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So Your Cat Wants to Be a U.S. Citizen…

If you're moving to the U.S. from abroad, here's how to best prepare your cat for the adventure.

Melvin Pena  |  Sep 17th 2014


Are you an expat living abroad with plans on emigrating back into the United States, who adopted a cat during your international residence? Are you immigrating to the United States from another country on a work visa or on a more permanent basis and have a pair of lovely cats that you cannot possibly leave behind?

In America, September 17 has been set aside since 1952 as a day to honor the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, and more broadly, to celebrate all those who are and choose to become U.S. citizens. Since 2004, it has been officially referred to as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. What about cats? Are there anything like immigration or naturalization procedures where cats are concerned?

The CDC and USDA set the standards

Since cats can’t study for nor take written exams to become citizens, what is the path to citizenship for cats moving to the United States from abroad? Thankfully, the guidelines for cat immigration, known generally as “pet relocation,” are far less strict than those required of their human owners. These guidelines and regulations are set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA).

The CDC maintains a set of regulations and standards for the importation of animals into the United States. Put simply, the purpose of these regulations is to prevent animals, including cats, from entering the United States who may be carriers of zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are those which are communicable, not only from cat to cat, but also between species. The specific focus is on rabies, which can pass from cats to humans or infect livestock.

Your cat’s destination makes a difference

Procedures put in place by the CDC are broad and general, mandating only that the cat is healthy. The USDA’s strongest wording involves the international movements of dogs, referring readers curious about the status of cats directly to the CDC. If you are bringing a cat to America from overseas, or even from a contiguous country like Canada or Mexico, you should be aware that many places have their own, more specific and rigorous guidelines.

For state and local authorities — on islands like Hawai’i and Guam, and in states whose economies are based around agriculture and livestock — the issue is once again rabies. Places with stricter rules often require proof that your cat’s rabies vaccinations are current. Hawai’i and Guam, the former a state and the latter a U.S. territory, follow mandatory quarantine procedures for all cats.

Cat quarantines can be accomplished with pre-clearance in under five days, or last up to 120 days. These measures may seem extreme, but both Hawai’i and Guam are rabies-free, and maintaining that status is critically important on islands with very little surface area and where the risk of widespread infection is much easier.

Preparing your cat for international travel

Beyond being current on their rabies vaccination, it’s important to remember that we call them “house cats,” not “travel cats.” Routine is an important part of being a cat. Cat celebrities like Lil Bub may be accustomed to a jet-setting lifestyle, but for cats in general, travel is a source of major stress. In the short term, stress in cats can lead to digestive issues, including diarrhea and vomiting, along with increased anxiety and aggressive behaviors. Longer-term effects include loss of appetite and weight.

Cat stressors include things like loud noise, introduction to unfamiliar locations and people, and movement that is not dictated by their own legs. All of these factors are involved in international travel, and for extended periods of time. To minimize the risk of extended quarantines and increased stress levels in your globe-trotting cat, spend what time you can prior to overseas travel in getting your cat as accustomed as possible to the carrier she will travel in.

While it is possible to ship pets as cargo, the ASPCA recommends that you travel with your cat in a carrier that qualifies with your airline as a carry-on. Since your cat is familiar and comfortable with you, having them as close to you as possible can only help mitigate the stresses associated with cats and travel.

How else can you get your cat ready?

If you have no choice but to ship your cat as cargo, the advance preparation should be much more thorough. This includes loss-prevention measures such as microchipping, taking and affixing photos of your cat to its carrier, and provisions sufficient to last the trip. Make sure the carrier is USDA approved for cat transport, and that you alert all airline staff that your cat is with the cargo. Taking these precautions ensures that while you are separated from your cat for eight hours or longer, that the cat will have a safe, if not entirely pleasant, journey.

Coming to America

Thinking about cats, immigration, and pet relocation guidelines, I asked a lawyer, “Do cats have rights?” She answered, “No. Not unless they incorporate.” All jests aside, if you have any lingering doubts or questions about a specific airline or state regulation, please inquire with that airline or local government directly. When it comes to the safety, security, and well-being of your pets and international travel, there is no reason you should take any risks. The better prepared you and your cat are for emigration and naturalization, the more smoothly the process will go.

We’d love to hear from any cat owners who have gone through the process of international cat relocation. Where did you bring your cat from? Was it by land or through the air? Were there any unforeseen difficulties that you or your cat encountered before, during, or after travel? How long did it take your cat to adjust to a new country and a new home? Is your cat fully naturalized now? I happen to think catitude knows no borders.

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