July 23, 2007

Clawing through the red tape: The formalities of importing a pet

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!

18 Responses to “Clawing through the red tape: The formalities of importing a pet”

  1. Nicole said:

    About how much total did it cost you? As I am planning on going to France with my cat within the next 12 months.. it would be helpful to know! Thanks.

  2. Joe Kissell said:

    Nicole: The vet exam was $45, the health certificate was $19, and the rabies shot was $18 (all that plus the $24 the USDA vet charged for his stamp on the certificate). Northwest (the airline we chose) normally charges $150 for your pet, either when traveling in the cargo hold or when placed under your seat. But they let us slide for $80. So, our grand total: $186.

    If you hire a pet relocation company, you will pay much, much more (think in terms of $1000-$2000 at least).

  3. sally said:

    Thanks so much for posting your story, more helpful than anything else i have been searching, the airline and quarantine sites seem to require a solicitor for translation! and the experience on arrival is just so french! Do you have any info or suggestions re cat friendly airlines? I am leaving australia for france and want to take my kitties in the cabin, as they are pedigrees they suffer stress easily and the thought of them alone and scared in a noisy luggage hold for 21 hrs sounds awful. So far I

  4. sally said:

    … oops.. yes so far I have not found an airline that will allow them in the cabin cheers

  5. Joe Kissell said:

    Sally: We flew on Northwest, which is the most pet-friendly airline we could find. I don’t know if they’ll let you bring more than one pet in the cabin, but it’s worth asking. Be sure to call them well in advance of your flight, because they have limits on the number of animals allowed in the cabin on each flight. But if they say no, call back in another week or two – the story could change, as it did for us.

  6. gipsy said:

    Hello I am soon to be traveling the same route to France, complete with three suitcases and three animal cages, one dog two cats… Can you tell me that if two flights are involved, do they direct the animals on, and I pick up at the last destination??Or do I have to clear Customs at the first touch down, ala the US?

    I am going to be living down in the Charente but am not sure of the airport I’m going to just yet..Would like Poitier but was told animals can’t fly into there,,(why???)so might be Bordeaux…

    Any advice?

    Very helpful account of your experience by the way..My Vet has been telling me he has to do a blood test on all of them, but now I can tell them its no longer necessary!!


  7. Joe Kissell said:

    gipsy: You’ll have to call whatever airline you’re using to find out their policies. Usually, if you’re connecting from an international flight to a domestic flight, you go through immigration and customs at the first airport. But only the airline would be likely to know for sure.

  8. gipsy said:

    Lufthansa goes through Frankfurt, and then on to Bordeaux so that might be an option I suppose….at least I’d only have to collect them once!! OR I could fly into Paris and drive down from there..Was warned about collecting animals from the larger airports though, as they said it was a much simpler process from the smaller ones…(This girl took NINE cats and a dog to France with her..Brave heart!!!) Anyway thanks for the info… and by the way, my two cats look like yours!!!

  9. Patricia said:

    Hi Joe: I think I might have written to you before…I love your blog. I, too, moved to France, along with my husband, three teenagers, and one cat. Our dog joined us on Christmas eve. Why did we do this? Sheer insanity, plus your reasons: a simplified yet more interesting life. In addition, we wanted to stop, or at least slow down, time. Our thinking was this: Time goes by more slowly when you are doing something you’ve never done before. Every day in France, it seems, we are doing something we’ve never done before. In any case, I’m currently writing an article about bringing, and keeping, pets in Europe (for expats.)Would you mind if I quoted something from your blog? Or do you have a funny/interesting anecdote to share regarding your cat either on the flight, in the airport, or in France? Thanks, and I look forward to your reply. Sincerely, Patricia

    By the way, the same thing happened with our cat: Oodles of paperwork, raw nerves, (I’m sorry, you forgot to dot the I’s, so the cat must go back to the states.) and lots of $ spent. No one looked at us or asked to see our mountain of paperwork when we entered France. Hey, if we hadn’t checked off all the boxes, I am sure there would have been more scrutiny and we would all have been sent packing.

  10. Joe Kissell said:

    Patricia: Thanks for your story! Feel free to quote from our blog (a link to the original would be appreciated). Other than the stories we wrote about here, nothing particularly funny or interesting happened with our cat on the way to France. I will say that she has adapted very well. She seems to prefer French cat food, and is also picking up the language – she hasn’t spoken a word of English since we got here!

