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August 15, 2021

US suspends dog importation from 100-plus countries

CDC cites surging risk of dogs arriving with rabies in attempt to prevent reintroducing canine variant to United States
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Federal health officials suspended—for at least one year—importation of dogs from 113 countries considered high risk for rabies transmission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the decision in response to a sharp rise in the number of dogs that arrived from those high-risk countries with fraudulent or incomplete documentation of rabies vaccination. The ban took effect July 14.

“Due to reduced flight schedules, dogs denied entry are facing longer wait times to be returned to their country of departure, leading to illness and even death in some cases,” a June 14 CDC announcement states.

Archie in a transport crate
Archie waits for a December 2019 flight out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on his way to Boston. The dog was one of 10 that Four Paws International removed from a slaughterhouse in Cambodia. (Photo by Nickie Mariager-Lam/Four Paws International)

The suspension applies to dogs that had been in the high-risk countries at any point in the prior six months—even if they arrive in the U.S. from lower-risk countries.

The U.S. has been considered free of the dog-associated rabies variant since 2007. In response to questions from JAVMA, CDC officials provided a statement expressing concerns a single rabid dog could cause a chain of infections that would reestablish the canine variant of the rabies virus in the U.S. That would undo almost 50 years of rabies prevention work prior to the 2007 declaration that the U.S. was free of canine rabies.

“If a rabid dog spreads the virus to a raccoon, skunk, or fox, the virus can rapidly spread among those wild populations and then back to other domestic dogs from encounters with wildlife,” the response states.

The ban enacted in July provides some exemptions for immunized pets of U.S. government employees, citizens, and residents as well as dogs being imported for specific scientific or service purposes. But the ban is expected to prevent entry of tens of thousands of dogs that would have been brought to the U.S.

Details about the suspension, exemptions, and the application process for importing dogs from affected countries are available at the CDC website. Until Oct. 14, U.S. citizens traveling abroad can bring back dogs with import permits through 18 airports, which are listed in documents at that site.

After that transition—with the exception of dogs imported for law enforcement—dogs approved for importation must arrive through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, which at press time was the only approved airport for this purpose.

Leaders in international animal shelter organizations said that, while CDC officials are right to worry about rabies transmission, they expect the decision will disrupt projects that save the lives of dogs.

Unattended dog
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say they “see some entities flying large groups of dogs from rabies high-risk countries to neighboring countries as in-transit shipments that are then transported to the United States via ground transportation at our land border ports of entry.”

Protections likely to affect overseas shelters

The CDC had already suspended importation of dogs from Egypt two years earlier, also to prevent potential reintroduction of the canine variant of the rabies virus into the U.S. From 2015-19, three dogs imported from Egypt tested positive for rabies; each had been brought in by a different rescue organization, and each was accompanied by documents declaring the animal was vaccinated against rabies.

More recently, on June 16—two days after the CDC’s announcement of the impending broader ban—a dog tested positive for rabies after arriving in Pennsylvania from Azerbaijan, one of the countries affected by the ban, according to CDC information. The dog was among 33 dogs and one cat imported by an animal rescue organization.

All the other animals and at least 19 people were considered exposed to the rabid dog. CDC officials were coordinating with health officials in eight states plus other federal agencies to locate the other animals and respond to the infection.

The high-risk designation spans much of Africa, Central and South America, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It applies to countries such as Armenia, Brazil, China (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan), Haiti, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, and South Africa.

Agency officials estimate importers bring about 1 million dogs into the U.S. each year, and the ban applies to about 6% of that total—60,000 dogs, according to a June 14 Federal Register notice. However, the true number could range from 33,000 to 120,000, the notice states.

Lori Kalef, program director for SPCA International, said CDC officials have valid concerns. But she and other SPCA International leaders want to work with the CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop better policies that both ease burdens on the agencies and protect the safety of dogs and people.

That could mean implementing a stricter importation process with rabies serology testing, quarantine periods, and mandatory microchipping, she said.

Kalef predicts the ban enacted by the CDC will have a ripple effect on SPCA International’s programs, especially a project based in Iraq to reunite soldiers with the dogs and cats they befriended while deployed. The organization also works with animal shelters in 78 countries—most of which are affected by the ban—on trap-neuter-release programs, vaccination of stray animals, and adoption programs that often involve partners in the U.S.

