determine which parts of the process you are willing and able to handle on your own, and which you are not. When you've decided what you want help with, use the following sites to research pet transport companies:
Tip #6 - Save Your Pennies
- The Independent Pet and Animal Transport Association International website at www.ipata.com. The site includes examples of services provided by pet transport companies, explains some of the benefits of hiring one, and provides listings of pet transport companies in the association organized by state.
- The Australian Embassy in Washington D.C. lists pet relocation companies on their website at www.austemb.org/library/pets_companies.htm.
It's costing roughly $2000 for me to bring my cat to Sydney. No; she's not sitting in first class. Here's the breakdown:
- I received quotes from US$800 to over US$2000 for different levels of service from different pet transport companies. I will pay about US$900 for the services I selected.
- I made 3 visits to my vet for check-ups, tests, vaccines, and treatments directly related to the trip. In New York City, the average was about US$150 per visit.
- The rabies titre test cost $150 in March of 1999.
- The signature of the Official Veterinarian, required to lodge the Import Permit, cost US$16.
- It cost AU$60 to lodge the Import Permit application with the AQIS.
- A new carrier that meets airline and AQIS standards; US$50.
- The fees for quarantine in Australia are listed in detail on the AQIS website. I am estimating that it will cost about AU$550 for my cat to be in quarantine for 30 days. This includes transportation from the airport to the facility, as well as boarding costs.
Given Lexie's humble beginnings, I'm sure she never thought such a fuss would be made over her. I don't think she appreciates it. As we make our way into the city for her final vet visit, I try to comfort her in response to the wide-eyed glances directed at me from inside the carrier.
The main tasks of the visit are to have the doctor administer internal and external parasite treatments and complete Certificate A of the Import Permit. I've been assured that while the treatments sound unpleasant, they are not invasive. They amount to little more than a pill and a few drops of flea repellent. Certificate A is a complicated form verifying that Lexie is in good health. This form will be critical tomorrow when she arrives in Los Angeles, so I fax it ahead for a final review by the pet transport company, who in turn forwards it to the USDA for a preview.
Airlines also have their own individual requirements, including a form alternately referred to as an Interstate Health Certificate/Animal Health Certificate/USDA Health Certificate. This is a standard form that your vet should have in his/her office.
I bring along some old paperwork as well, including old vaccination certificates. These have become very important, as I have to prove that the rabies vaccine Lexie received in May 1999 was not her first. This distinction has an effect on the date of import. If you are working with the same vet throughout the process, this should not be an issue. As luck would have it, my original vet left his practice after performing Lexie's rabies titre test in March.
Before I go to bed to lie awake and worry about tomorrow, I run through my mental checklist one more time. I've frozen water in the carrier dish, and packed some Iams in a Ziplock bag. Lexie's paperwork has been photocopied and the originals are contained in a marked envelope taped to the carrier. A homemade itinerary with lots of contact names and phone numbers in both the U.S. and Australia is also in the envelope, just in case an emergency arises. Along with the required identification microchip that lies beneath the skin of her neck, Lexie is now also sporting a collar and dog tag. (The cat tag was too small for an international phone number.) A luggage tag is tied around the carrier handle.
We are as ready as we'll ever be.
Lexie's Journey Begins
My alarm went off at 4 a.m. Between this and the preparations of the day before, Lexie knew something was up.
I had planned to make the trip with Lexie, ending a seven-month separation from my fiance and allowing me to visit her during quarantine. Unfortunately, as often happens when dealing with government bureaucracy, my visa is tied up in enough red tape to keep me here for at least another month or two. Lexie's Import Permit expires October 1st. Rather than risk trying to extend her paperwork in the hope that it would still be valid when my visa is finally issued, I decided to send her ahead. With a pet transport company handling her Los Angeles to Sydney connection, and my fiance to take care of any problems that occur in Australia, I felt confident that things should go smoothly.
Still, it was with great trepidation, guilt, and sadness that I handed Lexie over to the airline officials to check her in as a Priority Parcel shipment. (Priority Parcel service ensures that she is the last on and first off the plane, minimizing her time on the tarmac where the cargo area can become too hot for an animal's comfort.) To further complicate an already stressful situation, American Airlines cargo representatives gave me incorrect drop-off information. I was told to go to JFK airport's "Old International" Terminal, which equates to Terminal 4. American Airlines' Priority Parcel counter is actually in Terminal 8. When I finally arrived at the counter, an exasperated clerk told me that this happens often. We nearly missed the flight.
Lexie sat on the scale panting like a dog, reacting, I am sure, to my less-than-composed demeanor. When I walked toward the carrier to calm her, an airline employee stopped me. She explained that she had performed a "search" of Lexie's carrier, and I was no longer permitted to approach her.
The flight left at 7 a.m. She will be picked up at Los Angeles Airport by the pet transport company, and boarded at their facility for most of the day. She will then be cleared and sealed by the USDA, and begin her 14-hour flight to Sydney at 10 p.m. Pacific time - 19 hours after I left her at New York's JFK airport. I'm told that it will take about three hours for her to clear customs and arrive at the quarantine facility in Eastern Creek, New South Wales. So after her 36-hour journey, I will finally be able to call the quarantine facility and check up on her.
First Week in Quarantine
One week prior to Lexie's departure, I called the Eastern
Creek Quarantine Station in New South Wales and introduced
myself. I explained that my cat was about to become a guest
of theirs, and that I would be calling often. They were very
nice about it. I was given the name of a particular caretaker,
and told that I could call daily if I liked, with the exception
of weekends when they don't take calls. I took them up on
Her first day at the facility was a long one. It took a full
eight hours from the time her flight landed to get a full
report from the quarantine station confirming that she was
settled in and safe.
