I’m definitely not done documenting the Balkan road trip, so I will get back to that at some point, but we just were always on the go and got increasingly tired at night as the trip wore on (almost never staying in the same place for two nights in a row will do that to you), and then I got back to Sofia and was just crazy busy with packing and leaving, so it’s fallen by the wayside. But I do mean to get back to it at some point.
However, right now I am actually back in Boston, having left Bulgaria for good, and so today what I want to do is document my experience taking my Bulgarian cat home with me. Prior to making my arrangements and flying, I did a lot of research on traveling with pets and often what was most helpful were people’s personal stories (both random people from the internet and people I know), so I’m hoping that maybe this post will be helpful to someone in my position, trying to parse the crazy bureaucracy and inconsistency of international pet travel.
The bottom line of my experience is that there are the official requirements, some of which contradict each other, and then there’s the actual practical experience, which are usually dramatically different (as in, way more lenient). Nobody from my school (this now includes me) has actually completed ALL of the dictated steps to transport their cat home, and nobody has had any issues with it. It’s like the yellow fever vaccination entry “requirement” for Tanzania. Likewise, I think if I were to have the option to do it over again, I would just go ahead and do all the official steps, because the anxiety just wasn’t worth it. If you’re a less anxious person than I am, though (which you probably are), the practical reality could help you avoid having to do a lot of pointless extra work, particularly in Bulgaria.
Choosing an airline:
My first decision was what airline to fly. I researched airlines that allow in-cabin pets, sizes of carriers allowed, and just whatever I could find about general policies. Given that you have to have a connecting flight in a major European hub if you’re trying to fly from Sofia to the States, one almost immediate conclusion was that I absolutely should not connect in the UK because their pet rules are crazy and they actually seem to enforce them very strictly, and it wasn’t clear to me which or how many limitations might apply even though I would just be transiting, so I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Ultimately I decided to fly Lufthansa because their dimensions for the in-cabin carrier seemed fairly generous as far as different airlines went, and also because I’ve flown Lufthansa a lot and they just seem like they would be competent and accommodating. They give off a good impression. Comments and reviews from other pet owners online overall seemed to back this up.
Conflicting information – Carriers:
The Lufthansa website reports dimensions of 55 x 40 x 23 cm for the in-cabin carrier; this was partly why I selected them, because the proportions were more generous than what was listed on many other websites. However, the telephone ticket agent told me 55 x 40 x 20 cm, and then when I called again to re-confirm the reservation about a month out, the second Lufthansa representative said that it had to be hard-sided. In the meantime, I had already purchased a soft-sided carrier, having read reviews about them and known a colleague who transported her cat with a soft-sided Sherpa carrier. It made a lot of sense to take something that could squish/compress a little to fit under the seat, but then would expand when I pulled it out during the flight. The second rep freaked me out a little when he mentioned the hard-sided carrier, but in this particular case I felt pretty confident that he was just full of crap and/or was confusing the in-cabin requirements with the cargo requirements, based on the many other personal stories and the fact that Sherpa’s official airline-approved pet carriers (Delta, American Airlines, etc) are all soft-sided.
Conflicting information – Paperwork:
This was the most confusing and frustrating part. I knew I should get the cat microchipped and rabies vaccinated, recorded in an EU pet passport. I was getting mixed information about whether any additional certification was needed, and what kind. I had heard from a colleague that some kind of super-annoying certification from the national veterinary medicine center in Sofia was technically necessary, but she hadn’t done it and hadn’t had any problems. When I made my reservation, I asked about what kind of documentation was needed, and I asked whether the rabies vaccination information and general health/OK to fly sections of the EU pet passport were sufficient. She said yes. So did the second Lufthansa representative. So did the local vet when I got the microchip and rabies vaccination – she told me just to come back right before traveling and we would get the stamp and signature for the general health check-up. I looked up all the requirements: the USDA has no entry requirements at all for cats, other than that they basically look healthy and disease-free when they enter I called the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture to ask about state-specific requirements and was told that cats had to be rabies vaccinated and be in good general health. I asked whether the EU pet passport was sufficient for reporting this information, and she said yes. So I was feeling pretty good about this whole process being less complicated than I had initially feared.
Then came the day of reckoning: I returned to the vet clinic the day before flying out, and the vet on-duty that day FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT because he started going on and on about the official requirements, that I had to go to the central veterinary clinic and get the cat health-certified within 24 hours of travel (meaning I basically had to do it that day, because I was leaving for the airport on Saturday morning), and that anything that he did in the passport wouldn’t be valid without that official documentation. He examined the cat and stamped and signed the appropriate page in the passport, but made me sign a waiver that stated that I had declined his recommendation to go to the central clinic, as well as declined tick and parasite treatment (because they weren’t stated as being necessary for travel). When I explained that I knew from personal experience that people really didn’t need this document when traveling with their cat, he said, “Well, yes…maybe you can pass. But if you pass, you will be passing between the raindrops.”
Now this clinic, as with many places in Bulgaria, has totally fudged things for people before. When my colleague was a day or two late getting the rabies vaccination, the vet back-dated the passport entry so that it would be valid for travel. I was pretty sure that this particular vet putting the fear of God in me was really only doing so because he had two students at the clinic observing him that day, so he felt that he had to toe the line and give me the full runaround to set an example for them. However, even being aware of this likely fact does not really help when it’s the day before you’re set to fly out and somebody pretty official and authoritative is spelling doom and gloom for you if you don’t get this document.
This then precipitated some serious anxiety attacks. I went back and reviewed requirements online, and all of a sudden starting finding resources that I had not found, despite my extensive research, when initially making the reservation: The U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria website stating that I needed that document from the central clinic to turn in at the airport in order to be allowed to “export” the cat or dog, websites stating that “all airlines” require an International Health Certificate which can sometimes only be filled out by or requires authentication from the national clinic of your country, some personal anecdotes about the lengths taken to get this certificate in different countries (though no detailed stories about whether the documents were actually checked or not, just vague descriptions of “breezing through customs”). My friend H actually forbade me from looking at the Internet anymore because I was driving myself crazy. She assured me that it would be fine, and I knew that in all likelihood it would be, but when you are all done packing and have nothing else to do, and sort of have an obsessive personality anyway, this is a recipe for a pretty sleepless night.
I figured, OK the absolute worst case scenario is that I can’t fly and I have to change my flight reservation while I get the correct paperwork. It would be expensive, but not a catastrophe – I wasn’t rushing to get to anything in particular and I was allowed to stay in the country until August 6 before my visa expired. Still, this was not exactly comforting. I thought that maybe I could go to the vet clinic first thing when it opened on Saturday at 10 am – I was planning to leave for the airport around 10:20 – and ask them to give me some kind of paper certificate, even if it wasn’t the official national one, just in case it became an issue, but I kept stalking the vet clinic (it’s just across the street and you can see it from my bedroom window) and they didn’t open on time (big surprise), so…it was off to the airport with just the EU passport and the cat. I’ll write more about that tomorrow.