8 January 2014

Expat Pets

I spent the day at the vets today – trying to arrange for our new puppy to get her vaccinations.  I started thinking about our expat pets and how they cope with life abroad.  I know many people who put off getting a pet until they get back to their home country – easier for all concerned and kinder on the animal is the usual rationale.  Our pets have always travelled with us, however and I recall only a short period of my  life when we had no pets.  Sadly we had to put down an otherwise healthy dog because of some severe mental health problems that caused him to threaten my baby sister and it was a few years before we could face taking another one in.  During that time, however, we pet sat for almost every friend and friend of a friend so we had an endless stream of loving pets  staying in our home.  

Pets also have to learn to adapt to the challenges of expat life.
There is no getting past the fact that some animals tug at your heart strings and become part of your life –  this is even more true as an expat when you see animals surviving in sometimes desperate situations and you feel you need to help them. The dynamic of life with pets as an expat is slightly different to when you live in your home country.  Rules on vaccination and ownership may be different and the quality of vet services can vary. Pets also have to adapt to new ways of life and new rules for behaviour.  In some countries dogs are welcomed - in others they are seen as unclean and a dog has to learn not to expect fuss from everyone it meets.  Language is another barrier - our dogs have always had to learn a smattering of command words in the local language so house keepers, security staff etc could give them commands.  One of our dogs learned commands in four languages (English, Dutch, Turkish and Spanish - pretty good for a mere animal!).

We have had cats in the past  notably a stray (Tom Kitten) who deigned to spend a few months with us in Norway before deserting to the next door neighbour who served a superior brand of tuna and Kipper – our Nigerian cat who protected us from snakes and brought us gifts of gecko and lizard tails instead of mice.  We had a Parrot once as well – also in Nigeria.  Pip the African Grey came to us as a bedraggled nestling caught by some people out in the bush when his mother was killed – to turn him away would have meant certain death so we fed him on mashed up fruit and built him a cage on the patio.  Sadly he had the most awful temper and could not stand to be handled but he more than compensated for this with his fantastically broad vocabulary – he was great fun to talk to and I swear he knew exactly what he was saying, his favourite trick being to call the cat and dog in my mother’s voice and then enjoy watching the ensuing fight.  Sadly Kipper did not want to stay with us (he found a wife a few doors down) and we could not get an export licence for Pip. Other pets have included goats, turkeys and sheep, usually presented to my parents as gifts, these farm animals lived with us in our gardens for a while before being raffled off for Christmas or Eid dinner for a lucky colleague (I remember my sister and I cried each time).  The most unusual pet was the turkey who faced his raffle with equanimity but was reprieved when the winner decided to start a turkey farm instead.

Much as I have loved our other pets I am, resolutely, a dog person.  We have had dogs in almost every country we have ever lived in and, unlike cats dogs never choose to leave their owners.  Jimmy, our Nigerian dog was a large blond Andalusian Shepherd Cross – he worked at our house every night as our guard dog and when we found out that the company who owned him were abusing him very badly we refused to let him go back and bought his contract.  The poor thing had been so badly beaten that he had been left with no single rib or tooth intact and he was so grateful for his deliverance from hell that he became the most faithful, protective dog I have ever met. I only ever heard him bark twice - both times it was to provide a much needed warning.  

He stayed with us through two postings in the Netherlands and one in Turkey before finally dying in Venezuela.  We were all distraught when he had to be put to sleep knowing that his life had been shortened by the beatings he had taken as a young dog but also knowing that we had given him an extra 8 years of life through taking him in.  Before Jimmy died we adopted a Venezuelan Street Dog – a Kakri that we called Eliza – we found her as a tiny puppy just able to walk that had been discarded on the rubbish heap and could not leave her.  She gave my parents many happy years in Venezuela, The Netherlands and England before dying  last year – the oldest Kakri ever to have lived at 13 years.  She is survived by an English rescue dog who, sadly, has never had the opportunity to travel anywhere.

Eliza - rescued from the streets of Maracaibo at little more than a
month old lived out her days in comfort as a Venezuelan Expatriate
in the Netherlands and UK.  
When we married my husband and I were gifted a tiny black puppy (with our full knowledge and consent).  Abbess came to live with us the day we returned from honeymoon and has been an integral part of our family ever since.  When we found out that we were going to Kazakhstan we had to decide whether to take our 10 year old dog with us or ask a family member to take her in.  We were concerned not only with  how she would handle the cold and snow but, more importantly how a dog who had always lived in the country with free access to woodland whenever she wanted  and never needed a lead would cope in an apartment in a city.  We had no shortage of volunteers to have her but when push came to shove we could not imagine life without her.

Bessie grew up in the English countryside.
A far cry from the city of Astana where she now
takes her daily walks.  
Bessie, more than any other member of the family, has found it difficult to adapt to life in Astana.  The harsh winters have aged her much more quickly than we expected.  We brought a middle aged dog to Astana and now have an elderly grande dame to take care of.  We would not be without her, however, and every evening, when she curls up next to us on the sofa or when she comes to ‘help’ put the children to bed we know that we made the right decision.
Bessie finds expat life in Astana somewhat of a challenge,
particularly the heavy snow and extreme cold. 
Luckily fate has given us the chance to give her a new lease of life – a few months ago a tiny black pup was found wandering the campus of the local university.  The pictures of the puppy showed that she looked very like Abbess and we decided to adopt her.  Bessie has taken to her role as surrogate mother and is enjoying her chance to teach a pup its manners.  Perdita has wormed her way into our hearts and, as with every dog before, we now cannot imagine life without her.

Bessie and Perdita are more mother and daughter than friends.
Bess helps to train Perdita and is assiduous in looking after her.
The dogs will come with us when we leave Kazakhstan – so once Perdita is vaccinated I will have the pleasure of learning how to get a pet passport from the relevant Kazakh ministry.  Each country has its own requirements for pet immigration – some easy some (like the UK) fiendishly difficult.  I am not yet sure when or where we are going when we leave Kazakhstan but, barring some unforeseen tragedy, the pets will be coming with us.

Click on the picture for more posts on expat pets.

The Ersatz Guide To Expat Pets


  1. Aww! All your pets sound adorable!
    It never fails to astound me how many people assume we would leave either our cat or our dog behind when we move. It seems many people just see pets as a temporary 'thing', to be discarded after a couple of years when they move again.
    Yes, the export and import bureaucracy can be a nightmare and the transport costs astronomical, but how could we leave the furry members of our family behind?

    1. Spot on Carole - pets deserve a forever home.

  2. What do you when you have pets and want to go on holidays? I work with a website that helps expats find people who will pet sit for them while they're away, usually for free. Feel free to email me ( james@trustedhousesitters.com ) if you want to give it a try.

    1. Dear James - I will certainly take a look. The dogs usually go to friends or the housekeeper will look after them. We are very lucky,