I still remember the day I went to pick up my cats from quarantine in Osaka a few years back. The image I just can't get out my mind: How fat they had become.
Fido Is a Cat
Because of Japan's arguably overzealous efforts to ensure that rabies stays out of the archipelago, my two domestic short-haired critters were forced into months-long isolation immediately after getting off the plane. Thankfully, they were kept in the hands of a caring keeper, who loved and fed them. The problem was, he fed the kitties to a fault. When I loaded them into their cages for the ride home after picking them up from quarantine, I could barely lift them. They had become two gigantic—Japan-certified rabies-free, mind you—fat cats.
In retrospect, that was the most disturbing part of taking my pets to Japan. But it wasn't the most burdensome or costly part of the importation process. Here, I'll tell what you need to know about importing your own cat or dog, and maybe you'll learn something from my experience.
Plan Early, Very Early
First, you should plan early. If fact, if you can take your cats or dogs to the vet a year before your trip, do so. You will avoid many of the headaches awaiting, including the extended quarantine my cats had to endure—and the cost of keeping them there.
Your first step is to get an International Standards Organization-qualified microchip placed inside your pet. Japan will not accept, in most cases, any vaccines administered before the microchip is implanted.
The next step, if you're as unlucky as I was, is to revaccinate your pet. You might have assumed that because your tabby was up-to-date on vaccinations that all would go smoothly. It won't. Japan has different requirements for vaccinating pets against rabies. Your little Garfield will need vaccines not usually given in the U.S. And you'll need to prove he got them.
Japan only accepts so-called inactivated or recombinant vaccines and not live ones. In addition, those vaccines must be given over two or more rounds for Japanese officials to agree your pet is free of rabies. It's unlikely, if you're living in the U.S., that your cat already meets these requirements. Ask your vet about this, then request that the vet walk you through the vaccination process.
Draw Fido's Blood
Next, you will want to get blood tests to prove your cat or dog is, in fact, free of rabies. The blood test can only be administered at a laboratory approved by Japan's Animal Quarantine Service. Work with your vet on this one. The result of the blood test is valid for two years, and it must be done after the second vaccination shot.
Here's the real downer. At least 180 days—that's just shy of a half year—must pass between the time the blood sample is taken and when your dog or cat arrives in Japan. If the period is shorter than this, as was the case with my cats, the quarantine time is extended to as much as 180 days in isolation. This gives the animal keeper plenty of time to spoil your kitten or pup with Science Diet or Fancy Feast.
It's All Very Formal
You also need to contact the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service at the port where you plan to arrive (for example, Osaka or Narita) but do so at least 40 days before you'll arrive. If you can't finish the vaccine rounds before 40 days prior to leaving, fill out the form anyway and send it. The form will require you to fill out your name, address, contact number, breed of your dog or cat or both, how many pets you'll be bringing in and why your home country and other information.
You'll also have to fill out other forms, and so will your vet. You'll need a special advance notification form if you're taking a dog or a cat, in addition to import application forms for your dog or cat. With your vet, you'll also need to fill out this form (called "Form A") and this one, called "Form C." Some forms will need a government stamp of approval, and your vet should be able to help you with this. Here's a sample notification form to help you along.
If you can get all this completed accurately and within the required time frames, your quarantine time could be as short as half a day. If not, you could end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for quarantine care. In addition, don't forget about how upsetting it may be for your pet to be placed in a strange place away from you for a long time. But if you plan ahead and meet all deadlines, your ordeal will be a small one—simply meeting with quarantine officials upon arrival at the airport, giving them the appropriate forms and filling out a few more, and waiting as little as 12 hours to see your pet again.
Finally, check with your airline for pet policies and costs. It's likely you may pay around $200 to bring your kitty in a cage with you.
As a last note, before you scoff at this bureaucracy, think about this: Japan is recognized as a rabies-free nation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there have been no confirmed cases of rabies in Japan since 1957. They must be doing something right.