Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
We are going to have to give our beloved cats, Kala and Bansi, away because we are going to Afghanistan to work with an NGO on a humanitarian relief project. We really want to give my cats to my father-in-law, who lives in a different country, because we know he adores animals and will move heaven and earth to take care them. This is a home where pets are in charge and cosseted in the most shameful ways, and I know that if they can adapt to their new life, their living situation will be superior to the cramped life of a New York apartment cat.
The problem is that he lives in a large house with an open floor plan and an interior patio and many places that lead directly outside. There is no way to keep them locked in the house until they adapt to their surroundings unless they get locked up in a small bedroom, the only room that you can close off completely. I’m afraid that if they’re put in this room they’ll be alone and suffer and never want to stay once they’re let out. But if they’re allowed to wander free, I’m afraid they’ll run off in terror and never be seen again. How can I get my two house cats to acclimate themselves to a completely new environment, in a new country where they can wander out of the house at will?
Siouxsie: First of all, Alexandra, we think it’s wonderful that you’re going to a country where there’s such great need and where you’re going to do work that has such benefit. It’s too bad you can’t take your cats with you, but we hear Afghanistan is scary for kitties! It sounds like you’re doing your best to make sure they have a wonderful home, and we think we have some tips that will help your kitties to settle in at your father-in-law’s home.
Thomas: We’re sure you already know this, but for the benefit of our other readers, we should say that before you travel to another country with your cats, you should always check your destination country’s requirements for health certificates and other documentation and make sure you have all that paperwork in order. The logistics of getting pets cleared for international travel are, in fact, probably more complicated than the logistics of getting yourselves to Afghanistan and cleaning out your current home! This information can often be found on the websites of that country’s consulate.
Dahlia: Be sure the airline you’re using will accept pets and that you have everything ready for their care as well. Your airline will have that information at its website, as well as info about extra fees for traveling pets. You may also want to speak to a customer service representative in person to ensure that the website is correct and up to date. Be sure that your tickets and reservations specifically state that you have cats traveling with you and that all the proper requirements have been met.
Siouxsie: Now, on to the business of settling your cats in at their new home. You’ll want to make sure your cats are microchipped (this is a requirement for cats traveling overseas anyhow, as we recall) and that the microchip registry has the contact information for your father-in-law. That way if your cats do escape and they’re found by a shelter, they’re much more likely to find their way back home.
Thomas: Do your research before getting the microchip to make sure the chip broadcasts at a frequency commonly used in the destination country (some American-made microchips don’t).
Dahlia: We’d like to assuage your worries about keeping your cats in a small room for some time after their arrival. Cats are creatures of habit, and all this travel and then being in a new home is going to be tremendously stressful for them. They’ll probably be relieved to spend a few days in that small room so they can get used to the smells and sounds of their new home.
Siouxsie: If you’re going to visit with your in-laws for a few days before heading on to Afghanistan, make use of that time to give your cats plenty of love and introduce them to their new caretakers. It will ease the transition for them if they can have you present for a little while.
Thomas: The small room holding period is important because it helps your cats get their internal bearings — not just in terms of smells and sounds and sights, but in terms of resetting their internal “compass” to their new home. This is especially necessary as their new home is going to be many thousands of miles away from their current one.
Dahlia: They’ll probably start their new life by acting anxious: hiding under the beds and resisting affection, for example. But as they regain their confidence they’ll gradually become more outgoing again. Your in-laws will be able to tell when they’re ready to start exploring the house and the environs by the fact that Kala and Bansi will be more eager to greet them and may even try to duck out the door between their feet.
Siouxsie: This could take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. And, of course, while the cats are in their room, your in-laws should take the time to be in the room with them. Even if they don’t want to come out from under the bed, they can hang out in the room reading, watching TV, knitting, writing, or whatever they want to do. The cats will get used to their presence that way and will feel less lonely.
Thomas: Be sure that your in-laws feed the cats in portions rather than leaving food out all day. This will help the cats get used to coming back home at particular times of the day for their meals.
Dahlia: We’re confident that everything’s going to work out okay. Your cats may find that they’re not especially fond of going outside into the wild, particularly since they have a lovely, safe indoor patio where they can enjoy the sun and fresh air.
Siouxsie: As long as you get all your documentation in order and your in-laws let them get oriented toward their new home by keeping them indoors for a little while, we think Kala and Bansi will enjoy a wonderful new life with your in-laws.