Traveling With Pets May (or May not) Become Harder After August

Many people like to vacation with their pets. Many others move across the country (or to another country) and, of course, take their pets with...


Many people like to vacation with their pets. Many others move across the country (or to another country) and, of course, take their pets with them.

To travel across state or especially international borders with a pet one often must obtain paperwork stating that the pet is healthy and vaccinated against rabies. These so-called health certificates are theoretically required any time a pet crosses state lines (depending on the states involved). Pet owners need them most often when their pets travel by air.

I have never met a veterinarian who feels anything other than contempt for the process of issuing health certificates. To issue a health certificate we are supposed to be familiar with the laws of the state of origin and the state of destination. That’s 50 different sets of regulations (Washington, DC’s airports are in Virginia and Maryland so we generally don’t have to worry about the District). Regulations for international travel are even more exasperating. All of the regulations are subject to frequent, unannounced changes. Many regulations are capricious.

Issuing health certificates generally is a thankless job for vets. Many clients blame vets for the expense and hassle of the process. This well founded but poorly directed frustration is exacerbated by the fact that many airline representatives check health certificates inconsistently. One client grew gradually angrier and angrier at me after he came to my office every two weeks to obtain health certificates for regular voyages with his dog. Time and again the airline representatives did not check his paperwork. Finally he decided to travel without a health certificate. Naturally, that was the one time that the airline checked his papers. He was not allowed on his flight, and he called my office in a fury, suggesting that the whole mess was somehow my fault.

And, since health certificates are legal documents, the process of issuing them is a prime generator of veterinary malpractice lawsuits.

I’d be happy if the whole process were abolished for cats and dogs. The real purpose of health certificates in the United States is to prevent the spread of livestock disease. I understand the importance of these documents in cattle. But epidemic disease in house pets is so rare that the practice of issuing health certificates in my line of work is little more than an exercise in bureaucracy.

To make matters worse, the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) acts like it is doing vets a favor by allowing us to issue health certificates. I was certified by the USDA, along with the rest of my class in vet school, by attending a four hour lecture (easily the most boring lecture I have ever attended) and passing a simple test. Certification supposedly was for life.

Sadly, it seems the USDA is not satisfied merely tormenting vets with health certificates. It now wants to torture us outright. It is revoking lifetime certification and implementing a system in which veterinarians must obtain continuing education credits (guaranteed to be the most boring veterinary continuing education ever offered) every three years in order to issue health certificates. Most vets suspect that soon the USDA will begin to charge us to perform one of our least favorite activities.

Of course, I will continue to sit through horrifically boring lectures so that I can issue health certificates for the sake of my clients and patients. But I don’t know that every vet will. And if the USDA charges high enough certification fees then traveling with pets may become much harder than it is now.

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