Should you take your pets with you when you emigrate?

My two furry children, Darwin (left) and Snowy (right) with my not-so-furry child in the background. Happy care-free days in warm, sunny South Africa with them just lazing about.

For most of us, our pets are part of the family. In my case, I hand-raised my one cat. He was a feral kitten only 5 weeks old, and abandoned by his mother when I got him. He was completely wild. It was with great joy and pride that I managed to tame him enough to at least get him to behave in a civil manner towards the humans in his most immediate environment. Our second cat – imagines himself a dog – but is a lovable addition to our family, and to a great extent, they are my children. I know some would frown at this, but I also know that there are a lot of pet lovers out there that share my sentiment, and who get how easily an animal can claim a space in your heart and in your life and how difficult it is to just discard these special members of your family.

So, when my husband tried to convince me to move to Canada, one of my conditions was that I get to take my cats with me. They are my children after all, and I couldn’t bear to leave them behind. Of course I did the due dilligence and inquired from those already living in Canada whether they thought my cats would adjust to the new environment, especially considering how cold it gets in Canada. I was met with reassurance that they would be fine and would adjust quickly. In addition, Canada’s pet immigration policy is not as strict as other countries. As long as your pets are older than a year, their vaccination records are up to date and they pass their health exam in South Africa, they don’t have to go into quarantine. You get to take them home as soon as they arrive in Canada.

I took all of this as a sign that I was doing the right thing taking my cats with me to Canada. However, although the immigration process went smoothly for them and they arrived safely, they have struggled to adjust. Here is why…

There are three things to keep in mind when you are considering whether to take your pets with you when you immigrate.

Firstly, it is expensive. Really expensive. The cost of shipping a pet to another country is about double what your own plane ticket would cost you. They have to be vaccinated and subjected to medical exams and all of this cost money. Specialised crates need to be made for them to ship them and they are booked onto their own flights. The reason why your animals do not fly with you, is because the companies that ensure your pets’ safe transfer try to find the shortest possible route for them to travel with a stop over in between to give them a chance to rest and eat etc. Remember, that despite how taxing the long flight is for you, it is so much more overwhelming and traumatising for them. They are confined to a crate and are not allowed to eat on-route in case they get sick. They have no clue what is happening to them and you are not arround to comfort them. So it is quite a shock to the system. Also, animals cannot legally be sedated during long trips, because it constitutes animal cruelty. So they are simply provided calming treatments but are kept awake for the entire trip.

Secondely, when you arrive in your new country, you will have to find accommodation as a matter of urgency, and bringing pets along complicates matters, since most landlords do not allow pets. This eliminates many suitable housing options, because you have to find something that is pet-friendly. In Vancouver, landlords that allow pets charge an additional pet cover on top of your initial securing deposit, so you end up paying a double deposit on the accommodation. Most of the time the pet depost is for pet-incurred damages – i.e. pet hair, scratches or bite marks on furniture etc. – and is non-refundable. Even if your pet is usually well-behaved, they will most probably misbehave for the simple reason that they will arrive at your accommodation after a long and traumatising trip confined to a crate for many hours and then have to get used to an unfamiliar new environment. This is usually very distressful for most animals and they tend to act out, because they feel overwhelmed and confused. Our cats tore into the dining room chairs in our temporary accommodation and despite buying them not one, but three scratching posts, and various cat toys, they did not stop scratching the furniture. We ended up hiding the dining room chairs in the main bedroom walk-in closet at night while we slept and only taking them out when we really needed them. Desperate times called for desperate measures. We did not want to incur any penalties for damage to furniture in our temporary accommodation.

Lastly, if you decide to move to Canada, and you have a pet that spends more time outdoors than indoors, DO NOT believe people if they tell you that your animal will adjust to the climate in Canada. My cats are not your typical house cat. They used to spend most of their time playing outdoors or lying somewhere in the garden. They are fully house-trained in the sense that we did not even keep a litterbox for them in the house in South Africa. They had an open window for easy access to the house, but would “take care of business” outside in the garden.

Then we end up in Canada in the middle of winter and my poor cats are confined to the house for the first time in their short lives. Firstly, because we were staying in temporary accommodation when we arrived here, we did not want to let them out in case they wandered off and got lost. We decided to hold off untill we moved into a more permanent place. Unfortunately, what we did not bargain on was that our new house would be child-proof and what this means is that even the windows are childproof. They don’t open far enough for a cat to get through and all the windows are covered in guaze. Furthermore, staying in a townhouse means that we are not flat on the ground so they have quite a distance to jump if they were to get out.

I remained hopeful though, thinking we could use the window in the kitchen that goes out into the garden and at least give them some access to the garden. But there are two problems here. In winter, the snow presents an obstacle. They are not used to moving in snow and were completely freaked out by the snow. A side-note here, is that for dogs, it is even worse, because when it snows they cover the roads and sidewalks with salt to prevent people from slipping. However, the salt cuts into the dogs’ paws which means you have to get special socks for them to wear in the winter months if you want to take them outside. The second problem is that in summer, letting the cats out of the house might result in them becoming dinner. I asked locals here why we never see cats around and they explained that cat owners keep their cats indoors because the bears, coyotes and raccoons eat them. As luck would have it, we ended up renting in the Burke Mountain area, which is the prime spot for bears and coyotes in Vancouver. So my cats are still stuck in the house.

In retrospect, I find myself crying some days thinking that perhaps I did them an injustice by bringing them here. They have no clue what is happening and they don’t understand why they can’t go outside. Luckily our new house has a lot stairs and interesting places to climb and explore, so that keeps them busy and they seem to be settling in better than in the temporary accommodation.

Despite all of the frustration and trauma, these darling animals have still brought us comfort. They have served as welcome companions for my daugther who absolutely love having these furry friends to play with. She has learnt pretty quickly how to entice them to chase after a rope or a ball or any other fun object and they are spoilt with cuddles on a daily basis. As for me, having a furry friend on my lap on the days when the homesickness is strong, brings tremendous comfort. I have always felt calm in the presence of a purring cat and they have not dissappointed. Despite my husband’s complaints, both Emma and I enjoy their company and are grateful for the little bit of respite they bring. I can only hope that they are grateful to us for keeping them around instead of abadoning them to the care of someone else.

Most people are dog lovers. Most people do not like cats all that much. My cats have different personalities and are just as lovable as any dog. They just have sharper claws and more attitude. But I love them either way and I sleep easier knowing that being stuck inside, is still better than being left to their own resources, or worse perhaps facing a unceremonious end to their short little lives.

Darwin trying to find a comfortable spot in our temporary accommodation
Snowy exploring the stairs in our new house

One Reply to “Should you take your pets with you when you emigrate?”

  1. Hi Chantal ek’s bly die katte is ten minste ‘n troos vir jou en Emma daar in Kanada. Ek’s seker hulle sal ‘n bietjie kan uitgaan sodra dit somer is. Liefde

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

three + fifteen =