Snakes, no, CATS! on a plane

Today was the worst day I’ll have leading up to my departure. I hope, anyway. At a moment’s notice I found someone to porter Wally the cat over to Canada, where he will stay with friends for the indefinite future.

Since I don’t have a partner here in Sweden, no kids and no immediate family, Wally has been my replacement family. He is a four year old Norwegian forest cat and, well, my fur baby. Leaving him is the hardest part of leaving my life in Sweden. I will miss my friends, but I can always email them. Wally doesn’t know why I am disappearing and I can’t communicate with him unless we are in the same place. Cats just don’t get Skype.

Here’s Wally on our last morning waking up together for a very long time:


In preparing to take off, I have had the heart-wrenching task of deciding what to do with Wally. Luckily my ex-partner (who also lived with Wally since he was a kitten), agreed to take him on a long-term loan. The problem is, he lives in Vancouver, Canada now.

In the last month I have learned a lot about pets on planes. As someone well versed in everything international travel, I thought I was a flying guru and knew everything airport related. But I was wrong. NOW I know everything. (unlikely.)

How to move a cat from Europe to North America

The first order of business is a means of transport. It seems you can’t just put animals into a UPS box and send them overnight express. On most airlines, unaccompanied animals are only allowed on direct flights, and as there are no direct flights from Stockholm to Vancouver this was out of the question.

Plan A was to have Wally’s foster parent fly over to Sweden to collect him. Due to scheduling issues and the short time frame this was looking to cost upwards of $2000.

Plan B was to hold on to Wally until I found someone to transport him to the right continent. Not ideal, and it would probably involve leaving Wally in the hands of my renters once I left for France, but we agreed to keep our ears out for friends or colleagues hopping from Europe to North America.

Plan B went into action last week, when I ran into a friend on my way back to work after lunch. “Oh hey! How are things? How’s work? Oh a conference? In Vancouver? Will you take my cat with you?”

She enthusiastically said yeah, sure!  … and I stared at her. Blink. Blink. And then I realised she thought I was asking to share a CAB to the airport, not a CAT to the airport. To be honest, what she heard made more sense, as I fly a couple times a month and the cat flies approximately never.

When I rephrased my question she looked at me sideways for a moment, then agreed – slowly and with a certain reserve that was entirely lacking from the original ‘yeah, sure!’.  It was more like “Yeahhhhh…..  Suuurrrrrrreeeeee……..? Umm…..”

And I’ll take that!

She warmed up to the idea, and we began the steps that one must go through to courier a cat to a new continent.

Porter secured. Next step: flight preparation

In the days between when Heda said YES to taking Wally, and when he was theoretically getting on the plane there were a number of steps to go through. I hit the ground running.

  1. Get the cat shot. Though I skipped this, since both Sweden and Canada are rabies-free, so it would have been a waste of $100.
  2. Do not get the cat sedatives. I planned to go to the vet and ask for four of the strongest sedatives they had – one for Wally and three for me. That should get us through a rough 18 hours. (Just ’cause I’m on the ground doesn’t mean his flight doesn’t stress me!) However, after reading a number of blogs I discovered that sedatives are so passé. Turns out they can do more harm than good, especially if the cat vomits and isn’t awake enough to clear his throat, or if the cat loses the ability to regulate his body temperature in a potentially hot or chilly belly of the plane. Instead I got some Zylkene – an ‘all natural’ calming drug, with a website that seems to be written largely in Newspeak, with weird uber-blue-eyed happy animals.
  3. Get the cat a passport. Wally and his passportFor serious. My cat has an EU passport, which cost as much as my passport did to issue. To be honest I wish American passports were issued by a veterinarian.  It was significantly less of a hassle than embassy visits and futile attempts to remember my social security number.
  4. Call the airline. They (KLM in this case) say you need to call at least 48 hours in advance. This is true, but a bit misleading. You need to call 48 hours in advance because you aren’t actually booking the animal onto the flight. You are making a request, which will be accepted or denied in 48 hours. So we called Wednesday afternoon, which means we got a decision on Friday afternoon for a Saturday morning flight.
  5. Prep the carrier. It must be made out of the right material, be big enough and be cosy. And if the cat is lucky, his insane mother will fashion kitty carrier curtains for said box, to avoid unnecessary stressful visual stimuli. That was all the handiness/artistic pizazz I could muster. No – that’s a lie. I also put stickers all over his carrier. If questioned I was ready to blame it on a friend’s kid – it didn’t look like the carrier was decorated by an almost-30-year-old-doctor.

