Dogs and Cats Who Can Fly

Puppy on a plane
Pet Travel: Fly & Land Without Hassle

Part One: U.S. Interstate Travel

I have a fair number of mobile clients who need or want to travel with Fido, Felice, Prince, or Speedy Underfoot (bar none, the best cat name that has ever graced my homeopathic vet practice). I’m talking plane travel here, not just driving to see Aunt Louise in the next county.

State to state pet travel (U.S.) technically needs a veterinary health certificate to accompany the animal, regardless of mode of transport. That means, even if you drive cross country with your animal, you are supposed to have one. If you are flying, the airlines are usually tasked with asking for these, as there are no veterinary officials who will come to greet your airplane.

Unless you travel with a pet to Hawaii, a rabies free island. Or another country, of course. Officials will be all over those planes, you can bank on it.

So, say you are traveling within the U.S. but crossing state lines from California to New York. What do you need?

A Health Certificate

Each state has regulations on the “import” of animals, and this came about years ago with the very best of intentions: livestock disease control. Back in the days of Hoof and Mouth Disease, a deadly virus that could wipe out herds, regulatory officials demanded laws that would make it mandatory that a veterinarian examine livestock for signs of disease within a week or two of shipment across state lines. The health certificate was born, with a place for the vet to sign off that he or she had indeed inspected these animals, found them to be free of signs of infectious disease, and fit for travel.

Signing one of these instruments without careful examination could result in loss of licensure and/or USDA accreditation. As a result of this being quite impressed on us in veterinary school, no vet in his right mind would issue a health certificate without seeing your animal and doing a proper exam.

Now, that’s not to say that more vaccinations need be piled on to the traveling animal’s immune system. You know the risks there, right? It’d be a shame to risk chronic disease just by jetting off to a dog show or your favorite getaway in Upper Michigan or Florida.

Playing the Odds

My experience as a livestock disease control vet for the state of Hawaii for several years taught me a lot about this process, and has helped me form my opinion on what my clients can expect if they are getting ready to fly with their dog or cat.

Hawaii, being an island state free of rabies, imposed strict quarantines of 120 days on all incoming pets back then (early ’90s). My first real job after landing there was actually to study the quarantine system and make recommendations to the state veterinarian, Dr. Calvin Lum. I’m told that my paper had a belated effect that shortened the quarantine requirements eventually, but I was long gone before that came about. State governments move slowly.

What most impressed me was my Hawaiian clients’ experience with the health certificates I’d write for them to fly animals back to the mainland U.S. As you can imagine, with all the regulations governing import of animals to Hawaii, I was very careful in ensuring I’d created a worthy health certificate for those patients who were flying out. All the vaccinations carefully noted, date of administration, product used, lot number, etc. etc. I only signed the document when I was sure it was proper and worthy of hard nosed inspection.

How difficult a time did my clients have getting their papers inspected and getting their animals let in to the next state, on the mainland?

It was easy-peasy: they uniformly reported their health certificates were never even asked for!!

What??

Tasking Airlines with Regulatory Control

As airlines have a lot more in their mission statement than animal inspection services, I suspect this happens all the time, at least interstate. It’s happened since I’ve been in Texas as well, over the past twenty years. In fact, if I am called on to issue a health certificate for someone traveling within the States now, I ask for the last rabies vaccination certificate, even if that was written wayyyy back in the animal’s life. Those old dates have never stopped anyone, in my experience.

Here’s the key you can take away from this: a health certificate is largely a pass that the traveling animal is disease free. It’s a signed, official, multi-copy document testifying to that fact, based on your veterinarian’s best judgment after examining your animal. It’s not viewed as documentation that rabies vaccinations are “up to date.” Though technically it could be, in my experience, it’s not.

And let’s recall the all important understanding that “up to date” on a viral vaccine, rabies included, immunologically means: “was vaccinated sometime over the age of four months.”

The resulting immunity in your animal is highly likely life long, remember? That’s what the immunologists know to be the truth.

So, I routinely fill out health certificates that have the blanks filled in for rabies vaccinations with dates that are several years old. I dutifully enter the manufacturer’s name, lot number, expiration date of the vial, etc., which should all be on your vaccination certificate, and nobody has objected yet to the old dates.

Will Dr. WhiteCoat Get On Board?

Most conventional veterinarians, oblivious to the damage possible from continuing vaccinations, will likely balk at signing a health certificate without an “up to date” rabies vaccine in your animal’s history. But, I’d urge you to ask anyway. There’s nothing on the certificate that says they have to be up to date, and she will not be lying if she writes the last vaccination date on the form.

