AVMA, United Airlines reach agreement on veterinary health form

Service & Assistance Animals Protecting Access - Preventing FraudUpdate – March 8, 2018: The revised form has been posted on the United Airlines website.

The AVMA, with support from AVMA PLIT, flew into action when United Airlines announced a new policy requiring a veterinary signature vouching for the health, behavior and training of psychiatric service and emotional support animals (ESA) flying with United passengers.

The AVMA reviewed United’s Veterinary Health Form, which the airline said would take effect March 1, and recognized that the information it requested might not position United to make good decisions that would appropriately support the health and welfare of their animal and human passengers. The statements on the form also created potential liability risks for veterinarians attesting to them.

The AVMA reached out immediately to United to voice these concerns and worked collaboratively with the airline on revisions. United officials welcomed the AVMA’s input, and have told us they soon will be posting a new form on their website that reflects alternate language developed collaboratively by the AVMA and AVMA PLIT.

The new form will allow veterinarians to confidently report meaningful information to assist United in making decisions about transporting psychiatric service or emotional support animals on its flights.

Revisions requested by the AVMA included:

  • Because an affirmation of health status is requested, which requires the ability to diagnose, AVMA recommended the form be completed and signed only by a licensed veterinarian.
  • United had asked the veterinarian to attest to a statement that s/he “is not aware of any reason to believe that this animal would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.” AVMA did not believe this statement provided enough information to enable United to determine what such threats might be or how they might best be mitigated. Instead, we recommended that United address disease and behavioral concerns separately. Doing so supports the acquisition of more specific information that will help United make good decisions regarding the risk(s) posed by a particular animal.
  • We recommended adding a field indicating the date on which the last physical examination was conducted, as well as an affirmation that there was no evidence of infection or contagious disease, at the time of the examination, that would endanger other animals or public health. Such statements are consistent with those found on other certificates of veterinary inspection.
  • A question originally was included that asked the veterinarian to determine which measures could be taken to safely carry the animal in the aircraft cabin. Responses would have required that the veterinarian predict how the animal might react to the (likely) foreign environment of a commercial aircraft, as well as the circumstances of a particular flight. However, the examining veterinarian is not in a position to assess whether an animal is qualified to be a psychiatric service or emotional support animal, whether its presence with the owner on the flight is required, nor how an animal might react when placed in such a foreign environment. Instead, we suggested adding language that would allow the veterinarian to offer additional information, obtained from the owner, regarding certain behaviors (e.g., biting, scratching) and the circumstances surrounding those behaviors, that might assist United in determining whether the animal presents an unacceptable risk for passengers or employees, or whether that risk might be mitigated through actions taken by the owner and/or airline (e.g., muzzling, kenneling, transport in the cargo hold).

We know that our members want to do the right thing for patients and clients, while also being responsive to other service providers who depend on your expert recommendations. We’re pleased that United wanted to collaborate with us on improvements to its veterinary health form.

We will be contacting the nation’s other major air carriers to engage similarly with them to ensure that veterinarians have input into any requirements they might be considering for the transport of these animals. Veterinarians are committed to the patients and clients they serve, and the AVMA is committed to addressing the concerns of our members and supporting your success. Veterinarians are the preeminent experts in animal health, welfare and behavior, and deliver great value in assisting others with animal-related issues.

For veterinarians interested in learning more about the different types of service and support animals, the legal context for their use, and preventing service animal fraud, the AVMA offers a variety of knowledge resources for our members. The AVMA encourages veterinarians to be familiar with the legal status and protections accorded to service, assistance, and therapy animals and their owners, and to discourage inaccurate or misleading descriptions of these animals’ roles.

