Re animal importation regulations: absolutely the ONLY way to go on this is to contact the Panamanian consulate nearest you and get the information on requirements. The rules regarding immigration and visas have changed and go into effect I believe on August 1. My friend knew about the proposed regulations some of which were quite severe, and among them, she said, were much stricter rules on bringing in animals. BUT--there are always lots of proposed regulations; always at least some do not get finalized. So it is vital that you ask the people who should know--at the Panamanian Embassy or Consulate nearest you.
Second, what is likely to be more restrictive is the airline regulations on how you travel with your animals. There are deadlines for final vet examinations, shots, etc. When we brought in our animals, you had to have a certificate from your vet stating that the animals were free of diseases and fit to travel which then had to be sent to the Panamanian Consulate for certifcation--stamped or apostilled--and then that document was what you presented to the airline to get your boarding pass. The rule used to be 10 days from the time your vet signed the document to date of arrival, I think, in the foreign country.
Check with the airlines, for these are their regulations, not those of Panamá.
Also, check with the airlines on rules for pets on board. Many people--us included--wanted to bring their animals in the cabin with them. All US airlines that we knew of at the time limited the number of animals on board in the cabin to a total of two for all passengers. In other words, two animals per flight. And, as I recall, one per person. Since we brought 5, two of the cats came with us on board and the other three were shipped in pet cargo. Airlines vary in their handling of pets in pet cargo and in their prices. I believe, Will, you are only bringing in one cat, so you stand a good chance of being able to bring your buddy on board.
BUT you MUST make a reservation and get it in writing!!! Especially if you are dealing with COPA. We found that COPA was very good with the animals. But friends of ours, who had made arrangements to bring two of their cats on board with them, found out at the very last minute that COPA had lost their reservation and were about to allow another animal ahead of them on that flight. Which meant that they would NOT be able to bring both cats on board and had not made any arrangements for shipping the other cat pet cargo. The two requirements are very, very different. Fortunately, they had an email document from a supervisor confirming the reservation, and so by persistence and presenting this document at JFK, I believe, they were able to get their two cats on board with them. The other person, who evidently had not made arrangements was flat out of luck. He/she could not fly with the cat or dog that day.
These rules are absolutely rigid--RIGID--and you MUST make sure you are going to be able to board with your cat.
But you're not through yet. You have to make an appointment, basically, with the official government vet who is on duty at Tocumen only until noon. When we emigrated, this and other paperwork had to be done in advance because the vet was not there all the time; he only made an appearance when animals were coming in that day. There are these hoops you must go through vis-a-vis paperwork, and I don't know what they are because like most people, we went through an agent who specializes in bringing animals into the country. If you do not go through these hoops, believe this like you believe the sun rises in the east--your animal will NOT be allowed into the country. Depending on the situation at that time, if you--not the Panamanian government-- can't arrange for immediate shipment back to Ireland or wherever, they will put the animal down. Also, get out of your minds instantaneously any notion about the folded $20 dollar/euro/ruble bill slipped under the table and the vet will look the other way, allowing the animal in. At the time we moved, there were horror stories about what happened when stupid Americans who had seen too many Grade Z movies or read too many comic books tried to do that. It will not work.
We used an agent in Panama City who filed the required official notification and made arrangements for the vet. There are two whom I know of. We used Allan Pittí (whose family turns out to live in Potrerillos); the other one is José Saenz. I do not have current information on either one of these people. I know we were more than satisfied with Allan, who showed up with his wife at Tocumen because she had never seen anyone bring in 5 animals before!
Related to the use of an agent: because of the heat on the tarmac, there are severe airline restrictions as to when you can ship an animal cargo. If the predicted temperature will be over 85 degrees Fahrenheit at ANY stopover or at Tocumen, you will not be allowed to ship your animal cargo. Animals have died of the heat after hours waiting planeside. Allan and José are licensed to go out to the plane and facilitate the unloading of the animals, getting them into the air-conditioning of Tocumen. In fact, our two quite thrilled dogs (who were ready to hop the next flight to Berlin or Rome, they didn't care where) and one very disgruntled cat made it into the cargo area at Tocumen before we did! One of the happiest sights of my entire life was that of those three crates, waiting for us as we cleared Adoana and Migración.
