Sunday, March 10, 2013

Having a Fur Family in the Foreign Service

It's no surprise given the title of this blog that my three Tabbies are as important to me as any other family member. We've been together since they were six weeks old; two are littermates and one was from a box in front of the grocery store. In the past two years, we've moved them to four new homes on two continents. They've endured a six-day road trip in the back of the car with a different hotel room at the end of each long day. All this, and they will each turn 15 in the coming months. 

Is this an ideal life for cats, or for pets in general? No, it's not. Cats prefer routine and a consistent environment. Many don't do well with change and often their stress isn't outwardly apparent. The stop eating, stop drinking, stop using the litter box or go where they oughtn't. They can become prone to anxieties, infections or illness.  Given all this, can they still thrive in such a lifestyle? Yes.

So if we love our pets so much, why would we subject them to all the moving and the trauma of travel? Because for animals that are long-time family members, I believe they love us equally, and would prefer to be with us, their trusted caregivers, than left behind. Having said that, there are some cats and dogs whose personalities are simply not a match for the FS life, and it is kinder to leave them in the US with a new "forever home" where they will transition only once instead of every two years. I'm mostly speaking of cats who are accustomed to having outside time and get very anxious/angry being kept inside. Or high-energy dogs who would make themselves and everyone around them miserable living in a high-rise apartment in Shanghai, or while their owners spend 10 months in a one-bedroom apartment while learning Arabic at FSI. Or perhaps very elderly pets whose  health has become frail and the stress of travel could potentially put them over the edge. In cases such as these, family, friends or rescue shelters would be the better option, as hard as that could be at first for all involved. 

A new FSO I know recently shared this photo of their family's older dog and their young son. He captioned the picture, "This is why we stuck you in a box under the airplane and carried you half-way around the world." The family gave me permission to use this picture, which to me encapsulates exactly why we bring our animals to the places we do instead of leaving them behind. 

The love in the boy's eyes for his dog, and in her eyes for him is not just anthropomorphic nonsense; it's real. Our animals are capable of the same attachments and bonds as we are to each other, and while the travel and adjustment time is certainly not ideal for them, in the end - I'd never trade their presence in our ever-changing lives. 

Our Tabbies have done a remarkable job at adjusting, especially given their age and the fact that we haven't had a full two years in one spot yet. The first move was the hardest adjustment, especially since they'd lived in our same house since I brought them home as kittens. The Oakwood apartment had no yard, no familiar smells and that lady with the cat grinding machine came in once a week unannounced to clean up the place. There were many days spent under the bed, with me coaxing them out only for meals, or me just giving up and sliding the bowl in front of the hidden noses. By the second time they arrived at Oakwood, they recognized the building, the apartment layout, the balcony, and there was no under-the-bed silliness. Arriving in Juarez after the long drive, they explored the new house eagerly, claimed the best sunny spots immediately and within a few days were wanting to explore our enclosed back yard. 