“They rely mostly on adoptions overseas, primarily in the U.S.,” she said of those shelters in partner countries. “And if the ban takes effect for the next year, what this means is that they can’t do more life-saving work within their countries and rescue more animals who are victims of illness, starvation, and cruelty.”

Dr. Katherine Polak works in Bangkok as the head of stray animal care in Four Paws International’s Southeast Asia operations. The Austria-based charitable nongovernmental organization’s work includes campaigning to end the slaughter of dogs and cats for meat, which, in turn, involves finding homes for animals when governments shut down slaughterhouses.

“To say that the international travel ban came as a shock would be an understatement,” Dr. Polak said. “As an international NGO involved in animal transport, we go above and beyond to ensure that animals are healthy, free of disease, appropriately quarantined and work only through a network of competent local partners and veterinary clinics.”

While Four Paws tries first to re-home animals locally, the organization has shipped 46 dogs from Cambodia to the U.S. since 2019, Dr. Polak said. Those importations freed shelter space and resources in Cambodia, she said, and CDC policy makes it impossible for international shelter organizations to continue their work helping dogs and people.

Dr. Lena DeTar is a member of the board of directors for the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, chair of the ASV’s Shelter Medicine Resources and Expertise Committee, and an assistant clinical professor in the shelter medicine program at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She expects the ban will have little effect on shelters and shelter veterinarians within the U.S. Most of the organizations involved in shipping dogs are small, foster-based rescue groups, and larger animal shelters in the U.S. seldom import dogs from overseas, she said.

Dr. DeTar characterized the ban as one primarily aimed at surprise importations of dogs rather than importations approved in advance.

“The restrictions prevent surprise arrivals, which prevents those dogs from lingering in importation facilities without an outcome or being sent back and not having somebody at the origination country be able to take those dogs and care for them,” she said.

Army combat medic and Annabelle
A U.S. Army combat medic from North Carolina is reunited in January 2018 with Annabelle, a dog who lived with him while he was deployed in Syria. (Courtesy of SPCA International)

Surging problem endangers people, dogs

Rescue groups and animal brokers sometimes import groups of 20 or more dogs by cargo plane, while others find “flight parents” who are willing to carry or check in a few unfamiliar dogs onto commercial airplanes, according to CDC officials. Many dogs arrive two or three to a crate or carrier, and the containers are often side by side or stacked with other containers.

“We also see some entities flying large groups of dogs from rabies high-risk countries to our neighboring countries as in-transit shipments that are then transported to the United States via ground transportation at our land border ports of entry,” CDC officials wrote. “International rescue groups then rapidly distribute the dogs to other local rescue groups and shelters for final placement with families scattered around the country.”

In 2020, CDC officials documented more than 450 instances of incomplete, inadequate, or fraudulent documents certifying rabies vaccination among dogs from high-risk countries, a rise from about 200 instances annually in years prior. Some of the dogs denied entry in recent years arrived with rabies certificates with the wrong dog breed, sex, age, appearance, or microchip information. Other rabies certificates bore suspicious veterinary stamps, inconsistent signatures, inconsistent vaccination dates, or records for vaccines administered after their expiration dates.

The Federal Register notice states that the attempts by some importers to bring in rising numbers of inadequately vaccinated dogs endangers the public and creates animal management problems that are unsustainable during the COVID-19 pandemic. CDC officials estimate that the suspension of dog imports from high-risk countries will reduce imports from those countries by 75% and that the number of dogs denied entry at ports would drop 90%.

Animal management problems resulted in welfare concerns as airlines stored dogs in warehouses, often with inadequate temperature controls, sanitation, or separation from dangerous materials, according to the CDC. In August 2020, airline employees at Chicago O’Hare International Airport left 18 dogs in a cargo warehouse without food and water for more than 48 hours, and one of the dogs died.

But Dr. Alicja Izydorczyk, who works in Thailand as international director of animal welfare for Soi Dog Foundation, said in a message that the ban also affects the dogs carefully screened, vaccinated, and quarantined by her organization ahead of their flights to the U.S. She said her organization had shipped more than 700 dogs to the U.S. since 2018 and was trying to send as many as possible to partner rescues in the U.S. ahead of the July deadline.

“The ban is devastating as it takes away the opportunity for these dogs, who have suffered so much, for a forever home in the USA,” she said. “It also puts more pressure on our shelter here in Phuket, which is already at maximum capacity with 1,500 animals in our care.

“Every dog adopted is a celebration—not only does the dog get a home it truly deserves, but it frees up a space at the shelter, allowing us to save another animal in need.”