18 thoughts on “AVMA, United Airlines reach agreement on veterinary health form

  1. The distinction is important. A Service dog has been professionally trained to “provide a service” to the affected handler. The distinction of a service dog is well documented in the ADA handouts. They can go anywhere, and are well behaved.
    A “companion animal” as we refer them in Colorado Law, is an animal that can provide emotional support to a person. They are only permitted in the owners house, or on an airplane by law. They are not allowed to go into restaurants or other stores, etc unless those stores allow animals in. There is no training required, and only a human physicians letter is required. Often the physician has never had contact with the animal. You can buy a certificate for $200.00 from a chiropractor or other source as documented by a trouble shooter show. These are the animals that the airlines are requiring letters for as a way to CYA from lawsuits of liability and now they are shifting the blame to veterinarians. We cannot know as the AVMA states – how the animal will react to the variability of conditions and other people on an airplane so…. I will not sign them. Those of you that are offended because you have a true “service” dog are missing the point.

  2. I had a “service dog” come in last week wearing one of the vests that can be bought online. The dog was a rescue and was an emotional support animal according to the owner, something that her human physician should attest too, not a veterinarian. The dog came in wearing a basket muzzle, and when questioned the owner stated the dog had bitten two of her fingers almost off previously. I would in no way sign a form stating this would be safe to travel on a plane, and as is already mentioned above emotional support animals should in no way receive the same standards as true service animals. I feel this is not something veterinarians should be evaluating during a physical exam, even if the owner does attest the dog hasn’t bitten anyone (how many times have clients not told the whole truth). This could lead to placing a dangerous animal on an airplane that could cause serious harm to many others and even disrupt normal flight protocol. In addition if we don’t sign these forms it is going to outrage clients and cause harm to our practice from sending out a dissatisfied client.

  3. A proliferation of forms for each airline is not beneficial to anyone. There is already a standard. Use it (see quote from AVMA below). I think it is a mistake to work with one air carrier on a document that has a similar intent to an already existing and accepted health certification.

    The airlines need a standard for health and behavior that they can use to set a requirement. They have been taken advantage of and need criteria that are fair and can be interpreted and enforced. Honestly, even the process and cost of having to get a CVI may dissuade some. The challenge IMHO is more on the behavior side as there is no accepted and enforceable standard.

    Quoting from the AVMA web page regarding “Traveling with your Pet” – You will need a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection to travel and some airlines require an acclimation certificate. Both of these certificates can only be completed and signed by a federally accredited veterinarian. If your veterinarian is not federally accredited, you will need to find an accredited veterinarian in your area, by contacting your USDA Area Office.

  4. All a veterinarian should ever be asked to provide is a signed Certificate of Veterinary Inspection on any pet regardless of service animal or ESA status. All an animal such as a “seeing eye” dog who is properly trained to accompany a person with a physical or emotional disability has ever needed to travel on an airplane with an owner is a CVI; it’s the ones who are not trained to deal with a variety of people and potentially scary or threatening situations who need this extra documentation that is now being requested by United.

    I am not willing to incur any potential liability by stating that the animal is not likely to bite, scratch, urinate, defecate, destroy property, or scare airline passengers or employees. Sometimes animals that appear pleasant and nonthreatening in the exam room may be very different on an airplane. I also will not offer “additional information, obtained from the owner…” about any potential behaviors because owners may misperceive, misrepresent or outright lie about the pet’s demeanor or behavior. We have all seen animals come into the clinic who look afraid, and the owner reassures us, “He won’t bite” and then…CHOMP!

  5. Dealing with Canine Companions for Indepence (CCI)with my daughter both having a service dog and raising puppies for CCI I find it appalling and disrespectful with the “fake” service dogs being allowed on flights. Emotional support dogs do not have the rights of service dogs. I for one would not sign off on an emotional support dog.

  6. Service dogs are protected under federal disability laws to travel with their person, not emotional support animals. You know, service dogs that actually do a job that their person cannot do for themselves. We already have to contend with fake service dogs causing discrimination against real ones & now this? I’ve had to leave a plane & book another flight- with another airline- because someone with a pit bull was allowed to fly with their dog. Now veterinarians are going to sign off on these UNTRAINED dogs being locked on planes with people who aren’t allowed to have any weapons for protection. Great idea, professionals, really. Well, if you all are willing to take on the liability…

    • You do realize that there are some “pit bulls” that are indeed accredited service dogs? I would bet if I looked you up I would find you are a proponent of breed specific legislation too. I guess the rest of the people on the flight that you did not take were DOA.

