Are rescues wrong to transport these pets?

September 16, 2019
Amanda Dykstra, DVM, MPH, DABVP

Amanda Dykstra completed her veterinary degree at Iowa State University in 2003. During college, she served as a flight medic in the Army National Guard and volunteered at local animal shelters. After graduation, Amanda practiced in Missouri for many years as a shelter veterinarian and a city veterinarian before completing a Shelter Medicine Fellowship with UC Davis in 2013. While a faculty member at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, she completed her MPH with a concentration in Veterinary Public Health and now works primarily as a shelter consultant and is the medical director for a nonprofit group working to improve access to care in Appalachia. She is certified as a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, specializing in shelter medicine practice. Amandas husband is a middle school teacher, and they have three amazing daughters and two ornery dogs that keep them very busy.

The veterinary community should look closer at the legal, financial, and human and animal health effects of interstate and international animal transportation.

Some veterinarians are concerned that transport may be good for individual animals but detrimental for "dogkind." (Shutterstock.com)Last month, I was helping a friend at her veterinary practice when a new client came in with a Sphinx cat. He was underweight, with a distended abdomen, and looked in general illthrift. The client said she'd bought him two days earlier from a “single household breeder” and reported that he was up-to-date on vaccines. She just needed an exam so her health guarantee would be good.

When I pointed out that the vaccine records were in Arabic so I couldn't verify his status, she was confused how her cat from Georgia had vaccine records from another country. She was also pretty distraught when I mentioned that her supposedly 3-month-old kitten had full adult dentition and was likely about 8 months old and significantly underweight. Unfortunately, my friend ended up euthanizing the $2,500 cat two days later, and the woman was unable to contact the “breeder” to get any further information or a refund. This is one of many examples of how animal transports and the often unethical practices involved are becoming a common problem in veterinary medicine.

Some break rules for emotional reasons, others for monetary gain

Companion animals are transported across state and federal borders primarily by 1) pet owners relocating with their pets, 2) organizations trying to improve animal welfare, 3) breeders and other individuals trying for commercial gain and 4) those assisting with disaster response efforts. From a superficial view, many would see transport as an overall positive venture that helps even out the oversupply and undersupply of adoptable pets and improve animal welfare, but there are issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended dogs entering the U.S. from Egypt in May 2019 due to three rabid dogs being imported from that country, and a recent article described illegal puppy imports at JFK Airport, shedding light once again on the dangers of animal transport.1,2

Some veterinarians are concerned that transport may be good for individual animals but detrimental for “dogkind.” Regulations and guidance for animal movement exist, including a USDA requirement that dogs entering the country from areas with a high rabies risk must be over 4 months old and vaccinated for rabies. Dogs entering the country for sale are supposed to be 6 months old.1,3 Unfortunately, transport guidelines are generally considered recommendations, and enforcement of regulatory measures is not a priority.

Importers have used many tactics to illegally get animals into the country.1 Some break rules for emotional reasons, others for monetary gain. “Flight parent” is a term used for people who think they're doing a good deed by transporting a rescue dog when they're actually providing a means for commercial breeders to get dogs into the U.S. In 2017, a flight parent was bit by a rabid chihuahua with a fake rabies certificate. Importers also claim dogs are rescues without a monetary value, transport pregnant bitches so puppies will be born in the U.S. and then sell the animals on social media, with partners in the U.S. acting as individual breeders. Those involved with animal welfare have also been accused of falsifying paperwork or using other means to get animals into the country where they can be adopted.

International transport has introduced a new strain of canine distemper virus to North America.4 The canine influenza outbreak that started in the Chicago area in 2015 has also been linked directly to dogs rescued from Asia.4 The University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program recently assisted with the response to dogs transported from Korea that were diagnosed with brucellosis.5 There are also concerns about pathogens being introduced that we haven't yet directly linked to transport, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria.4 The dangers go beyond companion animals. Public health officials are concerned about the potential introduction of zoonotic agents and the impact on wildlife populations that are naïve to foreign disease.

There are similar concerns about interstate transport. Vector-borne diseases like Lyme6 and heartworm disease spreading to nonendemic areas has many root causes, but some veterinarians are concerned that transporting animals from endemic to nonendemic areas is one cause.

State-to-state also isn't great

Interstate transport, in many cases, is well-intentioned. It can increase live release rates and decrease overcrowding in shelters. It may decrease the number of people turning to commercial breeders when shelters don't have adoptable puppies. On a personal level, it gives people a feeling that they're doing something to help animals. During natural disasters, transporting shelter animals to other locations can save lives.

Risks of interstate transport include the misdiagnosis of transported animals due to veterinarians not realizing their patients came to the area from regions where locally rare diseases are more common. The spread of infectious disease-including introducing new strains to naïve populations and the spread of vectors-is possible. There is also concern that transport may lead to an increased resistance to antiparasiticides. Sporadic transfer also makes it more difficult to find lost animals, especially following natural disasters. Also, moving animals that aren't behaviorally sound may put them and the humans involved at risk for injury.

More resources on transporting animals

Importation of dogs into Canada

Animal travel and transport

Guidelines for standards of care in animal shelters

Transporting the right way

There are ways to decrease the risks, including protocols at the source and destination shelters that set standards for vaccine requirements, testing for vector-borne disease, administration of antiparasitics prior to movement and quarantine periods at the destination shelter. General care requirements, such as proper identification, behavior evaluation and thorough physical exams at both the source and destination also help decrease risk. Veterinarians who are accustomed to educating those looking for a new pet about how to avoid puppy mills and catteries could consider discussing how and why to avoid buying animals transported from other countries. And many Americans are calling for tougher regulations for importing dogs and cats into the U.S. from abroad.

Transporting companion animals across state and federal borders has become a controversial issue in veterinary medicine. Many see it as a life-saving measure that's worth the risks, while others have grave concerns about the impacts from a One Health perspective. These concerns have been quietly discussed in the veterinary community for many years. As those discussions become louder and make their way into news headlines, we veterinary professionals will be called upon to work with public health officials to find solutions that allow for life-saving transports but decrease the risks to the community.

References

1. Houle MK, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Perspective from the field: illegal puppy imports uncovered at JFK Airport. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/importation/bringing-an-animal-into-the-united-states/operation-dog-catcher.html. Accessed Jul 17, 2019.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Notice of temporary suspension of dogs entering the United States from Egypt. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/importation/bringing-an-animal-into-the-united-states/Egypt-dogs-temp-suspension.html. Accessed Jul 19, 2019.

3. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations. Available at: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/AC_BlueBook_AWA_FINAL_2017_508comp.pdf. Accessed Jul 19, 2019.

4. Waldron, P, Cornell University. New strain of canine distemper virus arrives in North America. Available at: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/03/new-strain-canine-distemper-virus-arrives-north-america. Accessed Jul 20, 2019.

5. University of Wisconsin Shelter Medicine Program. UW Shelter Medicine program assists Wisconsin animal shelters with canine brucellosis response. Available at: https://www.uwsheltermedicine.com/news/2019/3/uw-shelter-medicine-program-assists-wisconsin-animal-shelters-with-canine-brucellosis-response. Accessed Aug 10, 2019.

6. Self SCW, McMahan CS, Brown DA, et al. A large-scale spatio-temporal binomial regression model for estimating seroprevalence trends. Environmetrics 2018;29:e2538.