The ensuing days have been a little rocky. Lexie went five
days without eating "brilliantly well," even though
they were feeding her the same Iams dry food she gets at home.
They told me this was normal, but they started to work a little
harder on the fifth day at trying to entice her to eat, in
an attempt to ward off potential health complications. Lexie
finally ate all her food on the fifth night, but she was holding
out for a canned treat. Her caretakers at the quarantine station
seemed very concerned about her, and were willing to spoil
her a little.
A major concern of mine in sending Lexie to quarantine was
the risk of putting her through unnecessary medical tests,
and relinquishing control of her veterinary care. In fact,
no medical tests will be performed on Lexie in quarantine
unless she appears to be ill, at which time they would call
in a vet to examine her. My fianc?e received the quarantine
bill this week, which included a release form that would allow
the facility to call on an outside vet if Lexie were to exhibit
signs of illness. So far, she has not required any additional
While I worked hard to ensure that she would be safe and
healthy, I did expect Lexie to be upset by the trip and the
quarantine, and she has been. Along with her less than robust
appetite, Lexie has been spending a lot of time in her "igloo."
The cages in the cattery at the New South Wales quarantine
station are 4'x4', and have three levels. The kitty litter
area is on the bottom level. A ladder system links it to the
middle level, which contains an igloo for the cat to hibernate
in, complete with a heating pad. The top level is referred
to as the "sunroof." It sounds lovely, but Lexie
remains unimpressed, preferring to hide in her igloo and hiss
at her handlers. This is very uncharacteristic behavior for
Although I believe she is being well cared for, there is
obviously no way to make her understand that this is for her
own good -- that there was no other alternative short of putting
her up for adoption. I still believe that she will ultimately
have a better life with me than without, and that 30 days
is a small price to pay. Still, there is no way to make her
feel better about living in a cage for 30 days.
Second Week in Quarantine
Lexie has finally resigned herself to life at the Eastern Creek quarantine facility. She has started eating. Her hissing has been reduced to one disgruntled note at the approach of her caretaker, whose theory is that she is merely expressing her disapproval of the accommodations. She reverts quickly to a welcoming meow.
The quarantine staff suggested to me last week that I send Lexie a care package. They thought that an item carrying my scent would remind her of home and lift her spirits. I had been under the impression that such an item would be destroyed at the facility. I was told that anything accompanying Lexie in her carrier off the plane would have been destroyed. However, I was now free to send her a package, and its contents would be sent home with her on October 16th.
A baffled postal worker helped me fill out the customs form the next day. Towel and pillowcase -- dollar value 0. The pillowcase is one I have been using recently, and therefore likely to carry my scent. The towel is Lexie's version of a favorite blanket. It also typically serves as a scratching post, preventing her from sinking her claws into my bed. The postal clerk was curious as to why I would spend $15 to send such a tattered piece of terrycloth to Australia. And why is someone with the unfortunate name of Lexington Cruickshanks in quarantine? Luckily, I don't embarrass easily.
Lexie was presented with her care package yesterday, and inspected its contents immediately. She has been making good use of both items, I am told, in the ways that cats do. Mainly lots of sniffing and lounging. I feel better now that she has been comforted, even if only in a small way.
Third Week in Quarantine
Lexie will be released from quarantine in one week, and I am afraid she is starting to like and trust her caretakers just in time to leave them. They tell me this is often the way it works.
She is spending less time in her igloo, and is no longer hissing at the attendants. There are no more problems with eating, and she is initiating a bit of interaction with people. Lexie has spent a lot of time with the contents of her care package, sleeping contentedly on her "favorite blanket."
My fiance and I talked about the idea of him taking a trip from Sydney to visit Lexie. The quarantine station is about an hour outside Sydney by train. I'm told there is not a lot of public transportation in Eastern Creek, and he would need to take a cab from the train station. The trip would not be convenient for him, but he was more than willing to do it if I thought it would help Lexie.
I talked the idea over with Lexie's primary caregiver at the facility. I was told that visits are usually much more beneficial for the humans involved than for the animals. When their owners come to visit them, but then leave without taking them along, it can be more difficult for the animal than not being visited at all. It's a hard decision. From my perspective, I would feel much better if Jeff was to visit with Lexie, but I see their point. If he goes only to pick her up and take her home, she doesn't lose any trust in him. She's already going to be upset with me; she deserves one hero.
So, we have decided to wait it out. Instead of visiting, Jeff is busy buying new cat supplies in preparation for Lexie's arrival.
On the morning of October 16th, Jeff drove up to a large area of converted farmland with kennels and an imposing fence. There were several cars lined up in front of the gate. It was a little after ten o'clock in the morning. Lexie's release was scheduled between 10 and 10:30.
At around 10:15, the gates were opened and the caravan moved slowly onto the facility's grounds. Jeff entered a reception room where he encountered several animals in their carriers, all ready to make the final leg of their journey home. Lexie sat meowing loudly next to a quiet, sedate cat. Her favorite blanket lined the bottom of her carrier. Jeff signed a release form, and he and Lexie were on their way back to Sydney.
We had been concerned that Lexie would not remember Jeff; she has not seen him in over a year. He thinks she recognized him that morning. She has acclimated quickly to her new home. Lexie spent the first few hours in the her new home under a desk, but had set up camp on the bed by the time Jeff returned from work that evening. Jeff has spoiled her with a little extra attention and some catnip, and she seems to be enjoying the undivided attention.
Jeff seems to think Lexie has put on a little weight. In fact she did spend the last week of her quarantine stay on a diet. I was told that after four weeks at the facility, the lack of exercise had caused her to put on a few pounds. The staff switched her to Iams diet cat food, and the extra weight came off by the time she was released. We are hoping that having the run of the apartment will help her take off a few more pounds.
So far, Lexie seems to be enjoying her new Australian home.