  11. Em Bryant said:

    Hello- We’re moving to France and bringing pets (3 dogs, 2 cats). We’ve researched everything extensively: The Queen Mary 2 is booked for a year in advance (if they would even let us use 5 of their 12 kennels) and we don’t want to turn them over to strangers to travel as cargo. We have looked thoroughly into everything, including chartering a plane. We found an “empty leg” flight returning to Paris from NY, but it’s about $100,000! The whole thing is disheartening. We have found that Air France is pet friendly and we’ll be charged just an excess baggage fee for each animal. Seems like someone with a transatlantic jet could make a living just flying people and their pets around….Wish us luck, Em

  12. Joe Kissell said:

    Em: Wow, that does sound quite daunting. Good luck! For what it’s worth, we had a really good experience on Northwest, but of course we had just the one pet to worry about.

  13. Audrey said:


    Je suis française et vis aux États Unis avec mon fiancé depuis presque un an. Nous voulons rendre visite à mes parents cet été pour un mois et prendre notre chat avec nous. J’ai regardé le certificat vétérinaire et plusieurs choses ne sont pas claires. Les sections: “Test Sérologique Antirabique”, “Traitement Contre les Tiques” et “Traitement contre Echinococcus” portent toutes la mention “si nécessaire”. Qu’est-ce que cela signifie? Dans quels cas cela est-il nécessaire? Enfin que signifie “vétérinaire officiel”? (Le lien que vous donné ne fonctionne plus).

    Désolé de vous écrire en français mais je fais toujours des petites fautes en anglais qui m’agacent. Merci mille fois pour votre blog, il est très bien construit et très intéressant! Merci d’avance pour votre réponse 🙂

  14. Joe Kissell said:


    (français) Je suis désolé! La nouvelle adresse URL pour trouver un vétérinaire officiel de l’USDA est la suivante: https://vsps.aphis.usda.gov/vsps/public/VetSearch.do?method=display. Si aucune des fonctions énumérées est proche de vous, contactez le plus proche pour voir si il ya un autre bureau de plus près que vous pouvez utiliser.

    Notre vétérinaire a marqué les trois points que vous avez mentionné “pas nécessaire”. Je pense que ceux qui ne sont requises que pour les autres types d’animaux, ou si l’animal montre des signes de maladie.

    Vous pourriez également trouver utile de lire cette FAQ sur le site Web de l’USDA: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/regulations/vs/iregs/animals/animal_faq.shtml.

    (Et, je m’excuse de mon mauvais français – avec un peu d’aide de Google!)

    (English) I’m sorry! The new URL for locating an official USDA veterinarian is: https://vsps.aphis.usda.gov/vsps/public/VetSearch.do?method=display. If none of the offices listed is close to you, contact the nearest one to see if there’s another office closer by you can use.

    Our veterinarian marked all three of the items you mentioned “not required.” I think those are required only for other kinds of animals, or if the animal shows signs of illness.

    You might also find it helpful to read this FAQ on the USDA Web site: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/regulations/vs/iregs/animals/animal_faq.shtml.

    (And, I apologize for my bad French – with some help from Google!)

  15. Josee Allen said:

    Thanks SO much for your website. We are hoping to move our furry children to France soon and like you are worried about the cost, transport, vaccinations and paperwork. Your site is such a help and I feel happier already! Enjoy La Belle France – hope to meet you there one day !

  16. Joe Kissell said:

    @Josee Good luck! I’m glad you’ve found some of this material helpful, and by all means, please look us up once you get here!

  17. Carol B. Forte said:

    Thanks for your blog. You have put some of my concerns at ease. WE are taking our two cats to France – Lyon from Oct-March from Canada. This is a test run for future winters in EU. Might you know of a similar agency in Canada such as the USDA where we can get our pet passports validated? Very interesting about the rabies shots – had no idea they were of different types now. I will send your blog URL to our vet. She will no doubt find it helpful too. Best regards. C. B. Forte, Niagara

  18. Joe Kissell said:

    @Carol I’m afraid I don’t know what the Canadian counterpart to the USDA is, but my suggestion is to ask your vet. Good luck!