Bill calls for stricter controls on imported dogs

Veterinarians in Congress push measure for disease prevention

Published: June 19, 2020
By Anna Campbell

Photo by Lynn Schorn
Rescue groups bring hundreds of thousands of dogs to the United States each year from overseas. Mateo (pictured) was imported from Mexico and adopted by a family in Washington state.

One percent. Of the estimated 1 million dogs brought into the United States each year, 1% — a mere 10,000 — are inspected for diseases by a veterinarian. To mandate greater surveillance, veterinarian and congressman Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida says a new law is needed to close existing regulatory cracks. 

Under current law, dog importation is the responsibility of two agencies: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Yoho contends that a patchwork approach by the agencies to oversee canine importation allows thousands of unexamined dogs to enter the country, some with parasites and diseases, such as rabies and influenza. 

To protect public health, Yoho and two other veterinarians in Congress have sponsored HR 6921, titled the Healthy Dog Importation Act. If enacted, the new law would make permanent identification and USDA-recognized health certificates requisites for bringing dogs into the United States. Yoho and co-sponsors Rep. Ralph Abraham of Louisiana and Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon drafted the measure in consultation with the American Veterinary Medical Association and APHIS, among others.

The problem with the existing screening system for dogs at the border is that "CDC might think the USDA or APHIS is doing it, and vice versa," Yoho said. "We want one place where [people bringing dogs into the country] know they have to go to get the proper permits ... for the importation of an animal."

How the system works

There is a "mixed bag" of reasons why animals are imported into the United States, according to Dr. J. Scott Weese, an infectious disease veterinarian at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College. Some canines come in as rescues, some are pets and some are from puppy mills, but he said it's hard to know how many dogs enter the U.S. each year because "no one tracks it."

Weese, who recently blogged about the subject of canine importation, is working on a few research projects to better understand canine importation numbers, track diseases in imported dogs and educate practitioners about what kinds of diseases they might see in patients imported from foreign countries.

Asked about what's feeding the market for imported rescues, Weese said it could be anything from wanting a cheaper dog to wanting to rescue one from poor conditions.

A 2019 USDA white paper corroborates the idea that no single agency tracks canine importation and emphasized the limitations of multi-agency oversight. "Because of the specific, purpose-based authority granted to federal agencies, there is no single tracking system that captures the total number of dogs imported into the United States," the paper said. 

"For example, CDC does not track dogs entering the United States from rabies-free countries or dogs with proof of immunization, USDA does not track dogs imported into the United States for purposes other than resale as defined by the AWA [Animal Welfare Act], and CBP [Customs and Border Protection] and [the U.S. Department of] Commerce do not track shipments of dogs that fall below their thresholds." The latter agencies track commercial goods, including shipments of dogs with a value of $2,000 or greater.

Under the new bill, the USDA APHIS Veterinary Services would set import requirements. The bill would allow USDA to update and expand regulations, and it would give the agency sole authority to do so. The Secretary of Agriculture would be in charge of approving a method of permanent identification for animals coming into the country, such as microchips; mandating all necessary vaccinations and health check, including requiring that the animals are examined by a U.S.-licensed veterinarian after entering the country; and enforcing regulations.

The CDC currently requires that most imported canines appear healthy and have a rabies vaccine certificate in order to enter the United States. APHIS has separate requirements for dogs imported for resale and adoption: They must be at least 6 months old, vaccinated and in good health. U.S. Customs and Border Protection sometimes can impose additional requirements. 

The agencies currently define necessary inoculations for foreign dogs as including vaccines for distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza virus. The new bill gives APHIS control to expand that list.

Canine diseases don't just impact dogs. Humans can catch certain diseases from canines, like leptospirosis and brucellosis, and livestock can be impacted by parasites and diseases brought into the country via the importation of animals, pets included. 

Measure has broad support

The American Kennel Club, the National Animal Interest Alliance and the AVMA support the bill.

According to a statement by the AKC, although the organization recognizes the importance of importation, it is "concerned about the increasing documented incidences of the importation of unhealthy random-source pets, particularly for transfer, where public and pet health may be inadequately protected." (Random-sourced animals are those collected through various sources, such as shelter and kennels.)

The AKC added, "Current pet import oversight mechanisms administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs were established prior to the exponential growth in imports and are unable to adequately check canine health upon entry or protect against the public and animal health threat this represents."

Ed Dubovi, a virologist and former director of the Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center, described the regulation of imported companion animals as "a bit of a Wild West." Now semi-retired, he said he has seen the effects of lax importation requirements, both in the spread of disease, including canine influenza, and in the death of dogs.

He recalled speaking with a person who had purchased a dog from Korea, believing all the paperwork for importing the dog was in order. However, soon after the dog arrived in the United States, it showed signs of canine distemper and eventually had to be euthanized. The dog was supposed to be 6 months old, in accordance with U.S. regulations, but upon examination, veterinarians said it was younger. 

