If a client comes to you and says they are planning to travel out of the country with their pet, are you confident that you can provide them with the proper documentation to get their pet to its destination with no issues or interruptions?
According to the USDA website1, pet owners who are planning to travel either domestically or internationally with their pets are encouraged to work with their local veterinarian to determine country health requirements and necessary documentation. However, most practices know very little about how to provide these documents or where to go for information. Pet travel is a small niche, and not always in the wheelhouse of the average veterinary hospital.
The following provides a basic guide to help veterinary professionals understand what the requirements are in order to issue a correct health certificate for both domestic and international travel, as well as where to go for additional information.
Domestic Travel within the United States
Domestic travel is fairly easy—almost any health certificate format is acceptable to airlines. It must say “Health Certificate” on the document, usually at the top, and it must have a statement similar to, “I have examined this pet and find it healthy and free of disease;” something that attests to the health of the pet. Usually the owner’s name, address and phone number are listed, as well as a full description of the pet. The document must be signed and dated, and list the veterinary office information. It should be typed, even if it’s on letterhead, and not be handwritten. Domestically, that’s about it. Nearly every software system for veterinary offices has a template for a health certificate, or one can easily be created.
International travel is a whole different story. Each country has different requirements, and often their own form to be issued as a health document (note: it’s not always a “health certificate”). USDA estimates 30-40% of the documents submitted are incorrect or have missing information. So it’s important to have a clear understanding of what’s needed in order to keep your client in compliance.
One of the best places to start is the USDA website. USDA developed a pet travel website which covers dogs, cats, ferrets and other exotics like pet birds and pet reptiles1. Livestock information is found on the International Regulation website (IRegs)2. It is important to know which category the animal in question qualifies as3.
The USDA pet travel website has a database to be searched by country. Under each country listing is a chart showing if electronic submissions are allowed. Beneath that are bars for dogs, cats and other pets. Click on the species to find the prerequisite requirements, like a microchip or testing, and usually the health document template as well. Most of the health forms are downloadable, fillable PDF files. Each area that requires input from the veterinarian is blank (asterisks or lines fill in the blanks where nothing is required). When the PDF is downloaded, the information required goes in the highlighted boxes.
For most countries, once the health exam is done by the USDA-accredited veterinarian and the health certificate is issued, the certificate and supporting documents (always a rabies vaccine certificate, sometimes blood test results, other vaccine certificates or import permits) must go to the state or regional USDA office for endorsement. The USDA Veterinary Medical officer then signs and applies a raised seal to validate all signatures. This is often left to the client, but it’s easy enough to set up a USDA billing account and a FedEx account, and send off and receive back the documents on behalf of the pet owner. In some cases, the pet owner or responsible party (i.e., a pet shipper) will have to go to the USDA office and have the endorsement done in person due to the timing required for the documents. For instance, birds and commercial certificates must usually be issued and endorsed within 48 hours of travel.
The Veterinary Electronic Health Certificate System (VEHCS)
If the country accepts either an electronic or digital signature of the accredited veterinarian, or both the accredited veterinarian and the USDA Veterinary Medical Officer, then the Veterinary Electronic Health Certificate System (VEHCS) can be used4.
The electronic system requires the veterinarian to create a USDA account, which will require a multistage authentication process to become part of VEHCS. The endorsement fees are either charged to the veterinary office’s USDA account or a credit card is used to pre-load an amount into the account, which is reloaded as needed.
Once the VEHCS account is established, the veterinarian then has the ability to use the system to create a health certificate. This will allow the issuing veterinarian to sign a health certificate electronically and submit. Some countries accept a truly digital document, and these will be completed within VEHCS by the USDA Veterinary Medical Officer for the accredited veterinarian or their staff to download. The completed form can then be emailed to the client to print. A physical printed health certificate must still accompany the animal during shipment.
For countries currently requiring an original signature/embossing by the USDA (including all of Europe), the form is printed by USDA, signed, raised seals applied, and then mailed/couriered to the owner or veterinary office. The owner or agent must provide a pre-paid return label to be uploaded when the electronic health certificate is submitted. The best return is a trackable shipment, like FedEx.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about health certificates in general:
- Make sure to fill in every blank.
- Ideally, health certificates should all be filled in on a computer, not printed and hand-filled. In fact, some countries require all data to be typed.
- Fill out microchip numbers in sets of three, if the form allows. It’s easier to see if a number is missing or transposed in a 15-digit international microchip when typed as 123 456 789 000 123 compared to 123456789000123.
- For original documents, sign in blue ink. Many certificates, in the fine print, state that the signature should be in a different color other than that the form is completed in. In other words, if the certificate prints out in black, then the signatures need to be something other than black (i.e., blue, red, green).
- Use the date format of the receiving country. For most, that is DD/MM/YYYY, but it varies. In fact, it’s preferred worldwide (though not accepted on most of the USDA-created forms) to write out the month. This eliminates any confusion over which way the date is written; for example, 01 May 2020 is quite clear compared to 01/05/2020—which would be January 5th for most Americans. Also, be consistent throughout the document. The USDA forms will generate dates in the international format, but any dates filled in by hand, and the date of the exam/signing should also be written in the format required by the country of import.
- In addition, always complete a fit-to-fly certificate, such as the USDA 7001 International certificate5. Many international country forms do not contain any statement attesting to health, and airlines will require an additional health certificate, like the domestic description above or a 7001. But it’s better for your client to have it as a true health certificate than to get to the airport to be turned down because one was not issued.
Lastly, there is an international group of pet shipping professionals, with many of the members being here in the USA. The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association6 was formed in the USA in 1979. IPATA members ship pets on a daily basis and are often a great source of current requirements (even those the USDA may not be familiar with). Almost all airlines now require the use of an agent to ship pets internationally, so your clients are often hiring an IPATA member to book and oversee the move.
Members often prefill the health forms for your client and the veterinary office, which is perfectly acceptable, according to USDA. A veterinary office with a VEHCS account may also add a pet shipper as a user, which allows the IPATA member to prefill the forms for the office. The electronic submission must still be reviewed and submitted by the accredited veterinarian. An IPATA member can assist a veterinary office with the procedures and requirements for most international shipments, including those for which the USDA has no information listed on the pet website.
When assisting a client with preparations for traveling with their pet—whether domestic or international—it is very important to be thorough and follow all requirements and regulations. The last thing you want is for a client to get to the airport with their pet only to miss their flight due to insufficient documents! +
- USDA, APHIS, Pet Travel, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel
- USDA, International Regulations for Animal Exports, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/export/iregs-for-animal-exports/ct_iregs_animal_exports_home
- USDA, APHIS, Definition of a Pet, www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel/definition-of-a-pet
- USDA, APHIS, Veterinary Electronic Health Certificate System (VEHCS), www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel/vehcs-info
- USDA 7001 International Certificate, www.aphis.usda.gov/library/forms/pdf/APHIS7001.pdf
- International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, www.ipata.org