Airline Acclimation Certificates

Some airlines have begun refusing certificates of acclimation signed by veterinarians and worded according to AVMA guidelines. Acclimation certificates are required by most airlines in order for pets to be checked as baggage on domestic flights. This is according to the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 to regulate the transport, sale, and handling of dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits.

The Animal Welfare Regulations that implement the Animal Welfare Act state that the ambient temperature in an animal holding area containing dogs or cats must not fall below 45° F or rise above 85° F for more than four consecutive hours, and dogs and cats cannot be exposed to temperatures below 45° or above 85° for more than 45 minutes while being transferred between airplanes and terminals. To meet the high-end regulation, airlines have stopped accepting pets as checked baggage during the summer months, between May 15 and Sept. 15. The high-end limitation of 85° cannot be waived with an acclimation certificate.

For pets transported during the winter months, the airlines cannot accept dogs or cats for transportation if they cannot comply with the minimum temperature-time limitations of the Animal Welfare Regulations unless a veterinarian issues a certificate dated no more than 10 days before delivery of the animal to the carrier, certifying that the animal is acclimated to temperatures lower than 45°F. Even with the certificate, airlines cannot expose dogs or cats to temperatures lower than 45° for more than four consecutive hours in terminals or for more than 45 minutes when moving pets to or from terminal facilities.

According to the regulations, a copy of the acclimation certificate must accompany the dog or cat to its destination and must include the pet owner’s name and address; the pet’s tag number; and a statement by a veterinarian that to the best of his or her knowledge, each of the dogs or cats contained in the primary enclosure is acclimated to air temperatures lower than 50°, but not lower than a minimum temperature, specified on a certificate, that the attending veterinarian has determined based on generally accepted temperature standards for the age, condition, and breed of the dog or cat. The certificate must also contain the veterinarian’s signature. Many veterinarians are hesitant to sign such certificates because they would be liable if the animal dies.

In response to the Safe Air Travel for Animals Act—which requires airlines to report how many animals die in transit—some airlines stopped accepting animals as checked baggage. (Some airlines continue to accept animals as “cargo” handled by commercial pet transportation companies.) Those that do require veterinarians to sign acclimation certificates. The AVMA recommended in 1991 the following wording for acclimation certificates: “The animal(s) in this shipment appear healthy for transport but need to be maintained at a temperature within the animal’s thermoneutral zone.” This is the wording that is now being rejected by some airlines for its lack of specificity.

Veterinarians who find themselves in this predicament might want to consider advising their clients not to transport their pets at all or to only transport them on airlines that can comply with the animal welfare regulations. If the airline refuses the certificate and yet can’t guarantee temperatures, veterinarians might want to avoid risking signing a certificate that specifies a certain temperature. After all, veterinarians may not be familiar with a pet’s ability to withstand low temperatures. Or the veterinarian may specify an allowable lower minimum temperature but decrease the maximum exposure period (e.g., 20° for not more than 15 minutes) depending on the breed, age, and health status of the animal. The welfare of the pet is the veterinarian’s and the client’s greatest concern, and keeping the pet at home or traveling by car might be the safest route.

© 2021 California Veterinary Medical Association

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