A horrific situation with a group of imported dogs from the Ukraine has once again focused attention on issues regarding canine importation. A Ukrainian Airlines plane arrived in Toronto last Saturday with over 500 French bulldog puppies on board, many of which were dead or dying upon arrival. At least 38 died. The incident is being investigated.  There are some indications that the puppies were crammed into crates and left outside in Kiev in 30C+ weather prior to loading. Cramming stressed puppies into small cages and compromising them before the flight by overheating them probably led to even more severe issues, particularly in a breed such as this that is more prone to respiratory complications.

Problems with canine importation aren’t new. You can use the W&G tag archive to find lots of posts (and some rants) under the tag “importation.” We’ve seen some important disease introductions into Canada (and other countries) from canine importation. Canine flu was a textbook example, but we’ve also seen Brucella canis widespread in puppy mills in Ontario (potentially originating from imported dogs from Ukraine), and various other smaller-scale outbreaks and infections.

Not surprisingly, there was a public outcry locally following this latest incident, and the tragedy even made the news overseas in the UK.

Will anything actually change in response to this incident?  The pessimist in me says no. The optimist in me says we might be reaching the tipping point at which there will finally be sufficient momentum to actually effect change.

Unfortunately, at the moment unscrupulous importers have little reason to stop. If you start with 500 dogs and 38 die, that’s still 462 dogs to sell for a few thousand dollars each, making this a multi-million dollar importation even with the losses and little chance of any significant penalty. Without stricter rules, and the ability to enforce them, animals will continue to be exploited like this for the profit.

The issues have been low on the government’s radar, even though we’ve known about them for years.  A quick Google search provides a string of news stories from recent years raising similar concerns. A few years ago a national working group was asked to scope out the issue in Canada and provide options/recommendations for what could be done to address them.  But there’s never been enough public pressure to convince governments to expend the time and political capital on a niche issue about which people often get worked up but from which they move on all too quickly.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) released a position statement about this event, which also mentions some of the work they’ve been doing in this area.  More work will be done this summer which will hopefully give us additional data to help inform strategies for combating this problem going forward.

What can the average person do?

As long as people are willing to buy imported dogs, or dogs from large volume commercial breeders (i.e. puppy mills) that buy in cheap breeding stock from overseas, the problem isn’t going to go away.

If you are going to buy a dog (vs obtain one from a shelter or rescue), make sure you can meet the puppy’s parents (or at least the puppy’s dam, as the sire could be elsewhere by the time the puppy arrives). If you can’t see the parents, you are more likely to be dealing with a puppy mill dog. Puppy mill dogs can be found in lots of places – farms, Kijiji, pet stores and even households. I could get a litter of puppies from a puppy mill or broker this afternoon, and put an ad online for “home raised” puppies. You’d see a cute litter of (likely biohazardous) puppies being shown off by a nice family, not realizing they just came from a crappy mass production facility.

If you are going to get a dog from a rescue that brings in dogs from other countries, ask them about their practices and policies. A good rescue will scrutinize you, to make sure you’re an appropriate owner. At the same time, you should scrutinize the rescue to make sure they’re doing things right (including responsible sourcing, safe transport, appropriate health checks and infectious disease screening).

If you are importing a dog for personal reasons, do it safely. There are completely legitimate reasons why people import dogs, and there should be a mechanism to allow that. Talk to your veterinarian about the issues and preventive measures – veterinarians can use the CVMA canine importation checklist as a starting point. We’re working on some additional support materials now to help veterinarians and owners know what issues are present in different countries and recommended control measures.

I’m not sure lobbying the government does anything, but I guess it can’t hurt. They need to know that people care about this issue, not just every once in a while when a problem gets publicized, but all the time. I suspect there are enough people that would support change to get (federal) government interested, but it’s a silent majority.

Ultimately, we need government (in many countries, not just Canada) to take action, to enact real change, enforce rules, use the powers that they have to improve things – and to help make sure it’s done right.  What are the odds the CBSA can actually properly process a surprise arrival of 500 dogs at Canada’s largest airport, on top of with everything else they need to do (including monitoring for other illegal activities like drug smuggling and human trafficking, just to name a couple), likely with little training on the animal side of things, and no quarantine facilities? Pretty low, would be my guess.

It’s not all about rules and enforcement. We need a “stick” to control the bad actors, but we need carrots to help encourage others to do the right thing. Thousands of dogs come into Canada for good reasons, coordinated by well-meaning people or groups. Many of them create unnecessary risk to the imported dogs, local dogs and public health because of bad practices. They need education and support, which is part of what we’re working on. Hopefully we’ll have some more useful materials in the near future, but in the interim, the dog-importing, dog-owning, dog-buying and general dog-loving public can all play a role in mitigating this problem.