By far and away, the worst part of the whole move was everything involving the animals. When some of us get together and trade horror stories, we are right there with June 2-3rd, 2004, getting to Seattle from an island off the coast with the menagerie, getting them on Alaska Airlines flight to Los Angeles, and then the nightmare wait until the midnight flight to Tocumen. On the Alaska Airlines flight, contrary to airline protocol, I received no word confirming that our animals had made it to pet cargo. I had heard too many stories of animals being inadvertently left behind. We had absolutely no leeway for error because of the difficulty of getting the documentation to the LA Panamanian Consulate back in time to avoid the Memorial Day holiday, and running against that 10 day deadline. US marshall or no US marshall on any flight, I stood up at my seat and refused to sit down again--thus paralyzing the plane at the gate--until the flight attendant (vastly annoyed) brought me confirmation personally that the animals had made it on board. They were supposed to give me a piece of paper that said that the animals had made it and they never did. I would have preferred arrest rather than leave without that confirmation.
The flight was ok, but the 7 hour wait at LAX in the cargo area of Alaska Airlines with two dogs who were dying to get out there and meet all these new friends and three utterly miserable cats was a nightmare. There are situations where you simply endure, simply suffer through them, and this was one.
If you bring animals on, you must have regulation size carriers that will fit under the seat. Do NOT make the mistake of hard-sided carriers. The soft carriers are best, as they can be the regulation 9" high (at least that was the situation when we flew) in order to fit underneath the seat with no problem. The woman ahead of us tried to get on board her flight with a non-regulation carrier. She was turned away and had to buy at the airport a regulation carrier.
Be very careful in this arena. Check with the nearest Consulate about the rules, and then check again, since the rules have changed and it may take time for the word to get out. get absolute clarity with the airlines. We split up the work. Mary dealt with the airlines and I dealt with the Panamanian Consulate. It was the single hardest aspect of our move.
Also, remember that the rules change all the time here, and as I warned in the beginning, there are rumors of rule changes involving animals. Be very, very careful.
Addendum: I forgot, and this is important: if you are bringing in animals by means of pet cargo--and with multiple animals you almost always have to--then check with the airlines about possible "blackout" dates--a period of at least 3 months when the airline will refuse to carry pets in pet cargo because of excessive temperatures at any--I repeat, any--airport the plane lands at during its flight. One of the reasons why we flew the way we did is that we had to choose a route that would meet these requirements. There were cheaper and less hair-raising ways to go, but we wound up having to fly to LA from Seattle, then wait for a midnight flight to Tocumen because at that time (and it has since changed) Copa always allowed animals in pet cargo because the flight arrived so early in the morning.
Everything we did, including the schedule for our entire move, revolved around getting our beloved family to Panamá. As soon as you have even a rough idea of when you want to move, start checking into both airline and Panamanian regulations. Also, be prepared to spend a bundle per animal. There are vet fees and other fees here in Panamá, but the cost of flying your animals can vary really wildly from one airline to another. We had to do what we did but we chose Alaska Airlines over Northwest, for instance, because the cost of flying the animals varied well over $100/animal at that time. With five animals, that was no mean consideration. Both airlines had pretty good reputations for treating animals. Alaska had one of the best reputations, but I frankly was far more pleased with Copa. I don't care how annoyed that flight attendant was with me, Alaska did not follow their own protocol for confirmation. You can not depend on any one and don't even bother making the assumption that you can. There are plenty of horror stories--and I have confirmed several--about animals dying thanks to the idiots at the airlines. Like pilots forgetting to turn on the environmental control in the pet cargo area. Imagine your animals dying because the plane went to 30,000 feet with outside temperatures and an unpressurized cargo area. I corresponded with one woman who had that happen to her with her dogs.
I hate to be this grim, but these are real worries. If you ship cargo, demand confirmation--demand it, it is your right--and ask politely but confirm that the captain knows that he has live animal cargo on his flight. If you love your animals, worry and be fanatical about details. I called the LA Panamanian Consulate so many times, checking, that the consul there recognized my voice on the phone immediately. He was truly kind, truly compassionate, and treated me with all courtesy and kindness, even though I must have made upwards of 20 calls to him, many times checking the same thing, since I was getting contradictory information. It turned out that, at that time anyway, the State of California required an additional certification that had to be apostilled and I wanted to make sure that, since we were stopping over in LA, I didn't have to go through the CA certifiation as well. This would have delayed us, since we were working around the US holiday of Memorial Day when all government offices, including foreign consulates, shut down.
I hate to be this alarmist, but the incident about Copa losing the reservation for bringing pets on board in the cabin happened less than a year ago. The people involved were nervous wrecks over the whole animal immigration thing. All I could do was empathize from a distance because there is good reason to be worried. Mostly, it goes smoothly. We really had no trouble except for confirmation about the animals being aboard the Alaska Airline flight. Just pay attention to detail and hound the people involved. That's what they're getting paid for--to make sure that you're getting the right service.