Main Content

Moving with Pets

Cynthia P. Gallagher

Pets on the Move

Moving to a new home can be stressful for anyone. But with a little consideration and planning, it doesn’t have to be difficult on your pets.

Moving with Pets


May is National Moving Month. It marks the official beginning of the moving season, a four-month period between Memorial Day and Labor Day when millions of American families relocate. And because some 68 percent of Americans consider their pets to be members of the family, according to a 1999 report by pet supply retailer PetsMart, it stands to reason that every possible measure should be taken to ensure the safety and comfort of all nonhuman family members during the upheaval of a relocation.

“Moving is very stressful for a family,” say ASPCA President Larry Hawk, D.V.M. “That stress is also experienced by the pets. They want to know that they’re part of the family and that they’ll be going, too.”

Sadly, many pets will not be going with their families to new homes. According to research published in 1999 by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, moving is identified as the most common of 71 reasons for relinquishing dogs and the third most common reason for relinquishing cats to shelters. In addition, when citing moving as the reason for giving up their pets, 38.8 percent of dog owners and 38.1 percent of cat owners cited the refusal of a landlord to allow the animal in an apartment or house.

But for most people, leaving their companion animals behind is out of the question. With the proper preparation, you can ensure that your next move will go more smoothly, for you and your pets.

Before the Move

Moving with a companion animal usually means moving with a cat or dog. While these animals may react similarly to changes within the home, cats and dogs will, for the most part, respond to a family relocation with different behaviors.

“We tend to socialize our dogs a lot more,” says Jacque Lynn Schultz, director of special projects for ASPCA Animal Sciences. “We take them more places and often stay overnight with them. We don’t do that with our cats.”

In general, cats are more focused on their surroundings and don’t adapt to change as readily as their canine counterparts. Felines thrive on constancy, and any disruption to their environment can foster stress-induced behavioral changes. An independent cat may become clingy and atypically affectionate. Conversely, a cat who’s normally demonstrative may become temporarily reclusive.

The most important thing any pet owner can do before moving with their pets is “plan, plan, plan,” says Steve Zawistowski, Ph.D., senior vice president of ASPCA Animal Sciences.

If your cat’s only exposure to a carrier was when she came home from the shelter, now’s the time to leave it where she can examine it daily. Place your cat’s favorite blanket or toy in the carrier, and praise her when she goes inside. “Set the carrier up well in advance, so your cat will get used to going in there and hiding out,” says Schultz. “This way, when she feels stressed, she’ll hide in the carrier instead of in a suitcase.”

Dogs are often easier to travel with, but if Fido’s only experience in a car has been a trip to the vet, you’ll want to acclimate him to riding in the car a few weeks before your move. Start with short trips, perhaps to the park. Positive association will reinforce the pleasurable aspect of car rides and help decrease anxiety.

On the day of the move, place your cats or other small animals in their carriers and confine your dogs to one room or the backyard. If your dog has any territorial protectiveness or gets stressed out easily, ask a neighbor to watch him for the afternoon until all of your belongings are packed away. Only after everything is out of the house should you retrieve your animal and place him in the car or moving truck.

Cats should always be confined to a hard-sided carrier, as should other small animals, such as rabbits, ferrets and birds. Allow enough room on either side of the carrier for proper ventilation. Arnold Plotnick, D.V.M., vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, recommends covering the carrier with a sheet or light blanket for the first few hours of the trip. “Cats get a little freaked out when they see the world moving by,” he says. After a few hours, they should relax, and then you can remove the sheet.

Dogs should also be restrained. Safety harnesses, which attach to any seat belt, allow your dog to sit or stand comfortably, whereas safety gates, made of either mesh or metal, give him added mobility in a restricted area. An unrestrained, agitated dog can compromise your control of the car while driving. Moreover, there exists the risk of your already disoriented dog escaping from the vehicle at a roadside stop.

And don’t forget to pack a separate bag for your animal. Take some of his favorite food, as well as a gallon of water, because water characteristics change regionally. If you are traveling with cats, they can generally travel for eight to 10 hours without having to use a litterbox, but it never hurts to bring along a disposable litterbox for emergencies or overnight stops. You will also need to bring a pet first aid kit and some extra towels, in case of accidents. Place temporary ID tags with your new address and phone number, or a cell phone number, on your pet’s collar.

Keep a current health certificate for your pet handy during interstate travel, because many states require one. Highway patrolmen have the right to inspect your pet’s health certificate, should you be pulled over for another reason, and you can be fined for not having one.