And, who’s paying the bill for this service, anyway? You are, right?

So, I’d try this language or your own variation:

“I need a health certificate for Mitzy to travel to X state. Would you be willing to fill one out after examining my animal to be sure she’s healthy enough to travel?” Once you are in the clinic, I’d add, “I’d like my last rabies vaccination dates to be entered, please. I know her immunity is still there from studying veterinary immunologist’s writings, and I’ll take the consequences if I’m stopped.”

You very, very likely won’t be.

Seldom is Heard A Discouraging Word

In fact, though I don’t write more than a handful of these HC’s in a year, I’ve never had a client refused entry, questioned about dates, admonished to get a rabies vaccine, etc. in my thirty plus years in practice. Most of these health certificates are never even asked for. Airlines are busy with other things.

I’m not saying to travel by air without one, but neither would I offer it up for inspection unless asked. Why makes unnecessary waves for yourself?

In part two of this topic, I’ll cover international travel, a bit of a stickier situation, but still often doable without repeated vaccinations.

Have a travel experience with your pet that was enlightening? Or a nightmare? Anything you wanted to know that wasn’t covered here? Let us know in the comments. Group experiences will always be more complete than one person’s, even if that one person is a vet who’s seen laxity in regulation enforcement.

34 Comments

  1. Mona on December 30, 2019 at 8:11 am

    This was an extremely helpful post, what with the recent holiday travel season. Thank you for sharing. I’d also like to add that airlines are not very forthcoming about their pet policies (you’ll see what I mean: https://www [dot] dogsonplanes.com/airlines/), so it takes a bit of work to figure out exactly what you need to do. Once that’s over with, you can fly safely! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Tina on December 31, 2018 at 1:24 am

    Hi! I found this blog only yesterday and I am already fascinated by the way how open you speak your truth!! I love it! I only recently found out that my dog has quite a few allergies and I am quite convinced that his vaccinations played a leading role. I am flying to Europe once a year and I am so so interested how to return to the US without an active rabies vaccine. Vaccinations are no longer an option for me nor my pooch! Unfortunately I could not find your part 2 on this series. Is it there and I am not seeing it or was it never posted? Thank you so so much for the amazing work you do!!! Have a blessed new year!

    • Will Falconer, DVM on December 31, 2018 at 2:15 am

      Hey Tina, Glad you found resonance.

      I haven’t written about international travel yet, but perhaps you can help me do it. I’d be interested to hear where your point of exit and entry is, what the requirements are for returning (and from which country).

      My sense is, I was a bit overconfident about having solutions for this when I wrote this some time ago. International rules are stricter with a few third world exceptions I’ve heard of.

      Best advice: talk to people who’ve been doing your kind of travel and see if they’ve had any success in lessening or skirting more vaccine requirements. They *should* allow a titer in place of more unnecessary vaccines. But do they?

      Please use my Contact page form if you’d like to share what you know so far.

  3. ChihuahuaMama on March 23, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Our 5lb Chi’s are emotional support animals for me and my husband. (we have no kids) One of our girls almost died and required 2 blood transfusions after suffering Vaccine-associated immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA) shortly after being vaccinated when we adopted her 2 years ago. Since then, we have declined all vaccinations both both our girls, yet have flown with them with a Vet’s note with no problem.
    NOW, starting March 2018, Delta and other airlines are REQUIRING proof of current vaccinations in order to fly…. Does anyone have any suggestions on this?

  4. Marisa Tellez on February 13, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    Hello Dr. Falconer – I am traveling to Japan with my dog as an ESA on Delta. Delta requires a veterinary form with date of rabies (which I have current due to Japan requirements) and date of distemper vaccine. My dog has only been titered for distemper after receiving it as a puppy. The form and their site doesn’t state any specifics if distemper has to be current. My dog is 10 years old and we are going to Japan for her to get heart surgery. Have you known anyone to travel abroad and submit a form with an old distemper vaccine date?

    • Will Falconer, DVM on February 15, 2018 at 6:24 am

      I have surely know “out of date” vaccines to fly just fine, Marisa. Main thing airlines look for (and government inspectors on the other side) is a Health Certificate, made within 10-14 days of arrival, signed by a vet.