All prepped. Let’s go flying!

Once I got the airline confirmation (18 hours before the flight), the foster-parent-in-Vancouver ‘all clear’ (17 hours before the flight) and all the shots and documents secured, it is time to fly!

Mom - where's my breakfast?!
Mom – where’s my breakfast?!
  1. Stop feeding the cat. He got his special wet food the night before the flight. Then I emptied his bowl, to lower the risk of accidents in the carrier. I also mostly emptied his water bowl. But in the morning realised there was lots of standing water in the dishes in the sink, so really he got to drink as much as he wanted. Probably for the best.
  2. Put the cat in a box. Amazingly, this went smoothly. Perhaps the Zylkene did work after all.
  3. Drive the cat and the courier to the airport. Try not to cry while driving. Unsafe.
  4. Check in. Get seats, boarding passes and luggage sorted, and preliminary cat-forms.
  5. Go to ticket counter (check in part 2). Pay €200 cat-fee, fill out four or five more forms, pull cat out of carrier to show him to animal loving ticket counter workers and put stickers on carrier (careful not to put ‘LIVE ANIMAL’ sticker over adorable WALL-E movie stickers).
  6. Final check. I was asked to take him out of the carrier. All the way out. In a terminal full of people, suitcases, coffee machines, beeping whoosits, whirling whatsits, clatter, clutter and distraction. Sure. Easy. And then the man walks away with the carrier. Luckily Wally clings to me for dear life, and the man soon comes back with the carrier, which has been fully security screened.
  7. Drop cat at giant blue elevator. wallybyeCry eyes out. Wave good-bye to Heda, and thank her for the millionth time for taking Wally.  Cry while driving home. Unsafe.

During the flight

I have no idea what happened during the flight.  I just watched the plane bleep along on FlightAware, thought happy thoughts and missed Wally.

However, according to the extremely friendly, helpful and sympathetic KLM ground crew at Arlanda, on his layover in Amsterdam Wally was met by a vehicle with a vet and was transported to his next airplane. Heda checked with the service counter in Amsterdam and they confirmed Wally had been delivered to the next plane and that he ‘didn’t complain as much as some animals do’.

From my end, I would say KLM went up a couple notches in my book after my interaction with them during this ordeal. They aren’t on my frequent flier program, but in the future I will be preferentially booking with KLM – especially when an animal is involved.

Wally arrives in Canada!

I tracked the flight all the way. Here’s Wally landing:


Then I waited an excruciating one hour and twenty minutes before I got an SMS from Heda – Wally passed his inspection at customs with no problem!

Another half an hour later Wally’s new foster parent sent me a message that Wally had been passed off to him and they were on their way home. He couldn’t send me a photo though since the cage was zip-tied shut.

In the end it turned out that Wally didn’t even make a mess in his cage after 18 hours of travel, and was only partially traumatised after the ordeal. Sounds like he probably fared better than me.

Heda sent me more information later. Apparently the biggest problem was as the border where she had to explain why she was a Croatian traveling from Sweden to a conference in Canada with a Norwegian cat belonging to an American. To be honest after reading that sentence I’m not sure I even understand how it all adds up… but they let her through in the end!

Home, alone

Now I’m here and Wally is there. The apartment feels empty, and every time I set down a dish or make a loud noise I still glance up expecting him to come running.

Last night I left out a glass of water, which Wally would have knocked over at 3 am had he been here. There are also open boxes everywhere, and I even left the remnants of a batch of cookie dough out on the counter – all things I could have never done with the cat around. And of course the spot between the pillows, next to my head, was noticeably empty and cold.

But this means that in the remaining two weeks before I go I can really focus on packing, which for me begins with spreading everything on the floor in clear view. With half of my belongings gone and the cat on another continent this apartment isn’t home any more. Time to take off.

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