Bring your pet back to South Africa

One of the many things you have accumulated in your time overseas is a furry friend. There’s no way you’re leaving it behind. In fact, you’re excited for the great outdoor life your companion will experience upon arrival in the motherland.

Like me, you may have discovered that the web contains a mass of poorly structured and sometimes conflicting advice. Even the businesses that handle pet importation are far from ideal, claiming slightly different requirements, still requiring you to do most of the legwork yourself, and charging you exorbitant fees in the process. And there is no room for error on this one — the last thing you want is for your pet to be stuck at the point of departure while you jet off, or get thrown into quarantine on arrival because some box has not been checked.

I successfully imported my cat from the US to South Africa myself. This post details everything I learned along the way in the hopes that you can benefit from it. Note that requirements may differ for other animals, origins and destinations. Also, I completed this process in December 2015, so it is worthwhile checking whether requirements have been updated (links included where possible).

Overall checklist

Importing your pet can be boiled down to these tasks, each of which is outlined through the rest of this post:

  • Decide on your strategy for the move
  • Book your flight
  • Organize all importation paperwork (including visits to the vet at your point of origin)
  • Buy equipment for the big day

Decide on your importation strategy

  • To use a service or not? There are a number of companies who specialize in importing animals. Essentially what they will do is (1) obtain the importation certificate from the SA authorities, (2) guide you through the balance of the paperwork, (3) book your pet’s transit, (4) drop your pet off at the airport and (5) pick your pet up from the airport on the other side — and charge a massive premium for the service. I am glad that I did it myself as I was more confident that it would be done correctly, I was able to pick up my cat immediately upon landing, and probably saved $1,000–2,000.
  • To sedate or not? We tested a sedative on our cat a few days before we left and it freaked her out — she was still awake but just stumbled everywhere uncontrollably. After seeing that, we decided not to sedate her for the flight so as not to add an additional source of stress. This was also in line with all of the advice we received from vets before the trip.
  • Packing up the house: Our cat was around when the movers came and dismantled her entire world in front of her eyes. I think this was extremely stressful for her and I wish that we had sent her to a catsitter for the day.

Book your flight

My research showed that British Airways and KLM have climate controlled holds and received the best reviews for pet travel. I ended up using British Airways because the layover was shorter, the timing worked better with our own flights, and it was quite a bit cheaper. Had my cat required a longer layover, I would likely have gone with KLM as they offer a “pet hotel” at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.

Bookings on BA are handled by IAG Cargo (+1–905–676–0007) and can be made a minimum of 5 days and a maximum of 2 weeks in advance. Since there are a limited number of spots for pets on each plane, it is worth booking as close to 2 weeks in advance as possible.

Note that it is unfortunately not possible for pets to fly in the cabin to South Africa as South African airports do not have facilities to process pet importations within the terminal buildings. So whether or not your carrier allows it, unfortunately they have to fly in the hold.

Note also that pets simply get taken to the general cargo area when they arrive (picture a massive and very noisy warehouse with forklifts everywhere). I’d prioritize getting them out of there as quickly as possible. When you arrive, you will pay them a small fee, go to the SARS office onsite so they can approve the importation, and then collect your pets.

Organize all importation paperwork

Requirements may differ based on country of origin, destination and carrier. Linked here is the full package of documentation that I used for importing my cat. The following section further describes each of the documents included in this package.

South African requirements:

Pg 1: Original vet import permit issued by the SA Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. You can see all of the dirty details on DAFF’s website here in the section “Veterinary import permits”. In summary, you need to send them the completed application form (on DAFF’s website here as of August 2016) along with a copy of your identity document / passport and proof of payment for the required fees (R240 in December 2015, including courier fees). Note that I left Section A blank as I did not import through an agent. Because you need the original permit upon departure, I had them mail this to a family member in Joburg who then forwarded it to us in the US. You should call them to find out whether fees have changed and what the appropriate postage amount is depending on where you send it. Their numbers are +27 12 319 7514/7632/7633/7503/7500/7406/7461/7510.

Pg 2–4: Health certificate: when you are issued the import permit, you will also be given a template health certificate form. This needs to be completed in your country of origin. Note the following:

  • This needs to be filled out be a local vet and then (at least in the US) certified by the State Vet at the US Department of Agriculture (this is basically to prove that the vet is legitimate), and indicate the 6 digit National Accreditation Number and State License Number.
  • You need to provide the original upon entry.
  • It needs to be issued within 10 days of departure, so it is worthwhile booking appointments with your vet and the State Vet as soon as you know your pet’s travel dates.
  • Dates need to conform with the SA layout: DD-MM-YYYY (especially important if you are coming from the US where they use MM-DD-YYYY).

Pg 5: Microchip certificate: this does not seem to be required, but is recommended. Template is here. Most importantly:

  • Cats have to have a microchip
  • This microchip must be readable by ISO 11784 or ISO 11785 scanners. From my research, if the microchip number is 15 digits then this indicates that you are fine.
  • The microchip must be implanted before the rabies shot.

Pg 6: Rabies certificate: no template, issued by your local vet. Importantly:

  • For the primary (first) rabies shot, this must be given not more than 12 months and not less than 30 days before date of importation
  • For booster shots, these must be given not more than 12 months before date of importation

Pg 7: FVRCP certificate: no template, issued by your local vet. I received conflicting advice as to whether this is needed but got it just to be safe.

US requirements:

Pg 8: US Health Certificate: this is a US specific form for any animals being exported. Note that this also needed to be endorsed by the State Vet.

Carrier requirements:

Pg 9: Fit to fly letter: British Airways required this (as most carriers do) and the wording was pretty standard across all of them: it needs to indicate (1) pet examined, (2) free from ticks and disease, (3) fit and healthy to fly. This is issued by your local vet who should know just what to write.

Cage specifications: the carriers have very specific requirements about the minimum size of cages you can put pets in. Here are the IATA requirements on which these are based. You should double check with your carrier as well. More on this below.

Prepare your equipment

  • Cage. I ended up buying this cage which complied with IATA’s minimum requirements, and because BA required metal bolts, replaced all plastic bolts with these ones.
  • Cage markings. I bought this pack of goodies and placed the Live Animal stickers all over the cage (which is an IATA requirement), stuck the plastic pouch to the cage with tape (which was very useful for keeping her paperwork with her in transit), and filled in the sticker with personal details for added peace of mind.
  • Absorbent mats. I placed these absorbent mats inside the cage to provide some cushioning and soak up any urine. Since my cat’s journey was two legs, I sent a spare absorbent mat but they never replaced it in transit (instead my cat arrived surrounded by newspaper).
  • Calming juju. I sprayed Feliway inside the cage a couple of hours in advance (which is meant to calm cats). My wife and I also each put a piece of clothing inside the cage (for familiar smells).
  • Food and water. We provided dry food and water when we dropped off our cat.

It’s also advisable to try and get your pet used to its cage in advance of the trip. We left our cage out for weeks in advance and even tried to entice the cat in with treats and toys but she never really took the bait.

Good luck

So there you have it. Hopefully this helps in preparing you for what can be one of the more stressful parts of moving day. And if you have any additional tips or updates, please include in the comments below!

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