JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The questioners were often incredulous: "You're taking your cats with you?" they would ask first, raising an eyebrow or two. Then: "You're hiring a what?!"
It seemed logical to us. We were preparing to move with our two pampered kitties from the East Coast of the United States to South Africa, and we were frazzled. For months we had worried about what would happen to them in the cargo hold - the only legal spot for a pet flying into South Africa - and about the reams of red tape seemingly designed to keep our American cats from living abroad.
So when we discovered that for $300 we could hire a pet travel agent, an animal-loving professional who takes care of these concerns, we jumped. And Barbara DeBry from Puppy Travel in Utah became our new best friend.
"It's like trying to do your own taxes," Ms. DeBry says in a phone interview, as Georgi and Cosi doze safely in our Johannesburg apartment. "If you have the time, and if it's not a complicated task, you can do it yourself. But if it isn't...."
My father thought we had gone off the deep end. Our friends just giggled. But more and more people are doing as we did - using pet travel agents, also known as animal relocaters or pet shippers - to help a move go smoothly.
Americans spend about $35 billion annually on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. And the pet travel industry, growing by almost 20 percent a year, is capturing more of these dollars, says Gale Young, president of the 220-member Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association International.
Thousands of pets are shipped each year, says Cookie Russo, who has worked as a pet travel agent in New York for two decades. Her business, Animals Away, organizes moves almost every day for dogs, cats, rabbits, iguanas, birds, you name it.
"People - their pets are their babies," she says.
The amount of paperwork and planning necessary for a pet's move is extraordinary. Customs agents can demand veterinary signatures, vaccine records, microchip placements, even blood samples. Airlines have their own regulations. One mistake, and Fluffy stays behind.
This is where pet travel agents come in.
"When you use a professional pet shipper, you know they are doing things by the book, that things are being done the right way," says Ms. Young, who also runs Starwood Animal Transportation Services of Oxford, Mass.
Young says she once saw a woman at Logan airport faint because an airline was refusing to allow her dog onto the plane. The canine's crate was simply too large - it wouldn't fit in the cargo hold. It was a mistake a pet agent would have prevented.
Young stepped in, taking the dog to her kennel and shipping it to Florida the next morning.
This is another key role of the pet agent - fixing problems.
Neil Taylor, for instance, realized late that his two cats needed rabies vaccinations at least six months before they moved from Idaho to Scotland. But he had already bought his plane tickets - he was scheduled to leave in four months.
He called Ms. DeBry. She suggested that he leave Moushka and Spider in a local kennel for the extra two months, arranged a flight for them, and on the appointed day collected the cats from the kennel and drove them to the airport.
"When she went to pick them up, she took digital pictures and e-mailed them to me to show that they looked good," Mr. Taylor says.
Our move wasn't complicated. But we still e-mailed DeBry constantly. She gave us "to do" lists and time schedules, sent documents to South African officials, and made sure we met international regulations. She assured us that we weren't unusually neurotic.
As it turned out, her work saved us. Because airline employees entered our cats into their system incorrectly, computers in Frankfurt, our layover city, rejected attempts to load them onto the South Africa-bound plane.
We frantically shoved all of our paperwork at the ticket agent. There, among the documents DeBry had prepared, was the proof that Georgi and Cosi would not threaten the well-being of South Africa's animal population. We were on our way.
We met Erika Collins and her Rhodesian Ridgeback, Tumbo, shortly after we arrived in Johannesburg. They had their own fiasco when they moved here from Kenya - blood tests they nearly missed, surly governmental officials, and a mountain of scrambled paperwork.
"It was a nightmare," Ms. Collins says.
If it weren't for Pet Travel Services, the South Africa company she finally hired, she said Tumbo could have been quarantined for months.
Collins says she's definitely using a pet travel agent when she returns to Washington, D.C. "It's worth whatever it costs, because it's just a really complicated process."
It would be wrong to say that our cats enjoyed their flight to South Africa. When we picked them up, their meows seemed louder than the forklifts surrounding them in the cargo bay.
But they were safe, and with us. We couldn't thank our pet travel agent enough.