Animals and Airplanes: The Veterinarian's Role

American Veterinarian®August 2018
Volume 3
Issue 6

How do new airline regulations regarding the types of animals allowed to fly in cabins affect veterinary practitioners?

In recent months, many major airlines have tightened their regulations regarding service and emotional support animals traveling on board flights—actions that have raised a number of questions for veterinarians:

  • How can veterinarians protect themselves while assisting pet owners in caring for these animals?
  • How do you provide health care to the pet yet not give an evaluation of its behavior or training?
  • What is the veterinarian’s role in this 2-sided pet care question?

At the recent Animals on the Mind 3.0 conference, hosted in May by the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, nonveterinarian experts in the field of human—animal interaction spent 2 days exploring these questions. Psychologists, animal trainers, and service/support animal handlers shared their perspectives on identifying these pets while caring for both the person and the animal.


  • Airlines Update Pet Policies (Again), Ban Breeds
  • Emotional Support Animals: New Rules, Proposed Laws

No one disputes the benefits available to people who use service or support animals. Because these animals come in all shapes and sizes with varying training levels and abilities, however, the temptation to abuse the privilege is always present.

At the conference, presenting researchers and service, emotional support, and therapy dog users were careful to point out how the handler/animal team works. They clearly had a deep awareness of the needs of the animal in these interdependent relationships. To them, the pets’ needs were as important as any human therapeutic benefits that resulted from these relationships.

Given these studies, completed on a much more evaluative level of observation of the training and behavior of the animal and the handler, how can veterinarians adequately observe and evaluate a pet being asked to do tasks? Is it even their role as health care providers to make such an evaluation during a pet’s pretravel health check? Questions involving the legitimacy of a service, emotional support, or therapy pet or its ability to behave on a plane creates a conundrum for the veterinarian.

In early March, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) announced that it had reached an agreement with United Airlines to revise the carrier’s Veterinary Health Form, which is now required prior to flying with a service or emotional support animal.1 The AVMA contended that the information being requested in the original version of the form might not position United Airlines to make good decisions that would support the health and welfare of both human and animal passengers. The AVMA also expressed concern that the statements on the form created potential liability risks for veterinarians attesting to them. In reality, veterinarians cannot and should not vouch for the training or behavior of any animal in their practice. It is beyond the scope of their examination, training, and expertise. What a veterinarian observes about a dog in the confines of a veterinary hospital might be quite different from how the dog reacts in a pressurized, noisy airline cabin.

Now the question remains: How can veterinarians serve their clients and themselves when it comes to providing a health check of a service or emotional support dog?

First, it’s important to understand the differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal. Service animals, which are acquired after months of individualized and partnership training, have federally protected rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. They must be granted reasonable access anywhere.

An emotional support animal has protected access under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act, passed in 1988 and 1986, respectively. Reasonable accommodations must be made upon proof that the pet provides a necessary service. Emotional support animals provide a service by their mere presence; no real training is required. For emotional support animals to fly in the cabin of a plan, a doctor's note identifying the support the animal provides and the symptom(s) it ameliorates is mandatory.

Many veterinarians feel compelled to verify a service animal’s training and behavior, but this is not within the scope of their training. Instead, they should explain to their clients that they can only sign the health voucher. It is all they can uniquely do with their training and expertise.

Now that the AVMA has helped United Airlines reshape its form, it also hopes to work with other airlines to create more appropriate veterinary health forms, ensuring the safe travel of service and emotional support animals while keeping passengers and crew members protected.

Ms. Vey Voda-Hamilton is an attorney/mediator and principal at Hamilton Law and Mediation, the first mediation practice to focus specifically on conflicts between people over animals. She is a best-selling author of “Nipped in the Bud, Not in the Butt — How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts Over Animals,” which outlines the methods she uses to address conflict, keep clients and appreciate another’s point of view in a disagreement.


  • AVMA, United Airlines reach agreement on veterinary health form. AVMA website. Updated March 8, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2018.
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