Health papers serve a purpose

Russ Daly Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

Earlier this spring I wrote about the equine herpesvirus illnesses occurring in horses on the east coast and certain western states. That strain of virus can cause severe brain and nerve problems in a horse, with euthanasia a common outcome.

Well, sure enough, after that column came out, horses here in the Dakotas were diagnosed with illness due to equine herpesvirus. Some of the control methods mentioned in that column – isolation and close observation of horses returning from events such as rodeos – have been important in preventing the spread of this very contagious virus to other horses.

But these cases have shone a light on another important disease control measure – that of health papers. Officially called “Certificates of Veterinary Inspection,” these tools have been extremely useful in alerting horse owners, preventing disease spread, and ultimately protecting animals from this potentially fatal illness.

Anyone who’s taken animals across state lines is familiar with health papers. This piece of paper certifies that a veterinarian has looked at the animals and found no overt health problems, and lists any tests, vaccinations, or treatments that the destination may require. They’re required when domestic animals cross state lines (exceptions are granted for pets on trips with their owner!), when animals change ownership within the state, and for many shows and other animal events. Most destinations require that the paper be issued within 30 days of the animal’s arrival.

Animal transporters need to have the papers with the animals being moved, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes activity with these documents, too. Veterinarians are required to promptly send copies to the State Veterinarian’s office, which then forwards a copy to the destination state (this is all being increasingly done electronically now). The vet issuing the document is required to keep copies themselves for 2 or 5 years, depending on the species.

So health papers not only ensure that animals are healthy when they travel, they also provide a paper trail that is invaluable to state and federal officials tasked with the occasional, but monumental, task of tracing an animal disease. When a disease such as bovine tuberculosis is detected somewhere, veterinarians use health paper records to determine where the disease may have come from – as well as to identify herds it could have spread to. Without properly completed health papers, figuring out the origin or potential destination of a devastating animal disease is infinitely less likely.

But health papers aren’t just helpful to state and federal vets, they’re helpful to you as an animal owner as well. To use the herpesvirus example again, they allow those regulatory vets to contact you, should your horse have been exposed to a horse found sick that serious disease. They also serve as the evidence that your animals were healthy and that you went through the proper processes should an outbreak occur somewhere you went.

Seasoned animal transporters probably know of instances where others have moved animals without the proper documentation – and maybe have been tempted to do the same. Yes, health papers are extra work and extra expense that requires forward planning. Additionally, if everything goes as it should (no disease outbreaks associated with the move), it may appear as if the effort was fruitless.

But look at it another way. Animal health rules, including health paper requirements, have contributed to the fact we currently have an extremely healthy national herd of livestock, horses, and companion animals. They are a big reason we are able to freely come together with our animals at fairs and horse shows, and freely transport animals across the country with relatively little risk to their health or the health of the animals at their destination.

Remember to ask about health papers this summer as you plan your trips with your animals as well as when you sell or acquire new ones. Understand the testing and vaccination requirements that go along with travel to your destination. It might not seem like it, but by doing so, you’re helping ensure we’re still able to enjoy the benefits of moving our animals from place to place.

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.