If you cannot take your pet with you during the move, there are a variety of animal relocation companies that will transport your animal using either their own vehicles or by prearranging appropriate relocation methods and boarding. They also make sure that your pet’s paperwork is up to date. Leaving these details to someone else may be well worth the extra expense, says Denise Simmons. In 1998, Simmons accepted a job as a programmer at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, which required her to relocate from Virginia to Illinois. This meant packing up a menagerie of pets, including two horses, one dachshund, one parrot, a rabbit, a squirrel and six cats. Simmons contracted with Spotsylvania, VA-based 4 Bar Transport, which she found through ads in Horse Illustrated, to ship her two horses. The company picked up the horses and transported them to a designated boarding facility, where they stayed until Simmons could retrieve them.

Many realty companies have also begun to realize how important pets are to prospective homeowners and renters. One such company, Washington, DC-based McEnearny Associates, designed a program called PAWsitive Experience, which debuted in 1999. Pet owners complete a questionnaire detailing their needs. Once a suitable home is found, clients are presented with a Pet Welcome Bag, which contains pet toys and treats, as well as a book that features local pet laws and directories of animal hospitals, dog parks and pet specialty shops.

Hidden Hazards

Not all moves can be made in one day. If you must stop for the night, call ahead to hotels that claim to be pet-friendly. “Don’t take a hotel chain’s word for it. Call the actual hotel and verify what their pet policies are,” says Hawk. Many pet-friendly hotels have a limited number of rooms available for people with pets, or will only allow small dogs and cats.

In the hotel room, look around for any dangers, such as open windows or holes in the wall, before letting your cat out of her carrier or your dog off his leash.

“At home you’re familiar with your cat’s favorite hiding places, but a strange environment has all sorts of possibilities,” cautions Moira Allen, a Virginia-based writer who has moved nine times in the past 16 years. During a 1991 move from Germany to California, Allen and her three cats spent several days in a Los Angeles hotel room while trying to find an apartment. Aware of the typical hiding places, Allen was terrified when she could not locate her tortoiseshell, Nani. After looking in every conceivable place, she noticed a slight movement on the bed. Nani was nestled in the hollow between the pillows, concealed beneath the bedspread. While Nani was not in any danger, the experience made Allen realize how easy it is for cats to hide.

Hotels also provide an opportunity for your pet to escape and become lost. Audio engineer Jon Picciano almost lost his cat George during a 1996 move from Michigan to New York City. Picciano confined George in the bathroom while he went out for dinner. But George managed to open the bathroom door, and when Picciano re-entered his room, George ran out into the parking lot. Says Picciano, “Luckily, he was as freaked out as I was and hesitated long enough for me to catch him. Now when I travel, I never leave the cats alone. Ever.”

Those Lovable Unhuggables

Dogs and cats aren’t the only animals who get new addresses. Each year, millions of families move with their favorite tarantula, iguana, fish, bird or other exotic pet. Moving exotics can require careful research and special handling.

When the Popolillos of New Jersey built a second home in Kentucky in 1998, it was important to them that they be able to bring part of their family of koi to the new house. The fish were transported in large plastic bags infused with concentrated oxygen, which can be provided by most major aquarium supply stores. These bags can support the fish for approximately 24 hours. Three of the fish were carried by a family member on a plane—they were in First Class, so they had ample space under the seat. The remaining four fish were driven to Kentucky.

“Fish can be difficult to move,” says Zawistowski. “If you’re not going to make the move in one day, it’s best to contact a professional animal moving company about overnight shipping. It’s not cheap, but if you’re talking about shipping very expensive fish, it’s worth it.”

Reptiles require meticulous planning because they are extremely susceptible to temperature fluctuations. Cathy Smith, director of business and quality management for the Impact Group, which specializes in corporate relocation, recalls helping a New Jersey family move to Louisiana with their iguana, Iggy. Several airlines refused to carry the cold-blooded animal on a passenger flight, so Smith investigated shipping Iggy as cargo. She found an approved carrier and advised the family to travel in June rather than December, as originally planned, eliminating climactic concerns. “This greatly relieved Iggy’s owner, making the relocation a happier event,” says Smith.

New Home Sweet Home

When you reach your final destination, immediately remove your animals from the car and segregate them in a single room. “Take a full inspection of the house before you let your animal out,” says Schultz. “If you haven’t lived here before, you won’t necessarily be aware of holes in the back of the cabinets, and you don’t know what kind of openings may be behind your larger appliances.”

“Check for open windows, chemicals in the water, mousetraps under the bed or dressers and even drapery cords, which cats can get tangled in,” adds Plotnick, who once handled an emergency case involving a dog who drank water from a toilet bowl filled with antifreeze. Only after all of your boxes and furniture have been moved in, and all of the movers have left, should you let your animals out to explore.