  5. V. Rogers on July 27, 2017 at 11:26 am

    I have two cats. My oldest is 15 has a little problem with kidneys already and whose rabies vaccine expires mid August this year. The other cat is 14 and his rabies expired last December. He has so many allergies his eyes are bad and his skin is inflamed. Both have had a LIFETIME of those damn rabies vaccines and I’m not about to renew them with the cats in this condition and about to suffer the stress of a move to St. Croix, USVI. STX like Hawaii is not a rabies endemic state but they don’t quarantine. They consider themselves to be like any other U.S. state and just require a health cert not USDA and rabies cert. BUT, I also know there is NO ONE at the airport checking any of it there. And as for American Airlines, the rule that pets have to fit under the seat goes right out the window on the flight from Miami to STX. People have dogs laying right in their laps on the flight. When you land it’s on the tarmac with maybe one airline person at the bottom of the steps to assist invalids. Period. You walk off and get your car. I have a pet parrot and two mice I’m taking on board Delta. I had to get a poultry permit for my bird from USVI and also one for the mice. STX USDA permits pets more easily than farm animals. Once I have that permit, there will be no one checking those animals when I get off in STX either. If you know the island, you know they aren’t extremely worried like Hawaii because horses, goats, cats, mongoose, iguanas, chickens, deer, peacocks, and whatever else runs LOOSE on the island! Unlike Hawaii that is trying to keep mosquito born diseases out or down, the islands in the Caribbean already have them. Efforts there are towards managing mosquito populations instead. I’m going to have both my old cats examined. I’m going to have my vet put down the expired rabies dates. I’m also going to ask that he right on the health cert that further vaccination would greatly compromise their health. I’ve kept every rabies cert and date for each cat. I’ll have a list of all of them is stopped. To ask that they be given more is absurd if you see what your pets have had in their lifetime. They’re going to live indoors now in a condo anyway. I had a cat that got horrible sarcoma from a feline leuk shot. 3 operations later the poor thing died of a bad heart. Never going to happen again. These older cats I have now got those feline leuk shots only twice when younger. Never again.

  6. joan kosmachuk on July 19, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Curious how this would apply if you are flying to Canada? We would like to avoid vaccinating our new puppy but with our last dog customs ALWAYS pulled us aside to check our rabies certificate and they do notice if it is close to expiry.

  7. Jen P on March 8, 2016 at 2:07 am

    Hmmm. Regardless of what “Dr Whitecoat” writes on the travel certificate… Whenever I fly with a dog (or two), the airline requires to see their CURRENT rabies certificate as well. When they have flown as excess baggage in that special cargo area (pressurized & climate controlled), their, again current, rabies certificate was required to be attached to their kennel along with the original travel paper from the vet.
    With the amount of dogs now flying, the airlines are knuckling down and requiring that proof of current rabies vaccination.
    It’s even illegal to travel out of state without a current rabies. Just get an aware officer on a traffic stop who will impound your dogs for not having current rabies. You then have to pay impound and for the dog to be examined & vaccinated PLUS a ticket for them (and the traffic ticket too!) to get them back. That very instance made a friend miss their destination for a couple of days… Traveling on a Friday evening, the vet has the weekend off from the animal control facility apparently! And my friend had to pay their “bail” for their by-the-day stay too, along with their tickets and a record on their head.
    I’ve seen plenty of people get turned away at the airline gate having a health certificate/travel paper and no rabies certificate – fly without the dog, or don’t fly at all is the choice.
    Maybe someone got lucky and got over on some new employee awhile back… But that’s not the normal to fly. Sorry

  8. Wendy on March 7, 2016 at 11:31 am

    When I flew my cat to Canada I had to get her a Rabies vaccine, and the airline did take the paperwork. Driving my dog across the border they didn’t ask to see anything on him.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 7, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      Good to know, Wendy. Still wonder though if the airline would have noticed older rabies vaccine dates or not, had you gone that route. My guess is they wouldn’t have.
      Thanks for letting us know.

  9. Laura on March 7, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Hi Dr. Will! Got to this post by way of your new article on Rescue Remedy and Bach Walnut for stress during flying. No place to post comments there, so….do I have to mix the two in the dropper bottle with brandy, or can I just put the individual essences in my water bottle separately? Not flying the dogs, just me!!! Thank you!

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 7, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      Hey Laura,
      You can do it straight from each bottle into your water bottle, sure. Shake well and every sip will help make the flight 57% less bumpy, and 94% less scary.
      Okay, I just made that up… But, it’ll help!

