Dog rescuers risk harming UK dogs and owners by importing dangerous exotic diseases into the country, vets warn
Well-meaning animal lovers are inadvertently putting the health and welfare of millions of the UK’s animals and people at risk by importing ‘Trojan’ rescue dogs from abroad. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) is urging prospective owners to protect the domestic dog population by rehoming dogs from within the UK instead.
More than nine out of ten companion animal vets (93%) in the country are concerned about the import of rescue dogs from abroad, with three-quarters feeling the numbers have increased over the last year, figures from BVA’s latest Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey reveal.
Stray dogs in some European countries and other parts of the world may have unknown health histories and could harbour undetected and potentially life-threatening exotic diseases not traditionally seen in the UK, such as leishmaniasis, rabies, canine babesiosis and heartworm, without showing any outward clinical symptoms. When imported into the UK, such chronically infected ‘Trojan’, or carrier, dogs risk passing on the infections to susceptible pets and, in the case of some diseases, to humans as well. These infections can be difficult to detect or successfully treat in such carrier dogs.
Worryingly, BVA’s survey shows that 40% of companion animal vets have seen new or rare conditions in their practice over the last year that are associated with dog import, with the potentially fatal zoonotic disease leishmaniasis emerging as the most common one, mentioned by more than a quarter (27%) of the vets surveyed. Vets also report seeing cases of other exotic conditions such as ehrlichiosis and heartworm.
British Veterinary Association President John Fishwick said:
“We are nation of animal lovers, and so the desire to rescue stray, neglected or abused animals from other countries and give them loving homes in the UK is completely understandable. Unfortunately, the hidden consequence of this can be disastrous for the health and welfare of other pets as well as humans here.
“As vets, we are extremely concerned about the risks posed by rescuing dogs with unknown health histories from abroad and, while it may sound harsh, we believe that the wider consequences for the UK dog population must outweigh the benefit to an individual animal being imported.
“With thousands of dogs needing homes within the UK, I would urge anyone looking to get a pet to adopt from a UK rehoming charity or welfare organisation instead. If you already own a rescue dog from abroad, approach your local vet for advice on testing and treatment for any underlying conditions.”
The relaxation of pet travel rules in 2012 has led to an increased risk for non-endemic and potentially zoonotic diseases in the UK. Under the current EU Pet Travel Scheme, stray dogs can be moved within the EU as long as they comply with certain regulations, including treatment for tapeworm and receiving the rabies vaccination. Dogs that are non-compliant with these regulations are quarantined and vaccinated before being allowed to enter, though it is possible that they may still be incubating a disease upon which a vaccination would have little to no effect. The outbreak of canine babesiosis in Essex two years ago and the detection of brown dog ticks in puppies imported from Cyprus in 2014 are just two examples of this heightened disease risk.
As part of its recently launched pet travel position statement (404 KB PDF), BVA is recommending that the government impose strict restrictions on the movement of stray dogs from countries that are endemic for diseases not currently considered endemic in the UK and introduce testing in stray dogs for any such diseases as a mandatory requirement before travel to the UK.
The issue of pet travel and importation will also be in focus at BVA Congress at the London Vet Show in November, with a session on ‘Trojan dogs and trafficked pets- why pet travel rules need to change’, featuring talks by Professor the Lord Trees and Dogs Trust Veterinary Director, Paula Boyden. The session will consider the risks and realities of pet travel and the illegal pet trade on both health and welfare and ask what more needs to be done to improve biosecurity at our borders.
For more information on dangerous exotic diseases, see the Animal Welfare Foundation's pet travel leaflet.