Placing familiar objects in relatively the same locations as in your previous home will help ease your animal’s anxiety, and now is not the time to change routines or schedules. If your cat’s litterbox was in the bathroom of your previous home, put it in the bathroom in the new location. If your dog has been accustomed to eating twice a day, don’t suddenly change his feeding schedule to once a day. “Any changes you make should be made slowly,” says Schultz. “You want the stresses of the new place to wear off before you start making additional changes. For some animals, it may take days or even weeks to become comfortable.”

“Let your animal’s behavior be your guide,” Schultz recommends. “To that end, it’s important for you to be as calm as possible. A lot of the stress that your animal feels comes from you. If you’re falling apart, your animal’s reaction is going to reflect that. If you have a relatively calm demeanor, that’s going to brush off on the animals, too.”

“It’s not easy to move with animals,” says Zawistowski, “but it’s part of the obligation we have to them.” With forethought and planning, there is no reason why moving to a new home cannot be accomplished with a minimum of stress—for both you and your companions.

Freelance writer Cynthia P. Gallagher resides in Crownsville, MD.

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE“While large numbers of Americans move every year, most of the time it’s a short drive away—within the same community or city,” says Steve Zawistowski, Ph.D., vice president of ASPCA Animal Sciences. But for anyone moving to a foreign country, or even Hawaii, the only option is to travel by air.Air travel for pets has long been a controversial issue. According to the Air Transport Association, a trade organization that represents U.S. commercial carriers, U.S. airlines transport about 500,000 animals each year. As many as 5,000 of them do not make it to their destinations safely, or at all. And these figures don’t include foreign airlines.

In April 2000, President Clinton signed into law the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act, which requires airlines to improve the handling of animals and report all losses, injuries or deaths of animals entrusted to their care. As a result, one major airline instituted a ban on live animals as checked baggage. Many others will not transport animals during hot summer months.

According to Marc Morrison, founder of Atlanta, GA-based Animal Land Pet Movers, which helps arrange domestic and international travel for animals, choosing the right airline and proper times to fly are crucial in planning a safe trip for your pet.

Most airlines will allow small pets to travel with their owners in the passenger cabin, although they may limit the number of animals allowed per flight. The ASPCA advises against putting pets on planes, unless they can travel in the cabin. If your pet must travel in the cargo hold, book a direct flight.

Many foreign countries and Hawaii require that animals be quarantined for up to six months upon entry. “In these situations, it’s often better to use a professional moving company because they may have facilities that are licensed to handle the quarantine,” says Zawistowski. Before moving, check with the country’s embassy, governmental agency or consulate at least four weeks in advance for any quarantine regulations. Embassies can also provide current information on required vaccinations and health certificates.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates animal air travel through the Animal Welfare Act, additional requirements exist for international flights, including additional ventilation and labeling on carriers, and a shipper’s certification.

Moreover, various countries in recent years have prohibited the importation of certain dog breeds, which they deem to be “vicious.” For example, Belgium, Australia and Germany do not allow entry to such dogs as pit bull terriers and Rottweilers, even if an individual animal has a problem-free record and all necessary paperwork.

While moving within the United States can be a stressful ordeal, that stress is magnified when the move is to a different country. Simply getting there can mean maneuvering through a variety of obstacles. The last thing you want is for your pet to be denied access on the other end.


According to studies, the average American will move 11 times in his lifetime. If that’s true, Gigi was anything but average. During her lifetime, she moved 13 times.

Gigi, a long-haired tortoiseshell, and her brother, Brandy, were adopted 18 years ago by Arnold Plotnick, D.V.M., vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. During their time together, Gigi and Plotnick traveled across the country and back.

Whether it was a four-hour move from Pennsylvania to Maryland, or a three-day trip from Maryland to Colorado, Plotnick always drove, keeping his cats securely restrained in a hard-sided carrier. During the first hour or two of the drive, he would place a sheet over the carrier, which helped eliminate overstimulation and nervousness. After a short time, the cats would quiet down and often go to sleep.

On long drives, Plotnick always stayed at pet-friendly hotels, and he always checked the rooms for hidden dangers before letting the cats out of their carriers. Yet even he can attest to a cat’s tendency to hide. “Once, Brandy got behind a headboard in a hotel room, and getting him out was kind of difficult,” says Plotnick. “But I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had many problems when I’ve moved.”

Brandy passed away six years ago, and in 1997, Plotnick adopted Ethel, who has already weathered three moves.

On December 31, 2000, Gigi, who was scheduled to make her fourteenth move with Plotnick, passed away. Says Plotnick, “I’m sure she would have handled that move with the same grace with which she handled all the others.”
—Rebecca L. Rhoades

© ASPCA 2001
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2001

Courtesy of
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

Share this Article

Recently Viewed Pets