The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has announced proposed changes to dog importation rules. The changes would tighten rules for dogs being brought into the country for resale, research or veterinary treatment. The reason for the sudden changes isn’t clear, but it may be the result of a couple of high-profile importations of rabid dogs. Regardless, it makes sense to pay more attention to companion animal importations, as long as the requirements are practical. The practicality aspect is of particular concern for the large number of people that travel between Canada and the US with their dogs, which is pretty low-risk from an infectious disease standpoint. Balancing policies that help prevent introduction of serious diseases with rules that don’t unnecessarily complicate the frequent cross-border movement of people and their pets can be tough. This proposal doesn’t cover pet dogs, which is both good and bad.

With the proposed changes, dogs imported for resale, research or veterinary treatment must have:

  • an original health certificate
  • a valid rabies vaccination certificate
  • have an APHIS-issued import permit

The health certificate must clearly describe the dog and certify that:

  • it’s at least six months of age
  • it was vaccinated no more than 12 months prior to the date of importation against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus and parainfluenza virus
  • it’s in good health and "free of any infectious disease or physical abnormality that would endanger the dog or other animals or endanger public health, including parasitic infection, emaciation, lesions of the skin, nervous system disturbances, jaundice or diarrhea."

That’s pretty standard, however the last statement can sometimes cause issues. Here, the language is better than in some other protocols because it says "disease," not "infection." It may seem like a minor point, but to me it means a lot. If someone asks me to certify that my dog does not have an infectious disease, I can do that. She doesn’t have any clinical evidence of an infection. If someone asks me to declare that she’s free of infection, it gets trickier, because infection could be interpreted as disease, but it could also be interpreted as simply carrying an infectious agent. Every dog is carrying multiple microorganisms that could "endanger the dog or other animals or endanger public health" but the risk is rather low from clinically healthy dogs. No veterinarian can ever certify that a dog is not carrying any microorganism that could cause disease.

The restriction of importation for veterinary treatment is a bit of a concern, because in some areas the closest veterinary clinics or referral centres are across the border (one way or the other). It’s a difficult issue, because dogs being taken to a veterinarian may be sick, and a veterinarian can’t certify that such an animal is free of disease. The report states that "limited exceptions" will be made for the health certificate and rabies vaccination certificate for dogs imported for veterinary care. What "limited exceptions" means and how quickly an exemption can be obtained may determine whether this will impact the availability of veterinary care in some border regions.

Overall, more scrutiny of dog importation makes sense, particularly dogs being imported from developing countries where a variety of imported or exotic diseases may be present. However, these rule changes won’t necessarily have an impact on some of the import-associated disease problems that have occurred recently. The current changes only involve dogs imported for resale, research or veterinary treatment. Importation of dogs for research is presumably uncommon and research colonies have pretty strict rules, so I doubt there’s a lot of risk there. I also think it would be quite rare for dogs from high risk areas to be imported for research. Importation for veterinary care is also pretty uncommon and I’m not aware of it being implicated in imported disease. I don’t know how often dogs are imported for resale, and this may be the area in which these changes have the biggest potential impact. Whether a dog from a Canadian or Mexican puppy mill is any higher risk to other dogs and the public than dogs from (much more common) American puppy mills is debatable. It would be nice to see a proper risk assessment that indicates which situations are the highest risk.