While I didn't take much with me on my big move to Calabria, Italy, I did have precious cargo: my two cats, Macky and Gumbo.
I stressed for MONTHS over this process, and let me be honest: it wasn't easy. But seeing them living their best Italian life has made all the work and expense worth it!
If They're Flying Cargo...
My cats are pretty big and loud (Gumbo would cry in the car for a 5-minute drive to the vet in San Diego), so I didn't see bringing them as carry-on. It's an option if you have a cat (or small pet) that will fit under the seat, but it wasn't for me.
There is a space in the cargo hold designated for pets. It's well-ventilated, so don't worry about your furbabies being in danger.
After a LOT of research, I found a few companies that manage the booking and entire process for you. I recommend finding one that works with your airline. My preferred airline is American, and I worked with PetEmbark.
Here's how it works: they can give you possible routes for the cats' flight and pricing several months out, but they can't actually book until 10 days before the flight (this made me crazy. I'm a planner!). The reason is, in part, that the weather determines whether or not the kitties can fly. If it's over 85 degrees when they're set to arrive, they can't fly. Same goes if the temperatures are too low. They want to keep your loved ones safe!
This actually impacted our plans, because initially the cats were supposed to fly from Santa Ana through Dallas, but because the weather was too hot in Dallas, we had to take another route from LA.
Note that not every flight can take animals. I lived in San Diego and there were no (American) flights for pets so I had to look at Santa Ana and Los Angeles. We didn't go to Italy on the same flight (not required).
After a lot of back and forth, PetEmbark booked my babies on a flight from LAX to New York, where they stayed the night in a boarding facility. They don't want pets to have too long a journey, so they break it up. The next day, they flew to Rome, where I picked them up.
Checking Your Cats In
This is based on my experience at LAX, so I can't speak to what the experience would be elsewhere, but I have to say, it was pretty painless. I believe they tell you to arrive four hours before their flight. Seems like overkill, but it's necessary.
I had to take the cats to a cargo building for the process. I had all my paperwork (we'll get to that) and spent about an hour waiting for the staff to process all the documents. The staff in the warehouse were really friendly and put me at ease about putting my babies in a metal bucket in the sky. The cats were, however, not happy and quite anxious. Here they are loaded and ready to go!
Dealing with Customs at Rome's Fiumicino Airport
I flew ahead of the cats so I could be well-rested since we had two days of driving from Rome ahead of us to get to our home in Calabria. I got a text that morning that the cats were available for pickup. PetEmbark is great at giving you all the info you need, so I'd already mapped out the short drive to the cargo district where they anxiously awaited me.
This is where speaking Italian would be helpful, though most of the people I dealt with spoke English. I was pretty proud of how well I managed all in Italian because I got batted from the cargo office to customs (which I got lost trying to find) to the warehouse where the kitties were waiting in their crates. It's pretty confusing, but let me tell you: Italians are so kind and will walk you all the way to where you need to go!
I'll talk about the massive amount of paperwork you need in a minute, but the reason you have to go through customs is for them to review all the papers (Italians LOVE paperwork!), and have you sign some. That's why it's uber important to get everything in order BEFORE you leave the States.
Once I got their seal of approval, I was able to pick up my babies! I don't know who was more relieved to see each other, me or them!
They were still afraid, but by the time we got to the hotel halfway through our drive to Calabria, they were feeling mostly normal (from my perspective).
What You Need to Ship Cats to Italy
It's a good idea to review what's required for your specific situation, but here's what I had to do.
Again, PetEmbark (and I'm sure any shipping company) provides details on everything you need to know and prepare. The biggest things you need are rabies shots for the kitties, a certificate of veterinary inspection, and an international health certificate.
I thought I could go to my vet and get a regular exam and that be good, but no. The exam has to be within 10 days of their travel, and costs around $400-500. My vet did the exam and then sent a document to an organization authorized by my state to certify that the pets were good to travel. This was also sent as an electronic document, but I kept physical copies. They also need to verify their microchips, and these must be readable by the authorities in Italy (some countries use different microchip systems).
Here's some useful info from the U.S. Embassy in Italy on shipping pets.
The little carriers I'd been using to take the cats to the vet didn't cut it, so I bought ones that met the requirements for travel (here it is on Amazon). The kennel has to be large enough for them to stand up and turn around. These kennels were massive and difficult for me to carry on my own. C'est la vie. I turned them into litter boxes once I arrived!
You must provide food and water to the cats within I think four hours of checking them in. There's an accessory you can buy that has tiny food and water holders.
You'll need to put "live animal" stickers on the carrier too. Unfortunately, you can't buy just a couple, so I ended up with an entire roll!
This is important: you CANNOT sedate your animal. It puts them in danger. If you do, they can't fly. That being said, my vet gave me gabapentin, which is commonly used to calm anxious animals. I don't know if it helped them any...
How Much Does it Cost to Ship Cats to Italy?
Now to address the big question: "how much is this going to cost me?"
Let me tell you: it ain't cheap. And prices vary wildly from one company to another. One company quoted me $6,000 for the two cats (!!). I ended up paying about $2,300 (for both) for the cargo service, including a night for boarding in NYC. You pay once you check the cats in. I charged it on my rewards credit card so I have more points for future travel!
I paid an additional $477 per cat for the international vet certificate/exam. Then another $75 or so for the kennel and food bowl.
Yes, it's expensive. And yes, I'll admit I considered several times rehoming them in the States and going without them. But let me tell you: despite the stress and expense, I am so glad to have them with me. They have acclimated so well to Italy. Macky enjoys hiding underneath the sheets drying on the laundry rack, while Gumbo is picking fights with locals and chasing lizards. They've forgiven me for making them go on the long journey in the sky!