Daphne decides which guest room she prefers
Favorite beds were claimed instantly

But we're not just relying on their good natures and luck to make these moves successful, I also spend a LOT of time and energy attending to their health and comfort. To summarize this:
  • Pay attention to their small behavior changes, such as how much they're eating, drinking and using the litter box. During our trip, they each ate and drank fine, but the latter category was often neglected, and I feared they'd become uncomfortably constipated (sorry, but it's true) or start bladder infections for not urinating enough. To solve this, we kept their own familiar litter box and type of litter available 24/7. I bought a small can of unflavored pumpkin puree and added a teaspoon to their food each day to get things moving, shall we say. They also got their favorite food flavors, and I added what I refer to as the "special sauce" to the top of their wet food each meal to entice them. It's a powdered probiotic called FortiFlora that looks and smells like beef bouillon and makes their food dee-lish, apparently. Or, for reluctant eaters, some tuna or just tuna water on their food can help (but I don't suggest tuna as their main meal - use sparingly). On day five of our trip, at a lunch stop, I noticed that for the first time, someone had used the in-car litter box while the car was in motion. I was so happy and proud, you'd have thought they each had little caps and gowns and diplomas in paw! But by keeping their systems as regular as possible, you can help eliminate the possible health problems that stressful moves can cause.
  • Find a way to get high quality food wherever you're posted! This may mean allotting a big chunk of your consumables allowance weight to kibble and cans, or researching what you can buy online in Tajikistan, Tanzania or Turkey. Even as close as we are here in Mexico, quality pet food (and litter!) is surprisingly scarce, so I dutifully cross over to Texas each week to hit PetSmart. In Bogota, I used Amazon or Pet Food Direct, and took advantage of the free shipping that is often offered and the kitties never went without their favorite food. It takes planning, but it's definitely worth it. Oh, and carrying cases of cans and 30 lb bags of kibble home in the van from the Embassy mail room is just an added bonus! 
  • Plan for your arrival to be well-stocked. Leaving for a new post is a complicated affair, but be sure to think about what you'll need when you arrive in your new digs from the airport, with carriers in hand. Three times now, I've sent a box of supplies to myself in advance, to be received by my social sponsor. The box always contains at least a week's worth of food, a small bag of litter and a disposable cardboard litter box and scooper. I usually throw in a few favorite toys, a favorite used and hairy cat bed, a brush and cat nip, so that when we unpack our own bags, the cats also get their familiar things to help them settle in. I have to go to work in the morning, but the pets will be in the apartment alone for the first time. 
  • Locate the best vet and emergency clinic you can in your new city. Unfortunately, I've had to take advantage of this already, and am thankful that we were living in a modern city of 8 million residents with a state-of-the-art veterinary facility for when Dodger suddenly went into anaphylactic shock after an injection one day. Naturally, having this type of place ten minutes away isn't always going to be the case, so I recommend finding what resources are available and even carrying a pet emergency kit and some type of instruction book. Should we be sent to deepest, darkest somewhere - I want to know how to treat a scorpion sting, a snake bite, give an injection, or treat dehydration etc... to help them out if needed. 
  • Keep their routine as regular as possible in the new surroundings. The Tabbies have regular mealtimes and the same dishes. Their water is replaced and the bowl cleaned every morning. They have scratchers so they don't destroy embassy furniture and I keep their claws trimmed. 

In the end, it is worth it to have our pets with us. If we had young children, as my friend in the first picture does, I'm certain that the pets would help the kids feel at home in their new place, too. While the parent(s) go off to work, the kids still have their companions and vice-versa. As I write this, I have the original laptop, Toby, vying for his rightful spot on my thighs, and Dodger is on the table at my elbow. (Cats are so helpful with typing!) They have their new yard, the back of a new sofa to lounge across, stairs for the fist time to help them keep active and all sorts of new birds to watch. For as long as they're healthy and able, the Tabbies will always be our EFMs (Eligible Furry Members).


  1. Nice post! I had to do one of the things you mention: find a home for a cat that would have lost her mind in an apartment, not to mention been about the worst traveler ever. Also, my two cats didn't get along very well, and I think the old, timid one was happy to see the other one go. It was hard to give her up, but she's happier where she is, I am sure, with a cocker spaniel to beat up on.

    Would you mind if I reposted this to the AAFSW Facebook page?

  2. This is a wonderful post! My animals have definitely been happier in the long run to be with me than to stay behind, even if it means enduring a horrific few days of travel. Selfishly, though, I think what they mean for my well-being and morale is well worth the hassle. Thanks for articulating what many of us feel.

  3. We've now moved ... oh geeze, I've lost count, but we've been doing the Foreign Service life for 13 years running, usually with a MINIMUM of two cats and two dogs. Now we're at two cats and one dog, and some left us along the way. It has been a long time since I had a house of animals under five years old, but my kid adopted theirs and here we go again. It is always interesting. Regulations and airlines are always changing, it always requires planning ahead (sending ahead a box, putting myself on auto-order with PetSmart), but other than the probiotic sprinkle, we don't tempt to eat much, and always add ConcenTrace trace minerals to their water so they get their electrolytes and stay hydrated. Having glued a dog's ear back on (mean old hedgehog) in a -stan and fostered more than 50 stray animals in another (all Green Card winners eventually) I agree entirely that what they have given back and taught our children is not measurable. AND, pets reduce stress and help people adapt as well.

  4. Thank you all for chiming in with your own experiences! Yes, please share this post to the AAFSW Facebook. Daphne was a little upset that it wasn't the most flattering picture of her, but she'll get over it.

    Gluing on a dog ear? Yikes! Now that's a FS story.

  5. Hi Caitlin-
    I am one of the admins for Hardship Homemaking (and a cat owner too!). We have a post about transitioning with dogs while traveling in the FS and have been trying to find someone to write something similar for cats. This post is perfect! Would you mind letting us repost as a guest author? We would link back to the original post and your blog. I will put the email address in a separate comment below that you can delete. Love the post!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Hi I'm Heather! Please email me when you get a chance, I have a question about your blog! LifesABanquet1(at)

  8. I think you could take horses with you too and they would love the adventure. I am still patrolling those box stores you mentioned looking for the big bags of husband food and they are very hard to find...aargh! Happy Trails, Janet