AVMA members press Congress for illicit xylazine, dog importation laws

Annual legislative fly-in brings veterinarians, veterinary students, and legislators together on Capitol Hill

Nearly 120 veterinarians and veterinary students urged Congress to support two AVMA-backed bills aimed at ensuring dogs are healthy when imported into the United States and to combat trafficking of the animal sedative xylazine without hindering veterinary access to the drug.

Attendees of the 2023 AVMA annual legislative fly-in, held April 17-19 in Washington, D.C., also sought a funding increase for the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD), from $2.5 million to $5 million annually. The money would go toward attracting scientists to the national food safety program and investing in new technologies.

The fly-in is hosted by the AVMA’s advocacy team in the nation’s capital to teach attendees how to be effective advocates for the veterinary profession within their state and at the federal level. For the past two years, the popular event was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year saw a return to the in-person format.

AVMA members lobbying Congress
The AVMA annual legislative fly-in brings veterinarians and veterinary students to Washington, D.C., for hands-on advocacy experience. Participants receive in-depth briefings about the top policy issues affecting veterinary medicine and meet with their members of Congress to advocate on those issues.

Learning to advocate

In addition to learning the ins and outs of advocacy, attendees heard from AVMA staff members about the broad range of veterinary issues in which the Association is engaged. These issues include animal and public health, animal welfare, small business, telemedicine, scope of practice, and educational debt relief. 

When needed, the AVMA will assist state veterinary medical associations with policy issues in their courts and legislatures.

“When we come together, when we have the same message, we can be extremely effective,” Dr. Kent McClure, AVMA’s associate executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, told fly-in participants.

Tara Barron, a second-year veterinary student at Lincoln Memorial University and Student AVMA (SAVMA) president-elect, assisted in bringing a delegation of 40 veterinary students to the fly-in. Barron described the event as an exceptional opportunity for students to learn how to become effective advocates.

“The students of today are the future of the veterinary profession, and it is crucial for them to learn how to advocate for themselves and their colleagues,” she said.

The following day, fly-in participants had 175 meetings with members of Congress and their staff members to ask for their support of two bills—the Healthy Dog Importation Act (H.R. 1184/S. 502) and the Combating Illicit Xylazine Act (H.R. 1839/S. 993)—and for Congress to increase the annual authorization for FARAD to $5 million.

Combating Illicit Xylazine Act (CIXA)

The CIXA is a bipartisan measure meant to curb the trafficking of xylazine without disrupting veterinary access to the drug. Xylazine is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)–approved nonopioid sedative that has been used to ensure the safe handling of cattle, wildlife, and other animals for the past 50 years.

Alarmed by the growing frequency with which xylazine is being found as an additive in opioid street drugs, a combination known as “tranq” or “zombie drug,” public health officials in the Biden administration recently declared it an “emerging threat.”

Introduced in March, the CIXA would, among other things, impose Schedule III penalties under the federal Controlled Substances Act on anyone found importing, manufacturing, or possessing xylazine meant for trafficking or use in people.

Manufacturers and distributors of legitimate xylazine would be required to report sales and inventories regularly as well as report any unusual activity or change in ordering patterns.

California Rep. Jimmy Panetta talks with Drs. George Bishop and Diane McClure
California Rep. Jimmy Panetta, a sponsor of Combating Illicit Xylazine Act in the House, takes a break from the House Ways and Means Committee hearing to talk with Drs. George Bishop and Diane McClure.

The Healthy Dog Importation Act (HDIA)

The HDIA is bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing the number of unhealthy dogs imported into the U.S. that are primarily intended for sale or adoption.

In June 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) temporarily suspended dog imports from more than 100 high-risk countries for canine rabies. The suspension has been extended several times and is currently set to expire on July 31.

Prior to the CDC suspension, of the over 1 million dogs imported each year, an estimated 113,000 were imported from countries that are at high risk for rabies transmission. The CDC only requires a rabies vaccination certificate for entry if a dog is from a high-risk rabies country. For the remaining 950,000-plus dogs imported from low-risk or rabies-free countries, the CDC requires no documentation or proof of vaccination.

These imported dogs have the potential to carry any number of diseases besides rabies, such as canine influenza, canine distemper, leptospirosis, and canine melioidosis, as well as African swine fever or foot-and-mouth disease on their fur and bedding.

The HDIA would require every dog entering the U.S. to be microchipped and accompanied by a health certificate issued by a licensed veterinarian certifying that the animal received all required vaccinations and negative test results as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These certificates would be entered into an electronic database maintained by the USDA and available to the CDC, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD)

FARAD is a key federal program that helps protect the U.S. food supply from contamination of animal-derived foods from substances not safe for human consumption.

The USDA-supported, university-based program develops and maintains the most up-to-date, comprehensive, and scientifically robust collection of drug withdrawal time and safety data in the world. Highly trained scientists provide veterinarians and animal producers with real-time, scientifically based expert advice on if and when an animal can safely enter the food supply.

FARAD has operated at its authorized amount of $2.5 million annually since fiscal year 2018 but is unable to invest and grow. More funds are needed to attract and retain scientists, keep pace with inflation, invest in technology, and conduct critical safety validation studies.

The AVMA is urging Congress to increase FARAD’s authorization to $5 million to help ensure that our food supply remains safe for human consumption.

Dr. José Arce with House Majority Leader Steven Scalise (R-La.) and Callie Ezell and Kristen Weimer, students at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. José Arce, AVMA immediate past president, with House Majority Leader Steven Scalise and Callie Ezell and Kristen Weimer, students at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine.

A version of this article appears in the June 2023 print issue of JAVMA.