Walking a Cat at a Welcome Station: Military relocation with pets

As I sit down to write this, I realized I am being watched. I work from home like many military spouses and I realize I neglected to drag dog beds from the bedroom into the office. My canine coworkers are not pleased. And here comes my manager. My 11-year-old tortoiseshell cat Skipper jumps on my desk to inspect my work and add a few typos while she strolls across my keyboard in an attempt to get petted.

OK, let’s start this off right. I don’t have kids so I don’t profess to understand what it’s like to move across the country with carseats. What I do have is pets. Lots of pets. We currently host a full house with three cats and two dogs. Somehow I collect a new one in each state. Mixing our full house with the unpredictable military life has been challenging at times. Highlighted below are the most common issues our military family faces and how we’ve overcome.

I also should state that we have never lived in on-base housing. I know that comes with a varying myriad of rules and regulations including pet limits and breed specific bans. The latter of which should be abolished and never spoken of again!

Walking a cat at a Welcome Station

This really happens. Skipper is my oldest cat and was harness and leash-trained when she was a kitten. She’s completed more cross-country trips than I can count. When the dogs go for breaks at rest stops, she expects nothing less. This makes me the crazy lady walking a cat on a leash. It really should be a space on road trip BINGO cards.

Cross-country moves with dogs often aren’t a problem. They’re along for the ride, although even mine start to lose patience after two 12-hour days. Cats are another story. This can be the tricky part of moving with pets. Keeping a pet sane during a move comes down to one thing: knowing your pet’s personality and understanding their specific needs. For example: two of my cats travel well in regular pet carriers. They seem to like the confined space and it’s comforting to them. Skipper, on the other hand, only behaves if she rides in a dog-sized wire crate.

One in three pets will become lost at some point during their life and those lost at stops while moving are unlikely to make it home. A few precautions can make your trip much safer for your pets.

  • Get your pets microchipped and keep it updated. When I ran a rescue, it was all too often that we received calls from a local shelter saying they picked up a stray with an unregistered microchip. Nowadays, chips are inexpensive and some cities have microchip clinics that will provide chips at a discounted rate or even free.

  • Talk to your veterinarian as you prepare for your move. My cats don’t require sedatives, but if your pet tends to vomit on car rides or over-stresses, medication may be an important part of your PCS prepping.

  • Keep all pets restrained in cars. This could be with carriers or crates. We use seatbelt restraints for our dogs. They wear harnesses and are always clipped in when in the car.

  • Now that your pets are restrained, NEVER open a car door when transferring pets from crates or otherwise removing restraints. Even with our well-behaved dogs, we climb in the backseat, close the door, and put their leashes on before allowing them access to an open door. Moving is scary and you never know if or when your pet will panic. Keep them safe by removing the opportunity for them to get scared and bolt.

Depressed dogs and deployment

Neko sulking while I am away (on my pillows no less)

Deployment is a reality of military life today. While with some children, you can explain why Mommy or Daddy won’t be home for awhile, you can’t do that with pets. Our pets form strong attachments and are incredibly loyal. My old dog Neko was with me long before I met my husband and he spends days sulking and barely eating when I’m away on a business trip. The same happens with our dog Kit, who bonded more strongly to my husband, when he deploys.

Make sure you spend quality time with your pets. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed at first trying to remember all the things my husband takes care of during the week. I always try to spend a little time with the dogs each day. For Kit, it’s playing fetch, his favorite pastime with his doggy daddy. With Neko, it’s a cuddle on the couch and some extra treats. It’s important that they don’t feel abandoned. Whatever you do, don’t forget to film the homecoming because we all love watching a dog’s joy when they get their person back!

Aiding the transition of special needs “kids”

All of my pets are rescues and most are special needs. My cat Blooie came to me as a foster when she was young and feral. I’m pretty sure I am the only human she will ever trust. As a result of her rough start in life, transitions are tough on her. She spent a good week hiding in a bathroom sink when we first arrived at our house in Colorado.

Blooie hiding in the bathroom sink

The day our household goods arrive is always tough on our pets. This most recent time they had to share a bathroom for hours and it made me feel awful. If you have a definite delivery date, it might be worth paying for a day of boarding or doggy daycare to avoid your pets spending hours in crates or, in our case, a stuffy bathroom. It also saves you from chasing scared animals throughout the house or worse around a new neighborhood when a mover accidentally opens the wrong door.

Once in your new home, give your pets some quiet time to explore. Find the box with their beds and toys and create a little sanctuary for them with their things. Giving them a space that is comforting in the chaos of unpacking will make the transition easier. If they seem stressed or are hiding, try a calming product. We use Sentry collars for our two nervous cats and it seems to take the edge off. There are plenty of options out there today from Thundershirts to calming spray.

Where’s the vaccination certificate?

Every state has different licensing requirements for pets, and it’s always on my post move to-do list to make sure we are compliant. This usually requires producing certain medical records. One thing that has made transitions easier for our family is Banfield Pet Hospital. Banfield is the national chain of veterinary offices housed in Petsmart stores. Because Banfield is nation-wide, the office at your new duty station can download your pet’s entire medical history so you don’t have to remember when that last bordetella vaccine was administered. We have enough paperwork to carry around when we move. It’s great to have one less thing to worry about.

We have all our pets on their Wellness Plans and this often comes in handy when our dog gets sick from eating some mysterious local plant in our new backyard (this happened in South Carolina).

I think it’s important to state that I receive no incentive for this recommendation.

Not ready to walk a cat at a rest stop?

A pet is a long-term commitment and it may not be one you want to make while in the military.

If it’s not, consider fostering. While in Texas, I ran a pet rescue organization and fostered around 15 cats in a year. In South Carolina, I helped an airman worry less during deployment by fostering her cat through Dogs on Deployment. Here in Colorado, I’ve already prepared two litters of kittens for adoption.

Fostering can be difficult, but the reward of preparing a pet for its forever home is worth the tears when they leave. Find a local rescue or shelter, get to know them, and when you’re ready, apply to be a foster. Finally, if you aren’t in a position to have a pet in your home, find a rescue or shelter that needs help cuddling cats or walking dogs.

Amy Grace Wells is a content strategy and user experience professional and regular conference speaker currently stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. You can keep up with her pets on Instagram or share your military pet stories with her on Twitter.

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