Never seen a pussy cat fly: flying with a cat to Tokyo

May 28th, 2013By Category: Travel

My cat, Tallis

The woman behind the desk at the ‘Air Canada’ check-in counter took my passport, glanced at the photo page and then down at my carry-on bag from which a pair of gleaming yellow-green eyes could be seen.

Do you have any documentation for your cat?” she inquired.

When I’d first moved to Japan, I’d stayed in dormitory accommodation for the first month, before moving to my own apartment and waiting a further two months for my possessions to be shipped across from Canada. Since managing this with a pet would be difficult, I’d left my cat, Tallis, with friends (bless them both!) back in Canada until I was settled. That time had now come and I had returned to North America on a business trip and to take my cat to her new home.

At the airport attendant’s request, I lifted a thick black folder and dropped it with a bang on the counter, where it dwarfed the small red passport in her hands.

… right.” The woman hesitated before saying cautiously, “Is there a form that shows they’re expecting you?

I gathered from the singular choice of the word ‘form‘ she wasn’t after one of my three complete document copies that I had been advised to prepare by the vet. Pity. As it stood, I wasn’t going to be able to fit a drink bottle into my bag.

Snapping open the folder’s elastic, I withdrew the sheet I had been sent from Tokyo Narita Quarantine Services, stating that my application to import a cat had been received. The Chinese lady working at the counter next to ours leaned over to take a peak.

“I can read some of the characters,” she said with interest as she examined the Japanese-half of the bilingual script.

This apparently was enough proof that the document hadn’t been forged, or maybe simply sufficient for the airline to declare it not-their-problem. I understood their concern; like the UK, Japan is a rabies-free country. This means that their regulations concerning the import of animals are extremely strict. Once, this would have meant a non-negotiable six months quarantine (the time required for a rabies infection to show symptoms) but with the use of microchips to guarantee animal identification, this could all be bypassed with enough preparation… providing you had to right paperwork.

Tallis and I had been on one flight before, when I moved from Florida to Canada. While only a measly three hours compared to the 13 we were about to attempt, it had left me with some assurance that Tallis was likely to deal with it all relatively well. Unlike everyone else I talked to, I was not concerned about her causing a yowling scene on the plane. This was primarily for three reasons:

  1. I have a certain disregard for humanity.
  2. Planes are pretty noisy and Tallis doesn’t have a very loud voice.
  3. ONE CRYING BABY and I was home and dry. No one talks about throwing an infant out the plane, though quite why is something of a mystery. See point (1).

Once in Tokyo, we had an overnight stop before going onto Sapporo for which I had booked Tallis into the airport pet kennels. Originally, I had done this because quarantine services threatened to take up to 12 hours even with the finest of leather-bond paperwork. On reflection, however, I realised a stop to stretch gave us both a much needed rest.

By far the most unforgivable event occurred a mere 10 minutes later as we approached security. Seeing what I was carrying, the airport staff waved me into a different line.

Please take your doggy over there.

…. doggy?! DOGGY? I walked over to the designated line and pulled out a very ruffled and indignant cat, putting the cat carrier on the conveyer belt to go through the x-ray scanner solo.

Is she vicious?” One of the security staff asked as they saw her struggle.

Well she didn’t used to be until you CALLED HER A BITCH. I plopped the cat over my shoulder and went through the scanner with a curt shake of my head. Humph. We went and sat in the airport lounge where Tallis chose to sit enthroned on my knee and be petted by the surrounding masses. Since I’d wanted Tallis the have the chance to stretch outside the cat carrier when possible, I’d purchased a cat harness to retain some control over the situation. This proved most useful when we went into the public restrooms at the airports we travelled through. Inside a cubicle, I was able to let Tallis out, but she had a habit of peering under the door … and the neighbouring partitions. Fortunately, any time this was spotted it was greeted with exclaims of “Oooh, a cute kitty!” even if “Argh, a perverted kitty!” would have been a more appropriate response.

Amusingly, this greeting translated exactly into “Oooh, kawaii neko-chan!” by the time we reach Tokyo. It was lovely to be reminded that despite cultural differences, people are still very much alike.