"So somebody may have falsified the age, and having done that, the vaccination record for this dog was a single dose of vaccine that may have been given at a time when maternal antibody interference would have eliminated the effectiveness of the vaccine," he said.

The bill, Dubovi said, would "go a long way" toward preventing such situations.

Having spent much of his life tracing the spread of disease, Dubovi considers microchipping imported dogs to be a good idea. "Once you have that permanent identification, presumably if something goes haywire, one may be able to trace where that dog is [and possibly its travel history]," he said.

Not far enough?

Dr. Camille Fischer, a veterinarian in San Carlos, California, raises awareness about the problems with importation requirements and canine disease by talking with clients and conducting research. She supports the bill's language to identify permanently imported dogs but believes the bill leaves too much in "the hands of the Secretary of Agriculture." 

For instance, she said, the definition of "necessary" vaccines seems to be left to the USDA's purview. Existing regulations do not mandate vaccinating for some types of canine-transmitted infectious diseases, including canine influenza. Current regulations also do not require parasite checks — a gap in the importation system that Fischer fears might not change if left solely to the USDA's discretion, per the proposed legislation. 

The bill also makes quarantine requirements the objective of the USDA APHIS Department of Veterinary Services. 

"If you take a dog and you say, OK, I'm rescuing this stray dog from an endemic area that has echinococcus [tapeworms] and ticks that transmit lethal viral diseases to humans — could we at least give that dog a tick control product and a tapeworm treatment before it enters our country?" Fischer said. She suggested that required quarantine, organized or at home, could help screen for dogs that might be carrying parasites or infectious diseases.

Current APHIS policy states that dogs coming from a country with foot-and-mouth disease "should be bathed as soon as it reaches its destination and should be kept separate from all livestock for five days after entry into the United States." There are also quarantine requirements for other conditions, such as screwworm infections. 

Stricter protocols are needed, Dubovi agreed. "We are always anticipating things we might know about, but it's the unknowns that will get you," he said. 

Example of a cross-border dog rescue

The international importation of dogs is a complicated endeavor, according to some who use the system. Mike McCarthy runs Rescue Express, a nonprofit organization that he describes as "sort of like Fed-Ex," because it connects rescue organizations, helping the senders and receivers of animals negotiate which ones are transported. Rescue Express then organizes the transportation. 

McCarthy recently partnered with Saint Vincent Home, a nonprofit rescue group in Guadalajara, Mexico, that's run by an American man who's housing 200 dogs, many locally surrendered. McCarthy worked to get the appropriate permits, following USDA requirements to ensure the dogs were inoculated for rabies and received other necessary vaccines. The dogs also were checked for heartworm disease. Rescue Express required all the animals to have a health certificate signed by a local veterinarian within 10 days of their trip to the United States. Once all permits were in place, McCarthy and volunteers drove from California to retrieve the dogs and get them USDA-registered. 

The drivers spent a day resting in Guadalajara, then loaded the animals and headed for Houston. Three Little Pitties Rescue in Rosharon, Texas, received the dogs the next day. They received medical attention, were spayed and neutered and then transported to Washington state for adoption. 

"Oh my gosh, it was tedious," recounted McCarthy, who said it took him two weeks to figure out the U.S. permit process. Their application to cross the border with the dogs in an RV took two weeks of negotiation with border authorities, he said, and USDA travel restrictions for dogs limited how far they could drive each day. 

McCarthy said it was worth it. "We saved 130 dogs," he said.

One of those dogs is Mateo, who was adopted by Lynn Schorn of Kingston, Washington. Schorn said she signed an adoption contract promising to get Mateo to a local veterinarian right away, and that she would keep him dewormed.

Melody Chen, founder and president of Love & Second Chances Rescue, an organization that rescues dogs locally and internationally and helps place them in homes, said she doesn't believe the proposed bill would have much impact on her operation because she already follows such requirements. 

Love & Second Chances, she said, has placed some 3,500 dogs from all over the world, including Taiwan, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, Jordan, India and China. Before the dogs are brought to the U.S., they are dewormed, vaccinated, microchipped, spayed or neutered, and checked for diseases via a blood panel. She said she works personally with rescue organizers abroad: "I need to make sure that the standards are met for every single dog …"

Dogs are posted online and kept outside the U.S. until they are adopted. A volunteer then flies the dog to the U.S. to be picked up by its adoptive family at the airport. 

"The standards for rescues are pretty high for them to be able to come [to the United States], and I think this bill is just going to make it that standard for any dog that's coming," she said.

Legislative prospects

HR 6921 has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture. No hearing date has been set.

Yoho is optimistic about the bill's prospects for passing, anticipating that it will draw bipartisan and public support. He noted that many imported dogs are rescues from meat markets in countries such as China and Korea. "When you get to an issue on the human consumption of dogs, people don't like that in our country," he said.

The greatest difficulty for the bill likely is that the political climate in Washington is fraught, Yoho said. One strategy to overcome that, he said, would be to tack the legislation to a year-end spending bill.

"If we can get this to see the daylight in Congress ... hopefully something good will happen," he said.

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