Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Animal Hospital

We hadn't been in San Jose more than a few weeks before Tiger, ecstatic to have a yard to play in again, comes inside with a tick. The bite got a bit infected and so I decided to take him for a check up to the nearest veterinarian I could find. The nearest place turned out to be a real "Animal Hospital." To those of us used to those little back office examining rooms behind pet stores, this was certainly a new experience for me.
Before one even entered the door, the signs in front of the building showed you this place meant business:

Once inside I was greeted by two very busy assistants who immediately had me fill in a "new patient " form. A few strokes into the computer, and Tiger's medical file soon joined the awe-inspiring collection in the file cabinet in the back.

Next came a short stay in the waiting room. I think Tiger appreciated the advertising as little as I did, but I did enjoy the free coffee and cookies.

When we were ushered into the examining room, a medical assistant first checked Tiger's temperature, weight, and overall fur quality. Then came Dr. H. wearing a white coat and stethoscopes. She examined the tick bite, listened to his heartbeat, felt his abdomen, and questioned me thoroughly on Tiger's health and vaccination history. She took Tiger away to clean the tick bite and to administer a blood test.

In the meantime, I got into a friendly conversation with Linda, one of the assistants in the reception area. When I told her I was back in the USA after 18 years abroad, she told me to read Bill Bryson's book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. In fact, she just lent me her own book. Right there, in the office. "Here," she said after having met me only five minutes ago. "Just bring it back when you're done."

A few days later, while I'm in Los Angeles visiting cousins on a Saturday afternoon, my cell phone rings.

"Karen Engel?"


"This is Dr. H. I just wanted to let you know Tiger's blood tests have come in. His BUN levels are within normal but his creatinine levels are a little high."

"Ah, what does that mean?"

"Well, his kidneys are still functioning but they could be a little weak. That would account for his high water intake. You might want to put him on a senior diet."

"Oh, OK, thank you."

That extraordinary experience was soon topped by the enormous bill for this admittedly extraordinary care. ($334.29) I could also mention, just on the side, that I don't even pay this amount of cash for my kids' check-ups. Their kidneys have also never been checked. But then I am sure this blog would be swamped with comments from animal rights activists accusing me of heartlessness and cruelty for feeling guilty for spending so much money and resources on a cat, when I really truly believe that money (and resources) should be spent elsewhere, on human beings, for example.

But I'll save all that for another post.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Customs and the Cat

After none of my friends wanted to adopt a cat for half a year, and a cat "hotel" would have cost me more than 800 Euros, I decided that we had to take Tiger with us to the United States – especially after a quick look at US customs regulations confirmed that cats don't need to be quarantined (except in Hawaii and Guam) after arrival. They don't even need a health certificate.

Sounds easy. It wasn't.

First of all, while cats may not need visas to the US, they do need plane tickets, plane reservations, and if they are European cats, a passport. Even cats flying from one EU country to another need health certificates and rabies shots. And airlines and individual states can make their own rules. Although we were flying from Graz, Austria to San Francisco, we were changing planes in Frankfurt, Germany. The entire trip was booked through Lufthansa, but the flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco was on a plane run by United. Lufthansa said we didn't need the health certificates and rabies shots, because strictly speaking, we were not entering Germany, only the Frankfurt airport. But United said we did.

So off I went to the vet. By the end of the visit Tiger had received a set of vaccines against rabies, cat colds and other viruses, had been examined for all infectious or contagious diseases, had been microchipped and computer identified, and was issued a "Veterinary Health Certificate" in German and English, and a verifiable "Pet Passport" for the European Union. And I got a bill for 160€ (or $205).

We were ready to go. Or so I thought.

I wanted to take the cat with us into the cabin. Not so much because I was so worried about the cat having to stay in cargo as I was worried about my 12 year old daughter agonizing over Tiger's most certain and imminent death if he were not with us. Lufthansa said the cat carrier could be no larger than 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. United said the carrier could be no larger than 43cm x 30cm x 20cm. In any case, my carrier was a bit larger. I could not find a small enough carrier in the pet store. And the vet told me such a small carrier would certainly kill the cat.

In desperation I took my cat carrier with the cat inside it to the airport in Graz. It was in-between flights and the check-in attendants at Lufthansa were just sitting around chatting. I came up to the counter with the cat and they all immediately fell in love with Tiger. There is nothing like being the single male among a group of women. I told them I was flying out in three days and I wanted to know if I could take the cat just like this on the plane – with a ticket, of course. Of course! was the immediate answer.

And indeed, the flight from Graz to Frankfurt was a breeze. Tiger didn't even miaou. He was happy – but the flight was so late, that we had literally only 20 minutes to change planes in Frankfurt. We made the flight, miraculously and out of breath because Lufthansa personally escorted us through the back doors, and through security to United. While the German customs officer did check our passports, he didn't even glance at the cat.

United was so busy getting us on the plane that they didn't see the cat either. In fact, the woman sitting next to me on the flight didn't even realize we had a cat in a box by our feet until Tiger peed two hours before we landed in San Francisco.

US Immigration didn't give a hoot about Tiger. They didn't even ask for his fancy passport.

Tiger did get a bit of attention at the Baggage Claim area in the San Francisco airport. The dog working for the US Department of Agriculture couldn't keep his mind on sniffing out illegally imported German sausage or Dutch hashish and came around for several visits, much to the annoyance of his colleagues.

US customs didn't care about the cat either. The only thing they were worried about was the one small sealed free sample package of Royal Canine dry cat food that I had along for an emergency. It contained meat by-products and was banned from US entry.