      • Laura on March 7, 2016 at 8:15 pm

        Thanx sooo much Dr. Will…I just wish you wouldn’t have told me you made that last part up… 😉

  10. Juliana Pavelka-Johnston on March 4, 2016 at 6:46 am

    Dr. Will your repertoire is excellent! I would appreciate a review on how to prepare your hound for “Air Travel”. ( Cabin pressure can cause the ears to block,) as such people need to equalise as in diving. What is a dog to do? Surely this may cause discomfort? Are there possibilities for permanent damage to the ear drums? How to prepare the animal for flight? Homeopathic remedies that help the process: boarding, in flight, possible turbulence, temperature fluctuation, landing, and then readjustment to a different environment, in the host country?
    I would appreciate it if you could advise us on Vital Animal, in regards to the above mentioned factors. This is the reason I have a pet sitter while away. Each time we are away we miss our hounds – I’m very sceptical of the Airlines, and would likely be sitting in the crate with my wolfhound should I decide to transport him down south with us for vacation:)
    Proud 2-B a member of this Vital Animal Pack 🙂

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 4, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      We’re glad you and the hounds have joined us, Julianna. I’ve stored this in Evernote for future writing inspiration. Thanks!
      p.s. the vision of you in the crate with an enormous dog is a funny one.

  11. Sharon on November 16, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Hurry quick, Dr. Falconer! I need part two on international travel before January.

  12. Sand on October 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    Wow, am I happy I found this site.
    Do you happen to know of any friendly vets in Illinois or Indiana?
    Our handsome black lab companion, Gus has had many health issues over the last few years. We found him through a lab rescue where they vaccinated him beyond belief. He’s been ill from the very start. I wasn’t totally privy to the damages that vaccines can cause, but I had suspicions because of our youngest son being ill most of his life. Gus has had seizures, ear infections, skin infections, thyroid issues and candida overgrowth and I can’t possibly have him vaccinated again. I thought I had found a holistic vet in Bloomington, Illinois – he gave me all the right answers – but then pushed vaccines once Gus was established as a patient.
    I’m going to be traveling to the west coast later this fall with my boys (we have a yellow lab too. He also has gut damage from the vaccines) and want to be sure I have a proper “background” if you will, to fend off any inquiries. I’m thinking it would be wise to have the Health Certificate on hand.
    So, I’m looking for someone else to help me maneuver through all of this. If you could recommend anyone nearby, it would be greatly appreciated.

  13. Alison Tapp on July 26, 2014 at 11:20 am

    I have travelled with several dogs to France from the UK. On the way out there are no checks at all and now I travel in a closed van nobody can see the dogs. On the way back we are required to check our own dogs chip at the terminal and hand the scanner back for checking on the database. The operator never even saw my 3 dogs, I could have had 10 in there!
    Even worse on the UK side I was stopped by a Defra official who wanted to see my paper work, I asked her if she wanted to see the dogs but she wasn’t interested. It seems to make a mockery of the laws.
    I started raw feeding 4 years ago and stopped vaccinating at the same time so I don’t go any more.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on July 26, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      Thanks, Alison, good info there. As is true of petty officials everywhere, they just wanted to “get their job done,” and that need not include going the extra mile and actually seeing the dogs!
      I’m assuming an international health certificate was necessary for this travel, yes? If you stopped going because of vaccinations, I wonder if my observation of U.S. interstate travel would apply: they look at the presence or absence of vaccinations, not the date. Have you ever tried with “out of date” vaccine records to see?

  14. Gina on July 15, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Make sure you check with the airline you are flying, many don’t even require health certificates anymore for pets traveling in cabin!
    I’ve flown Texas-Michigan and back multiple times with different pets in cabin over the past 5 years, and have never had to present a health certificate!

    • Will Falconer, DVM on July 15, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Nice, Gina. Has this been across various airlines, or the same one repeatedly?
      And: was it stated by them that there was no need for a HC, or did you just notice they never asked and stopped getting one?
      Thanks for any insights that you can share with us.

      • Gina on July 18, 2014 at 11:36 pm

        I have flown American, Southwest, and Delta. All require a health certificate for animals flying as cargo, but not pets flying in cabin. However, they WILL charge you a rather large fee for bringing an animal on board, anywhere from $75 – $150, which I feel is ridiculous since they count as one of your carry on bags.
        However, airlines change policies frequently, so make sure you ask at the time you purchase your ticket!

        • Will Falconer, DVM on July 19, 2014 at 5:10 am

          Unbelievable! I can see the state health officials with steam coming out of their ears! So, an animal needs an exam and certification of health if he’s treated like a suitcase, but not if he gets to ride in the main cabin.
          Makes no sense what so ever.
          Thanks again, Gina. We’ve learned who to talk to and how to navigate a bit more from this.

