What do I need to become a USDA certified pet transporter?

“Ensuring proper animal care and comfort is not just good business—it is also required by law.”

This wording is used to introduce the U.S. government’s basic guidance document on the provisions for licensing and registering of businesses under the Animal Welfare Act 1966.

If you want to start and build a successful business involved in transporting animals across regions, states, or even the whole country, you will need to meet all the requirements laid down to be granted a license to transport animals under the Act.

You don’t need any formal qualifications or specific experience to set up a business as a pet transporter – but a professional pet transporter has to offer more than merely being a taxi service for domestic animals.

To run a business moving pets by road, and be able to move each of your passengers successfully and safely, you need to know many details about those passengers. In many ways, it’s like running an airline, where the ones which are the most successful go to great lengths to get to know their passengers, learn about their tastes, what helps make travel easy and stress-free for them, and then sets out to cater for their every need.

That’s why there can be no single guide that can answer every question you might need to ask when starting and running a business carrying the heavy responsibility of safely moving any pet by road.

Your first port of call when enquiring about the detailed rules governing the transportation of pets interstate and the variations in the breeds which states permit to be transported should be the State Veterinarian’s office for the states in which an animal will start and end its journey.

Know your passengers

But let’s start with the details on your precious charges, the animals which you’re being paid to move.

To be a good pet transporter, having a feel for small details is likely to be one of the attributes which your clients most appreciate you for. So it’s good to have an enquiring mind, to enable you to get answers to a range of important questions which will help you get to really know your charges.

Animals react very differently to being transported, especially over long distances, so gaining their confidence and knowing some important information about specific breeds, and their physical and psychological characteristics beforehand can be a big help in doing the job successfully.

If transporting pets was easy, then there would be many more businesses doing it than there actually are.

But the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to be seen as taking an important lead in ensuring that high standards of welfare and good practices are upheld by anyone working as a business in this field.

The licensing of businesses in this field is carried out by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which was initially established to administer the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Ensuring safe conditions for animals during transportation is only a small part of APHIS’ responsibilities, which also cover “protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health, regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities”.

APHIS categorizes businesses involved in the movement of animals in two ways:

  1. As a Carrier
  2. As an Intermediate Handler

Both are required to enlist their details with APHIS, but different registers exist for the two categories, and therefore the registration processes also differ slightly.

An Animal Carrier is “any enterprise transporting regulated animals for hire as a common carrier. [including] airlines, railroads, motor carriers, shipping lines, and other enterprises.” So this is the category which covers most of the businesses which you’ll find on this website.

The Act defines an Intermediate Handler as “anyone taking custody of regulated animals in connection with transporting them on public carriers”. This definition covers boarding kennels that organize their own shipping from or to clients, freight forwarders, and freight handlers. The main difference here is that an Intermediate Handler operates through public carriers, such as airlines, couriers, and shipping & forwarding companies, while carriers are often in business in their own right, as private individuals or incorporated businesses.

Anyone taking custody of regulated animals in connection with transporting them on public carriers must be registered as an intermediate handler. This requirement covers boarding kennels that take responsibility for shipping animals or receiving them after or during shipment, as well as freight forwarders and freight handlers.

Failure to become licensed or registered is a punishable violation of the Animal Welfare Act. On the basis of information you supply, APHIS will determine whether your business should be licensed, registered, or both. Licensing involves a yearly fee; registration is free.

So the good news for you, if you’re looking to start a business, is that you don’t need to pay anything up-front to obtain official permission to operate as a pet transporter.

Are there any differences in care standards between licensed and registered operators?

No. The standards required by all operators in providing proper and suitable care for animals taken into their charge under the law are the same whether you run a licensed or a registered business.

Naturally, suitable crates for transporting dogs and cats can be bought in various sizes. But if you are running a business sending a pet long distances, it would be wise to spend money on buying several different sizes. One manufacturer, for example, offers pet carriers in six different sizes, which are categorized by the animal’s weight.

Above all else, whatever the nature and scale of your business, if you’re transporting animals regularly for reward, you will need to be totally comfortable with being at close quarters with them for long periods. Sounds obvious, but there’s a world of difference between having pets at home, and taking care of them while traveling long distances in a confined space.

Of course, you will not have the animal in your charge in full sight at all times, so you may not be able to tell when they start to show signs of agitation. It’s always wise to let a dog travel with a number of familiar items in the crate with them, particularly dog toys.

Ensuring that a dog has sufficient water at all times can be tricky, and for the purposes of transportation, it’s a good idea to fix a water bowl to the body of the pen in which it is being carried, to prevent accidental spillages. Some types come with Velcro tabs which allow the bowl to be secured around the bars of a pen, or you can buy bowls with metal fixing brackets that attach to the pen walls.

You should also consult the owner of the dog you’re moving over its regular mealtime patterns, as it’s a good idea to plan your journey so that you can, where possible, take rest breaks that tie in with the animal’s usual feeding times.

Those rest breaks must also include an opportunity for the dog/s to exercise, in instances where the enclosure space for the dog is less than twice the floor space required for that dog, as laid down under Section 3.6(c)(1) of the Animal Welfare Act. That provision contains the mathematical formula for this purpose, which is (length of the dog in inches + 6) x2 / 144, which gives the required floor space for the animal in square feet.

So when you’re equipping a vehicle with pens, the size of the pen will govern the maximum size of dog which you’re allowed to carry without taking a rest break.

Dog Transportation – A Growing Business

As people become increasingly mobile, we have seen a corresponding rise in demand for services able to safely transport their pets.

This rising tide of movement was given further momentum by the need to re-home dogs suddenly made homeless in Mississippi and Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina in 2004. Many businesses operating today arose out of the work done at that time, which prompted the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to draw up broad guidelines of its own.

These state: “Properly secured, size-appropriate kennels that are appropriately ventilated and allow climatic conditions suitable for a dog’s breed and conditioning to be maintained are the preferred means of transport of dogs when in open cargo areas of motor vehicles.

“The preferred means of transport within the confines of a vehicle is either in a secured kennel of appropriate size or fitted with a properly designed dog safety harness.​”

So if you run a business focused on moving people’s much-loved pets, these guidelines should provide a useful starting point.

But there’s no substitute for getting to know other people who already operate in the field. For that, your starting point should be the Animal Transportation Association (ATA). This “non-profit organization dedicated to the safe and humane transportation of animals” can be an important and useful source of help. So why not get in touch and get to know some of its existing members, who may be happy to give you the benefit of their experience?

It has also produced this factsheet on crate-training for animals due to be transported which, while focusing heavily on procedures for air transport, also includes some valuable general pointers which will apply for many other journeys, including by road.

When animals need to travel long distances, we should take the same care over planning the journey as we would for ourselves. With an 83% ‘Excellent’ rating on Trustpilot, CitizenShipper shows the benefit of using a business whose drivers really care about their cargoes. If you love animals as much as we do, why not sign up as a CitizenShipper driver today?

Update: Spring 2020

This article is getting on in years! Since first publishing it, we’ve taken steps to streamline the process of registering with the USDA. Right now, drivers can simply fill in this application form and email it to animalcare@usda.gov with a single click. 

For more details on this, check out our step-by-step guide or view the following tutorial video:

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