The importance of the health paper

Farm Forum

In veterinary medicine, the distinction between a call being “urgent” or an “emergency” is sometimes clearer to the veterinarian than it is to the client. A horse spurting blood from a fresh leg wound – that’s an obvious emergency. A frantic nighttime call from a client who just realized they need a health paper before leaving for the horse show in the morning – that’s more of an urgent response to an occurrence of poor planning rather than an emergency.

Having received many of the latter in practice, I would try my best to get the client what they needed. They were usually good clients whose only mistake was getting caught up in the frenzy of summer activities. More importantly, they were clients wanting to do the right thing by getting the proper health documentation before traveling with their animals.

I understand that not all animal owners share that outlook on health papers (officially known as “Certificates of Veterinary Inspection).” Some will think of them as an unnecessary burden that pads the pockets of veterinarians and keeps bureaucrats in their jobs. Their reasoning is that they would never sell or transport an unhealthy animal anyway. And sometimes the story goes, “no one ever looked at my papers at the show anyway, so what’s the point?”

The point is an important one. Having documentation of a veterinary exam is good protection for the owner in case a disease shows up later in a sold animal or in animals it mingled with at a show or other event. It’s true that an animal passing a health certificate exam could still harbor germs that could harm another animal, but it’s much less likely in a healthy-appearing animal than one with signs of a disease.

More important to animal-raising society, however, is the documentation these health papers provide when an outbreak of disease occurs. I’d venture that 99% or more of the health papers that come through the Animal Industry Board office are processed and stored with no necessary action. But when a case of equine herpesvirus occurs after a horse show, or a cow tests positive for tuberculosis following a sale at the auction market, these documents are essential in finding the sources of disease and animals at risk. If those sources are not found, the disease will spread and wreak havoc on animals and their owners. Health papers are a part of a system set up to prevent that from happening.

The responsibility for that system working is shared among several groups. Veterinarians are responsible for recording the animals’ identification (official ear tags for food animals, a picture or description of markings for horses), ensuring correct information (names and addresses of the origin and the destination, test results, etc.) is listed, and if crossing state lines, that the animals meet the health requirements of the destination state. In addition to sending the paper with the animal, they send a copy to the Animal Industry Board, who forwards it to the state of destination if out-of-state. This is all getting handier with the emergence of web-based electronic health papers.

Organizers of events such as cattle shows, horse shows, and trail rides have a critical role too. They should make their health requirements very clear up front to their participants. There needs to be someone checking health papers upon arrival, and a very clear expectation that animals not meeting the show’s requirements not be allowed to enter and mingle with other animals. Making explicit health requirements and then not checking or enforcing compliance is a disservice to participants, and discourages people from doing the right thing in the future.

The most important link in the system, however, is that of the person moving the animals. They should know and understand the health requirements of the event or state to which they’re traveling. Any required tests, vaccinations, or health papers should be completed well enough ahead of time. They should also demand, for everyone’s protection, that organizers of shows and events enforce their own health rules. Finally, they should understand that the health paper is an important part of the system in place that keeps our animals healthy.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.