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!!
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.