I think we can all agree that moving basically sucks. It's a lot of hard work, it forces you to take a close look on all the things you've accumulated throughout the years and that you already forgot about. It means asking tons of favors from you friends and you will usually break at least one mug that you cared about deeply. Sound familiar? Well, pet owners know that a move is even more challenging when you also have animals to care for.
How we managed to get both of our beloved cats to Finland safely, what precautions we took, and how we organized the transport will be the subject of this post.
So let me introduce our cats Morris and Cleo first. They've lived with us in Berlin for two and half years before joining us on our big adventure in the far north. We adopted them from Katzen in Not Berlin e.V., a wonderful small non-profit in Berlin. If you are looking to adopt a cat in the area or feel like donating a little something, they are great and can always use the support.
Looking at moving with cats across a thousand kilometers we considered several options. Both of them are rescues, so handling them can be difficult at times. Morris is a former stray from the streets of Athens and Cleo was caught from a colony that quickly formed in a Berlin community garden. Morris seems to have acquired one main skill when it comes to his early months in life - if you want something (food, attention, anything) there's one way to get it: scream at it as loud as you can. Apart from that he is just a super social, friendly and utterly charming cat. He always wants to be with other cats and people, loves to have everyone's attention and you couldn't really tell that his start in life was a bit rougher than for others. He is just really talkative. For Cleo on the other hand, it looks like her socialization with humans happened fairly late. She has a hard time trusting anyone, and to adapt to new situations and environments. That's why the shelter smartly paired her with Morris, from whom she learns that new things aren't too bad. When she first moved in with us, it took her weeks to come out of her hiding space under a shelf in the back of the apartment and end even longer to trust us enough to lie on the sofa and enjoy a nice long belly rub. When we made the decision to leave Berlin, one of the first questions that came to our mind was - Is it possible to take them with us without betraying the trust they have given to us or even worse hurting them in any way? Giving them away was never an option. They both went through a couple of homes before moving in with us and we both agreed that, if we don't find a way to do it safely, we will cancel the plan. It was as simple as that. But in the end, it all went well and everyone arrived safely in our new home country. Read more about different transport options and learn which one we chose 1. Flying with cats
You can read more about the big day itself and the first days in our new home here.
1. Flying with cats
Flying was actually the first option that popped into our minds as the most logical solution to the problem. Berlin to Helsinki is only a two hour flight and Morris has even done it before to get from Greece to Germany. We read through multiple blog entries of people who moved their pets cross country in the US and everything worked out fine. But the devil was in the details as always. Browsing through Finnair's pet transport regulations we unfortunately found big no-nos for both cats. I hate to fatshame Morris but the truth is, he was just too heavy to travel in the cabin. And even if some experts say it is actually less stressful for cats to travel in the cargo hold, it just felt wrong to hand Morris over to strangers like a piece of excess luggage. And regarding Cleo: She's small and she definitely would have appreciated the short travel time. But since terrorists might even be sneaky enough to build a cat transport box out of explosives, it is required to take the cat out of the box at airport security in order to get the box scanned. With shy Cleo in full-on panic mode, she'd possibly free herself, run away to some dark corner of the airport, and we'd never see her again. So suddenly the most logical solution was off the table.
2. The Travemünde-Helsinki ferry
There is a ferry from Germany directly to Finland, a solution that sounded pretty perfect on paper. Drive up to Travemünde and catch a ferry, stay in an air conditioned cabin for the whole duration of the ride and arrive directly in Helsinki a day and half later.
But in this case, again, shy Cleo proved to be the dealbreaker. She doesn't like do be handled or picked up. This only increases under stress. Getting her to the vet is an adventure in itself and she has loads of great tricks to evade getting into the transport box up her sleeve.
While Morris is easily persuaded to jump into his carrier, especially when treats are used, we could simply not guarantee to get her back in her box after letting her out during the ferry ride - and locking her into the box for 36 hours just was out of the question. So again an option was off the table. At this point we were seriously debating to cancel the move altogether.
3. Driving them up ourselves The final plan formed slowly after both options above turned out to be just not suitable for our special needs cats. We would drive them up to Helsinki ourselves. It's a 17 hour drive through Poland and the Baltics to Tallinn, where you then board a ferry that gets you to Helsinki in only 2 hours. The upsides:
We were able to be with them all the time, talk to them, feed them
They were in each others presence, helping them stay calm
Since we own a spacious Volvo 940 we could use big dog crates instead of small pet carries to transport them
If we felt at any point in time that they were to stressed or anxious, we could stop, take longer breaks or even check into a pet friendly hotel along the way
We had the option to use a mild sedative to calm them down (which is not as easy to do for air travel, or for the long ferry trip)
The downside was of course that we would still be on the road for around 20 hours, but we found ways to make it at as pleasant as possible for them.
Here are some useful tips and tricks to prepare for your journey
1. Always visit your vet before you move with your cats internationally Before you go on a long car ride, or any trip for that matter, you should always make sure, that they are healthy and have all the necessary vaccines and paperwork in place to travel across borders. In the EU you'll need the blue EU pet passport as well as a recent rabies vaccine. Sedatives and other forms of medication to ease your pet's stress and anxiety should never be given without a vet's advice. The results can be severe for you pet! Your vet will give your pet a thorough check up, go through your travel plans with you and give you advice on different forms of medications that are appropriate for your plan and that can help your pet to have a better experience. 2. Build the travel crate according to your pet's needs and start early We started building both travel crates about a month before the moving date. We had them placed strategically in our apartment and encouraged the cats to get to know their box by offering food and snacks in there. We also used their favorite cat beds, cat nip cushions and toys to create good vibes around them.
