If you want to take your pet to France—and we did—you have two entirely separate sets of problems. One is simply that of transportation; Morgen covered that in Flying the furry skies: Finding transportation for our cat. It can be a pain, but it’s ultimately not that much harder than buying a plane ticket for a person or sending a large package overseas. The other problem, though, is satisfying the relevant authorities that your pet is healthy, safe, and otherwise fit to enter the country. That’s what I want to talk about here.
Different countries have different regulations about importing animals. In some places (in fact, even within the U.S., Hawaii is such a place), all newly arriving animals must be quarantined for some period of time to make sure they don’t have rabies or various other highly problematic diseases. Had we been traveling to England, our cat would have had to be quarantined, and we would have had to jump through several other hoops as well. But France has comparatively relaxed rules about pet importation—at least if the pet in question is a dog, cat, or ferret and it’s coming from the U.S. or Canada. (Different regulations apply to all other animals and animals coming from other countries.) No quarantine is necessary, but you do have to meet other requirements:
- The animal must have a microchip. These are tiny RFID chips injected under the animal’s skin that enable it to be identified with a unique code when a scanner is passed over the chip. So if your pet goes missing and is found by someone, the microchip uniquely identifies it and connects it with you, the owner. (And, perhaps more importantly, the chip implies the animal isn’t feral, otherwise it might simply be destroyed if it ends up in the wrong place.) Our cat, Zora, had a chip implanted by the SPCA before we adopted her, and it adhered to the standard required by the French authorities. (If it had been another kind of chip, we would have had to supply our own scanner so that they could verify it! Apparently, tattoos are acceptable substitutes for microchips in some cases.)
- The animal must have a proper rabies shot. Zora has always been an exclusively indoor cat, and for that reason, on our vet’s advice, we had skipped giving her a rabies vaccination, because there is a small chance (1 in 10,000, depending on the type of vaccine) that cancer could develop at the vaccination site. However, risk of cancer or not, the French government requires a rabies shot. Moreover, it must be one that uses the killed (or “inactivated”) rabies virus, not the newer variety that uses a “modified live” virus (MLV) which, seemingly, carries a lower risk of cancer. If this is an initial rabies vaccine (as it was for us), the shot must have been given at least 21 days before the animal arrives in France.
- You must have a French health certificate. There’s a form you can download from the French Embassy’s Web site and take to your vet. It’s in French, but the form itself (not the supporting material) has English translations. It asks for the owner’s contact information, detailed identification of the pet, vaccination records, and a few other things that didn’t apply to us.
That didn’t seem too bad. The first item was already done, so we took Zora to get a rabies shot about a month before our trip. Other than the cost of the vet visit, it was no big deal. All that remained was that certificate.
We’d read conflicting statements about when the certificate had to be signed. The form itself states that it’s valid for four months after it’s signed, but another source (I can’t recall where offhand) stated that the certificate must be signed within 10 days of travel. Grrrr. So we thought, just to be on the safe side, that we’d wait until 10 days before our trip to deal with the certificate.
Our vet was very helpful—filled out the form carefully and signed it. (Of course, there was a fee for this and the accompanying cursory examination of our cat.) But then she pointed out that the form must also be signed by an official USDA-certified veterinarian. Apparently there’s only one such designated vet in San Francisco, and our vet gave us his number. We had to make an appointment to visit him at the USDA office near the SFO airport—luckily, his schedule was open. He said we needed to bring only the paperwork our vet filled out—not our cat. Weird. So we did. He basically looked over the form, looked up our vet in a big book to make sure she was properly licensed, signed and stamped the form, and charged us a fee for the service (I believe it was $24). That whole last step struck me as extremely odd, especially considering that this official vet never actually saw the animal, but it’s just one of those things.
Per our vet’s instructions, we took with us on the plane the form with her signature and the USDA vet’s stamp (plus a photocopy) and the rabies vaccination certificate (again, with a copy). As far as we could tell, we had met all the requirements to get our cat legally into the country.
Now here’s the kicker. We landed in Paris and got our luggage. I got out all the paperwork and steeled myself to withstand all the scrutiny the French customs officials could dish out. We pushed our carts full of luggage—our cat in her carrier on top—toward the customs area, and…there wasn’t one. That is to say, there were a few tables between the baggage claim area and the door that were presumably used for inspections, but there were no inspectors. No signs saying “Nothing to Declare” or “Something to Declare.” There was one guy, dressed in the manner I took to be that of a customs inspector, casually standing near the doorway, but not particularly looking at anyone. We walked right out without anyone asking us anything or taking any notice of us, our belongings, or our cat.
I’m not sorry we went through the process and got the paperwork, but it was weird that there was no one to give it to. And frankly, a bit disturbing. Sure, I appreciated the convenience of being able to leave without having my luggage searched and everything, but geez…security, anyone? I could have been carrying an unvaccinated, unchipped cat with really sharp claws and a bad temper. Just think what havoc I could have wreaked!