Robin Ashenden

The horror of travelling with pets

Why is it such a nerve-wracking hassle?

  • From Spectator Life
Michael Heath, from a 1996 edition of The Spectator

It’s 7 in the morning, I’ve got to Milan Linate airport two hours before my plane to Bari, and already things are going horribly wrong. The airline aren’t letting my cats fly with me. I’ve got documents to show they’re microchipped and all their vaccines are in order, but two uniformed men, straight out of Mussolini central casting, are telling me the carry-cage is all wrong.

Perhaps I should resent these animals and all the hassle they’ve brought me

‘It should have metal sides,’ they snap. ‘You cannot fly with this cage.’ I tell them honestly that I flew with it from Britain the day before – the very same airline to this very airport – that I always fly with it, but they’re having none of it. I’m thinking about what it will be like to miss this plane, to have to haul my cats and rucksack and suitcase onto a crowded Milanese tube to Central Station, and go overnight on the train. It doesn’t bear thinking about, and something in my expression clearly touches them. Soon the two men are on the phone and texting pictures of the cage to their supervisor.

‘OK,’ they say, softening. ‘You can travel. But you must double-secure the mesh front.’ For want of rope or fasteners, I rip a shoelace off my trainers and get out a pair of nail-scissors. Soon it’s done.

This is the just kind of thing you fear will happen when you travel overseas with pets. It’s a horrible process, fraught with calamity, and every time it goes right you can scarcely believe your luck. There are endless things to take care of before flying: visits to vets, vaccines, documents, the thorny business of getting the carrycase right (see above), and then simply dealing with the cats themselves.

The first time I flew with them was under the worst conditions. Putin had just started his ‘special military operation’ and it was clearly time to get out of Russia. Rostov, where my cats had been born and raised, wasn’t a place I thought they or I would ever have to leave. It meant having to get microchips, shots and papers for them at high speed, and then there were worries about how they’d cope with the journey.

Could they handle a 16-hour train ride to Moscow? Would they cry, rebel, excrete lavishly in their cage to the disgust of fellow-passengers? How would I give them water and food without letting them out? At the airport, would they be accepted for flight or would I have to turn back? Martial law might be declared imminently (they were down to discuss it in the Duma that Friday) and putting off escape wasn’t an option. A day or two earlier I’d nearly chickened out and left them for good with my daughter’s grandmother, but the memory of Fergus, the younger cat, hissing at me with hatred for abandoning him made me get off the sleeper train at the last moment and go back.  

In the event all went smoothly. My cats sat like silent angels on the overnight train, at the Moscow airport they were deemed fit for travel, and I duly handed them over to baggage handlers to be stashed in the hold. This in itself was scary – would I ever see them alive again? I was frantic they’d get rerouted to Mexico by mistake or simply have an aneurysm in all that tilting, roaring darkness. When they reappeared at Yerevan airport, Armenia, looking sublimely unbothered after the flight and merely quizzical about their new surroundings, it was one of those magic moments in life I could count on one hand.

But in Yerevan there were new problems to deal with. Anything scratchable in the hotel room got a mauling. The supermarket opposite sold food they refused to eat. And I was quickly told I wouldn’t be able to get them back to western Europe for several months. They’d had the microchip and the rabies shot but, catastrophically, I’d done them in the wrong order. The rabies vaccine would have to be readministered and I’d need to send off blood samples to a German lab for checking.

With more documents I moved with them to Georgia – a better country, I thought, to kick my heels in. From hotel to hotel we went, till finally, in the nice leafy town of Kutaisi, I found a spartan, cat-proof flat for them. This was to be our home for several months before one day I caught the pair toying perilously with a large, angry-looking scorpion that had scuttled through a window. A heavy saucepan dispatched the beast but I was shaken – clearly it was time to move on. More ministries, more vets, more palpitations. And again, that hair-raising moment at the airport where you had to hold both cats in your arms – tensing, squirming and scratching for freedom – as their empty cage got x-rayed.

We landed in Italy for a month, where my daughter and her mother are now living. Getting the cats in had been no problem – the Italians barely looked at those hard-fought documents – but back to Britain? Much harder. Officially animals can be flown into the UK – but almost no airline’s prepared to do it (and the few that will, at eye-watering expense). The only option was to fly to Paris and get a train to Calais, with overnight stop-offs for the pets. Even there, the boat and train companies wouldn’t let me on without a car, so I was dependent on someone coming over from England (thanks, Lesley) to pick me up. Lastly, there were those papers, which the sweet Puglian vet had been so unsure of how to fill in – God knows whether they’d cut it at customs. When finally I got my cats back to my late mother’s house in Suffolk, it was with a feeling of homecoming – after eight months of travel – that I’d never known before.  

Now I’m in Italy with them once again and, if I don’t apply for residency, will in May have to go through the same ruinous border-hopping process once again. Perhaps I should resent these animals and all the hassle they’ve brought me. Wouldn’t I be better off without them?

Well no, actually, I don’t think I would. In those long months of displacement in 2022 when I and my cats were semi-refugees, a strong bond of dependency grew up between us, and the chance to love anything or anyone more deeply in life is hardly to be sneezed at. On my side it was also mixed with a growing respect, for my cats’ patience, their stoicism, and what looked like the most flattering trust. We may baulk at being responsible for other creatures, animal or human, and the limitations they always impose. But later we realise these periods of entrapment and diminished choice were also the richest and realest, the very heart of our lives. Would I have adopted these two cats in Russia years ago, knowing what was coming? Possibly not, but as I see them sprawling in the mid-morning Italian sunshine, supremely unbothered about the trouble or expense they’ve caused, I’m very glad I did.

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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