Cat carriers are quite small, so we ruled them out and decided instead to use dog kennels instead. They come in different sizes, are escape proof and really safe in case of an accident along the way. We also learned that it's safer to use one carrier or kennel per pet. The idea of them being closely together seemed really nice to us, but thinking about that in more detail, it's just not a good idea. A long trip is a stressful situation, even if your cats are really good together and usually don't try to rip each others cute faces off, this might change under pressure. If they are crammed into the same small space you won't be able to separate them and they might get injured. So we bought two kennels and placed them next to each other. So they could see and smell each other, but both cats still had their very own territory.
Our vet as well as friends of ours who are experienced cat foster parents strongly advised us not to open the kennels or carriers while on the road. Again the reason is the stressful and uncommon situation, that could create a fight or flight response in your cat. You do not want to have a scared cat hiding in your car ending up under the brake pedal or even worse, escaping all together. So we made sure the cats had everything they needed for a whole day of traveling in the kennel. We got water and food bowls that can be attached to the bars and can't spill easily. You'll find those in the small pet section of your pet store. There we also found the perfect solution to the cat toilet problem we faced. The kennels will not fit a cat litter box, but a large sized rabbit toilet fit right in. You can also attach them to the bars of the kennel to make sure it stays in place and litter isn't spilled all over the place.
3. Plan your trip carefully and avoid stress before and after it We didn't move everything and everyone at the same day and planned the move around the cats as much as possible. We wanted to make sure that we do not tear apart their environment around them, which is super stressful in itself, put them in a car for a whole day, just to arrive in an empty apartment, that has none of their furniture and scent in it. So Philipp went on a first trip to Helsinki, bringing some cat furniture, blankets, beds and toys with him and also bought the things we wouldn't bring with us from Germany, like a guest bed or a new sofa. At this point, we had some stuff in boxes already, but the apartment was still more or less as it had always been. Next we brought the cats and Julia over. Philipp then returned to to finish packing and supervise the moving company before returning to Finland. While this was a bit complicated logistically, it made sure the cats didn't have to go through more stress than necessary and that they always had one of us with them.
The big day
The big day finally came and we were ready to go. We had been to the vet with both cats, got them vaccinated and had some meds for them ready to ease their stress. The kennels had all their stuff in them and everyone was excited to finally get going. Except for the cats. They were of course clueless. We planned to hit the road around 5pm in the afternoon to drive right through the night and arrive at the ferry in Tallinn around noon the next day. We tried to keep our apartment as quiet as possible in the hours before we left but at some point the cats just caught on to the fact that something was going on. Maybe it was the unexpected extra portion of tuna (of course spiked with their meds) that tipped them off. Of course, Morris happily devoured his tuna while clever Cleo just knew something was foul and didn't touch it at all. Half an hour before we went, we got both of them into the kennels, which took about 5 seconds and for Morris and 5 nerve wrecking minutes for Cleo, everything happened super fast, we got cats, suitcases and humans in the car and off we went.
What followed was a very long and nerve wrecking 17 hour drive. While Cleo was silent and decided not to eat anything at all, Morris made clear he HATED it. Hated everything about his situation. So he meowed and meowed non-stop until we arrived in Tallinn. Which of course resulted in no one being able to sleep at all. We had a pet cabin reserved for us at the ferry and finally we had a chance to let Morris out of his kennel for a while. He fell asleep almost on the spot, but of course made sure to rub on every surface in the cabin and watch the ocean for a while. Cleo was still super anxious and hid under her favorite cushion instead of snoozing on top of it as she usually does. But, we almost made it.
And two and half hours we actually made it to our new home. Everyone, including the humans super tired and shaken, but, finally made it!
We let Morris explore the new apartment freely right from the start. But with Cleo, we were a bit more careful and built a basecamp for her in our future bedroom. She got everything she needed, food, water, her favorite things, a litter box and of course cat buddy Morris visiting from time to time. She chose to live under her blanket for about three days and on day four she finally started eating. Under her blanket of course. On day five she finally felt safe enough to come out of her blanket and eat out in the open. That's when we allowed her out and about as well. The best thing is, they love their new home. It's brighter than the old one allowing them finally to chill in the sunshine, at least during the light filled summer months. The extra square meters also help a lot and both cats are happier than ever before. But their favorite place now is our sauna, when we use it, they impatiently wait in front of the door and take over as soon as we're finished and turned the sauna oven off. They have become very Finnish cats.
So, here is a quick summary of what we learned while planning and actually moving our cats across Europe:
Make sure that you choose the best way of transportation according to your individual travel plans and your cats needs and personalities
Always check your plans with your vet first and never give medication without your vet's approval
Get your pets used to their carrier/kennel and make them as convenient and comfy for them as possible
Plan your trip carefully and allow for breaks and relaxed days before and after the move itself