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Call for loopholes in PETS to be closed

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01 March 2013, at 12:00am

VETERINARY PRACTICE reports on a recent meeting where concerns were expressed over ways in which rabies and parasitic infections could enter the UK

CHANGES in the pet travel scheme rules intended to help ordinary dog owners stay in contact with their animals are being abused by criminals to smuggle puppies into the UK.

Their activities could introduce lethal diseases into the country, putting everybody at risk – but especially veterinary staff, according to speakers at a meeting in London in late January.

The event was organised by the Dogs Trust and led to calls for a review of the PETS scheme to close loopholes introduced with the relaxation of the requirements for veterinary treatment of companion animals entering the UK.

Those changes introduced by DEFRA in January 2012 to harmonise UK regulations with those in the rest of the EU mainly affect animals brought in from countries judged to be at low risk of exporting rabies.

Yet, there are “plausible mechanisms” by which rabid animals can legally enter the country and the changes also increase the risk of introducing both the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis and a range of arthropod-borne conditions, the audience was warned.

Deborah Wells, head of the pets and rabies policy team at DEFRA, insisted that while the new regime governing imports of dogs, cats and ferrets does increase the danger of bringing in diseased animals, that risk remains low.

But Professor David Argyle, of the Glasgow veterinary school and one of the charity’s trustees, described the results of an online survey of veterinary surgeons and pet owners that demonstrated a significant risk that imported animals may carry conditions like leishmaniasis.

Among 1,005 pet owners who responded to the questionnaire, 130 had travelled abroad with their pets, 11% of these animals had contracted an exotic disease and in a further 5%, the attending veterinarian had strong suspicions that the pet had been infected abroad.

Those cases involved animals that had been imported legally and had been treated according to the new rules but there is now a greatly increased risk resulting from animals being smuggled into the UK from continental Europe.

Rob Quest is assistant director for animal health and welfare services with the City of London Corporation, which is responsible for dealing with illegal animal imports throughout the Greater London area.

Invalid passports

Since the rules changed, he said, there had been a four-fold increase in the numbers of dogs found to have invalid pet passports which the local authority has had to put into its quarantine kennels.

He said these were nearly all pedigree puppies brought into the country from eastern and central Europe which were then sold through dealers and pet shops or directly to the unsuspecting public through internet sales. Typically, these puppies are from fashionable breeds such as French bulldogs which can be sold at prices considerably below the normal rate for domestically-bred puppies. 

The puppies are usually brought into the country in vans which are not properly checked on arrival at sea ports. Mr Quest also lamented the lack of communication between the different agencies – DEFRA, police, trading standards departments and customs officers – which allows this trade to continue.

“It is not a question of if, but when, this trade leads to a serious disease outbreak in Britain,” he warned.

Paul Burr, managing director of the virology diagnostic service Biobest Laboratories, argued that the arguments used to justify relaxing the rabies controls were flawed.

Certainly, many Western European countries where rabies was once endemic are now free of the disease, but the countries classed as low risk according to the current rules include areas such as parts of northern Italy, the Balkans and Russia where there is a substantial reservoir of disease in wildlife. 

Still a threat

He also warned that pet animals that have been vaccinated against the rabies virus according to the rules may still present a threat. Between 5 and 10% of treated animals fail to show a proper antibody response to the vaccine virus.

Furthermore, no vaccine will protect against the disease if the animal has already been exposed to the rabies virus and the incubation period can be several months long, he said.

Dr Burr noted that his company has received at least two recent calls from veterinary practices asking what to do about an imported animal with inaccurate documentation that had scratched or bitten a member of staff.

His advice was the same in both cases: “Don’t worry about the animal, get that person to the local hospital immediately so they can receive post-exposure prophylaxis.”

Meanwhile, Ms Wells assured the audience that the current regulations are not fixed and DEFRA is considering possible amendments to them.

One possible change would be to enforce a minimum age of 12 weeks before puppies imported to the UK can be vaccinated against rabies. Then, with a three-week waiting period to ensure seroconversion, the animal would be 15- weeks-old before it could enter the country.Other speakers agreed that this would help to reduce demand for illegally imported puppies as most prospective owners wanted puppies of around eight weeks old.

Other measures to reduce the risk of importing disease suggested during discussions at the meeting included better training for staff at sea ports to ensure they understand the dangers of illegal puppy imports and are aware of what to look for.

The general public should also be educated so that they understand that a pedigree puppy ordered over the internet and delivered at a motorway service area may not be the bargain that it first appears.

  • Dogs Trust plans to publish a report in due course based on the presentations and discussions at the meeting.