Tallis at the airport

And after that … everything went entirely smoothly. The flight was packed but my neighbours were nice, cat-loving types who didn’t mind me sitting with the carrier on my lap after take-off (during take-off and landing, the carrier must be under the seat in front). While she didn’t use them, I had lined the cat carrier with a puppy pad against accidents, and changing this a few times during the flight freshened up the container.

It also made me appreciate exactly how small a aeroplane toilet is. There truly is not enough room to swing a cat. Trust me. When we arrived in Tokyo, I headed off to use the bathroom before approaching the quarantine desk, thinking I would be a while. While not a wasted gesture, this proved completely unnecessary since we were cleared for entry in a staggeringly short five minutes.

I owe my vet’s clinic a suitcase full of lucky waving cats, since it was their incredible organisation on the paperwork that made this possible. Indeed, the worst part of the whole journey (apart from the bit where Tallis was called a dog) came the following day on our short hop up to Sapporo.

For this trip, Tallis was not allowed to travel in the cabin but had to go in the hold. This seems to be universally true for all Japanese domestic flights. When she was returned to me, she was wet all through and smelled terrible, which suggested she had been far more frightened on that short leg than at any point on our round the world jaunt.

That notwithstanding, she recovered fast and vocally protested the remainder of our journey to my apartment.

Meow meow meow!!

Look, we’re nearly there!

You’ve been saying that for DAYS.

Well… yes, but this time it was true. Adorably, there was no doubt Tallis knew she was home. Perhaps she recognised the furniture, maybe the smell of me was enough or she might have reached the stage where she was prepared to adopted any non-crate room as her home. Whatever the reason, she ran around the apartment then fell on her water as if she hadn’t drank in days.

Which admittedly she had not, but it was NOT BECAUSE SHE HADN’T HAD THE OPPORTUNITY. She’d just shunned any cup I’d placed in her carrier. My sympathy was limited.

I collapsed on the sofa. In all honesty, before this trip I’d been anxious about the wisdom of my decision to bring Tallis to Japan. Was it truly fair to take a pet on such a long journey? Should I have tried to find Tallis a new home in Canada? Now though, I can honestly say I’d do it again. The secret is an early start, since the paperwork takes the best part of a year to complete (minimum 6-8 months) but with the right assistance, it was actually a painless process.


… You’ve gone in the bathtub haven’t you?

Author of this article

Elizabeth Tasker

Elizabeth is a science researcher living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth keeps her own blog about day to day exploits in the hope that writing them down will result in them one day making sense.

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  • Tracey Levy says:

    I have two black cats & a 17 year old daughter & I plan on taking all of them with me to Japan (I’m in Australia). I love my cats as well as my daughter to bits & would hate for anything to happen to them on the trip over there. I would prefer to have my cats in the cabin with with but as you said previously Australia doesn’t do that. I’m going to be so worried about them from the time they leave me at the airport until they are safe in our arms again.

  • LeslieCz says:

    Nice read, one tip on hydrating cats in airplane cabins is to ask for a cup of ice cubes and offer one in your hand, many cats will lick at ice cubes.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I think cats will always vote ‘no’ for change! However, while I love Tallis to pieces, our home is not a democracy 😀

  • leslie nguyen says:

    My two sister cats aren’t too big on moving also. Thanks for the read!

  • Elizabeth says:

    I think it definitely depends on the home you’re moving the cat from (as well as a bajillion other factors!). Tallis was a rescue kitty from the USA and she had never been outside. Coming from the UK where most cats roam around, this was a very strange concept at first but she does seem happy and healthy! Moving an outdoor cat to be an indoor one would have been a much harder choice, I think.

    And thank you! Every time I come home I am pleased I brought her with me…. even though she did chew up my last Kanji test. But it was a fair reflection of its contents!

  • zoomingjapan says:

    Thanks for this great story!
    I’m a cat lover myself and I’ve had cats until shortly before I moved to Japan.
    My last cat died after 16 years of being with me! 🙁
    And knewing that I would move to Japan soon, I decided not to get another cat.

    I’m not sure what I would have done if I had a cat at that time. Probably I would have left it with my family. I think it depends on a cat’s character and if they’re allowed to go outside or not.
    I moved with one of my cats just about 20km from the previous home, but my cat wasn’t very happy about the move.
    You have quite an awesome cat there! 🙂


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