AVMA Answers - January 1, 2003

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AVMA answers is a new feature designed to make the expertise of AVMA staff more accessible to JAVMA readers. Staff members field hundreds of questions from members about issues as varied as vaccinations, membership benefits, and Association stances on controversial issues. Once a month, AVMA answers will answer one of those questions as a service to JAVMA readers.

AVMA Answers

One of my clients is planning to take her pet on a plane trip next month, and has asked me to provide a health certificate and acclimation certificate for the animal. What is an acclimation certificate? Should I be concerned about liability?   — SMALL ANIMAL VETERINARIAN, MINNESOTA

Dr. Lyle P. Vogel,
director of the AVMA
Scientific Activities Division,

An acclimation certificate is used to allow airlines to ship dogs and cats when they cannot guarantee compliance with animal welfare regulations. Typically, a veterinarian certifies that the animal being transported is acclimated to temperatures lower than 45 F.

Federal regulations specify that dogs and cats must not be exposed to ambient temperatures that fall below 45 F for more than four consecutive hours while in animal holding areas of airport terminals. The regulations also limit exposure to temperatures lower than 45 F to 45 minutes while transferring the animal between the aircraft and the animal holding area.

Additionally, airport personnel are required to protect animals from combinations of temperature, humidity, and time that could adversely affect the animal's health. This provision is intended to protect the cat or dog when being transported in the aircraft.

According to the Department of Agriculture, acclimation certificates were originally intended for transporting sled dogs, which are comfortable in temperatures below 45 degrees and are heat sensitive.

Many airlines require acclimation certificates for all cats and dogs, but veterinarians are often hesitant to sign them because they are considered by some to be a blank check for airlines that want to avoid liability. Also, the veterinarian may not be familiar with the ability of the cat or dog to withstand low temperatures.

To avoid potential legal liability, the AVMA Professional Liability Insurance Trust recommends veterinarians who sign acclimation certificates use the following wording:

"The animal(s) in this shipment appear healthy for transport but need to be maintained at a temperature within the animal's thermoneutral zone."

If a veterinarian doesn't feel he or she can honestly issue an acclimation certificate but the airline won't accept the animal without one, it can create a difficult situation for the veterinarian. Some veterinarians, however, handle these situations by advising clients not to ship animals with transporters or airlines that cannot guarantee compliance with animal welfare regulations.

The AVMA also recommends that veterinarians conduct appropriate examinations of the animal or animals being transported before signing a health certificate.

To obtain health certificate forms—officially called certificates of health examination, for small animals—contact the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office.