      • Jan, I am happy that your experience with bull terriers has been a pleasant one. Really. I am from the generation that didn’t require the government to tell us to do the right thing, though. If a dog bit someone or, say, took two fingers off (as a vet stated here), we took the animal out back & immediately put it down, as hard as it was. We burried it in the family pet cemetery, sometimes children cried & were sad, sometimes not. I know that isn’t PC now, but I did laugh reading your BSL comment. Bull @#$& legislation, huh? Yeah, no thanks- I’m for small government & people doing the right thing. And before people beat me up & bully an old lady, I’d take my beautiful girl to the vet to be put down “proper like” when the time comes. That’s the way things are done now.

    • Service dog trainer and user here.
      1. This is illegal to require with psych service dogs, and I think that the airlines attempting this are going to find that out.
      2. There is no such thing as “”accredited service dog””
      3. My Rottweiler service dog, will pick up a dime, turn on/off lights, alert to my blood sugars, acts as my eyes, and is bomb detection trained. Going to rebook your flight?

  7. The AVMA response was swift and influential, however I still would not sign a form where “…we [AVMA] suggested adding language that would allow the veterinarian to offer additional information, obtained from the owner, regarding certain behaviors (e.g., biting, scratching) and the circumstances surrounding those behaviors, that might assist United in determining whether the animal presents an unacceptable risk for passengers or employees, or whether that risk might be mitigated through actions taken by the owner and/or airline (e.g., muzzling, kenneling, transport in the cargo hold).” To me, this still seems like the responsibility for the assesment of the animal’s behavior (good or bad) falls on the veterinarian. I do not feel qualified to comment on the behavior of my patients in any situation outside of the exam room since that is the only situation of which I have any knowledge. I am not willing to assume liability for the behavior of any animal other than the ones with which I cohabitate.

  8. The story above is an excellent one. Everyone should read it, especially pet owners. On the other hand, almost all pet owners are responsible pet owners and are considerate and mindful of other people’s needs, health, safety, welfare, well being and concerns. Although rare, some people do have phobias for certain animals, including household pets.

  9. I firmly believe that hospital emergency rooms should strictly prohibit any kind of animal from entering. Why? Because they can compound the patients’ problems for which the ER rooms are especially designated. Animals can be a source of infectious, contagious diseases as well as other nuisance, and may serve as a source of allergens to sensitive people.

    • So, you think a blind person should not have their guide dog with them in the ER?

      Yeah, I am so glad you live no where near me to have to possibly actually meet you.

    • Wow, I can’t believe a Vet would say they don’t believe a Service Dog should not be with their person in the ER. Most people in the ER are contagious & their bodily fluid is what staff needs to be careful of. Blood Borne Pathogens comes to mind. I haven’t heard of anyone picking up any Blood Borne Pathogen issues from a dog. People are more of a source of infection that the dogs are.

  10. I am alarmed at the number of people fraudulently claiming their pet is a “support” animal. Fake vests and tags and collars and accoutrements can be purchased by anyone online, and laws restrict many questions that would help a business owner or service provider from obtaining pertinent information about the pet and its use or behaviour. I have seen very obviously untrained and undisciplined animals on airlines and once saw the airline bump a passenger to provide a seat for a family’s dog. The family found it amusing. I also know people who brag that they have a vest for their pet so it can ride in the passenger cabin, and also brag that “there is nothing they can do to stop me.” while I wholeheartedly endorse the use of support, service, and ESAs, I think there should be far more safeguards and checks to remove the popularity of fraudulently scamming the system.
    Recently a young man entered a hospital emergency room here with a nasty, growling, unneutered and homemade ear-cropped pit bull type dog with a spiked collar. He was there “with a friend” and refused to stay outside with the dog, which he could barely control, as it lunged at and terrified waiting room patients. The hospital staff said they could do nothing. At what point does this pass ludicrous and become an active danger to the public??

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