          • V. Rogers on July 27, 2017 at 11:06 am

            I think the idea is that larger dogs and animals that an owner would actually ship as cargo are many times hunting dogs, and/or animals outside a lot more than a pocket pup or cats. They may indeed harbor something just because of the nature of being outside so much, even in a pen all the time. But small under the seat animals are seldom exposed to a rabies carrying animal because they are inside more than not. Pocket pups sometime never hit the ground and can’t be left to run outside because anything can kill them. That’s the only logic I can think of.



  15. SANDRA HOLCOMB on July 11, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Dr. Falconer- We currently have a vacation home on the Island of Kauai and have traveled with our 10 year old Shih-Tzu more then 50 times utilizing the 5 day or less quarantine method. My challenge is that her rabies vaccine has expired; however her rabies titers are still testing within acceptable levels for the state of Hawaii.
    I’m being told by Oahu quarantine that she can no longer enter the state unless I inject her with another unnecessary rabies vaccine. Any suggestions?
    Mahalo!

    • Will Falconer, DVM on July 12, 2014 at 9:09 am

      Hi Sandra,
      I just actually wrote to the State of Hawaii state veterinarian directly to ask for a similar exception for a service dog who comes and goes from the islands. I saw this dog’s history: itchy skin after a previous vaccination. I knew he’d be at risk for furthering this tendency if he had to get yet another rabies vaccine. He, too, had a titer showing protection.
      While my point was given consideration, in the end, there was no room to bend the rules the Dept of Ag had established, per the good doctor in charge. From my years living there, I remembered this party line very well.
      Best I can offer is to send you a rabies tautode to give on both sides of the vaccination time, and hope we can minimize the ill effects from the upcoming event. You can write me via my Contact page for more info if you’d like to pursue this. Use the subject line Rabies Tautode Info so I see it.
      Best of health to you and your Shih-Tzu girl,
      WF

  16. Esther on July 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Dr. Falconer: I am sorry but I need to ask this page had comments before. Where have they gone? For a while you could not find this page and then when it came back all comments are gone.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on July 8, 2014 at 7:54 am

      Hi Esther,
      So, you may have read that the web host for my site changed. It changed back again, we had to bring the blog post over, and it came without the comments. A real loss, as we had a good conversation going with others’ experiences in travel with pets!
      My web person is trying to recover them, so keep your digital fingers crossed.

      • Esther on July 14, 2014 at 8:00 pm

        Hi Dr. Falconer: Yes I heard about the change of the web host. Sorry everything was lost. Is this also the reason why we have not have a newsletter in 2 weeks?
        On another note that has nothing to do with travel I have to congratulate all Austinites including you for the Texas capital rising above the rest to take the 2014 DogTown USA!!! on Dog Fancy. Austin having 12 off leash parks and those beautiful trekking trails, shelter dogs taken on walks by Rufftrail runners, and holding the title of the nation’s largest no-kill city. What a dog friendly city! Awesome Austin. I wish I could move there. There is also the plus that a brilliant veterinarian homeopath lives and practice in AUSTIN.

      • Ken Morrow on January 12, 2021 at 3:32 pm

        What about going into Hawaii ??

        Do they thoroughly check rabies dates or ???

        I have a 23 yr. Old Husky

      • Ken on January 12, 2021 at 4:25 pm

        My oldest dog has hind leg weakness, osteoarthritis, muscle atrophy. Per health exam 4/2020
        Last rabies 9/2013.
        Moving back home and am concerned about 2 rabies vaccines 30 days apart prior to titers test etc.
        So how thorough are they at Hon. Airport with regards to checking dates vs. quickly peeking at health certificate ? No one knows that. Because im thinking i wont pre send the documents 10 days in advance and just carry the health certificates for them to check. My other 3 animals have just gotten 1st round of rabies and my dog was vomiting on and off for a week or more. Do u know if anyone has ever gotten an exemption ? If so, what is accepted or not accepted ? Or should i just make up some forged documents – lol
        Please help Will. Maybe i can call u. Idk – just heartsick, stressed, and unsure about vaccinating my 23 yr. Old.

        • Will Falconer, DVM on January 12, 2021 at 11:32 pm

          There is zero wiggle room on Hawaii’s requirements. It’s as bad or worse as international travel, because they are rabies free and realize maintaining that status is a high priority. I asked about a waiver a year or two ago, emailed the state vet who probably recognized my name as the researcher who helped ease the 4 month quarantine rules to what we have today (short to none, if you have the vaccines and titer tests in order). Net result: no room for case by case judgements, every dog, cat, ferret must follow the rules. No exceptions. Typical state government response.

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