While the zika virus poses worrisome human health concerns, another potential health problem is brewing that threatens both humans and domesticated animals –the importing of foreign dogs for adoption.
Many people are unaware that the U.S. has become something of a favored nation for countries looking to export their rescue dogs due to several reasons.
First, Americans are big-hearted, and when seeking dogs many chose animals made available through rescues.
Second, there’s a readymade market here – Americans love canines and own an estimated 80 million dogs.
The vast majority of imported rescue dogs are not tracked in the United States – either upon arrival or after they enter rescue channels.
Lastly, import rules on dogs can be easily flouted, allowing foreign exporters to send us their sick animals.
The vast majority of imported rescue dogs are not tracked in the United States – either upon arrival or after they enter rescue channels. Patti Strand, founder and national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance, a non-profit that studies shelter trends and the importation of rescue dogs, estimates that close to one million rescue dogs are imported annually from regions not known for stellar canine health and safety standards. They include dogs from Puerto Rico, Turkey, several countries in the Middle East and as far away as China and Korea. That compares to about 8 million dogs annually acquired as pets in the U.S.
All of this underscores that without improved oversight of pet rescue organizations, there’s no way of definitively identifying how many foreign rescue dogs are put up for adoption here.
These foreign rescues may be well-intentioned, but they are courting disaster.
While it is often a challenge to gather information on an abandoned dog here in the U.S., it is even harder for a dog that originated overseas. Information may be missing, poorly translated or unreliable.
Challenges are especially serious when it comes to health and safety. Animals from other countries are not subject to the health and welfare laws of the U.S. and may arrive carrying serious and infectious canine diseases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although importation laws require all dogs to be examined by a licensed veterinarian, foreign paperwork is hard to verify and is commonly invalid or forged.
Likewise, the tracking, health and welfare standards that are required for dogs bred in the United States and sold in pet shops do not apply for pets identified as sourced from rescues.
Scores of “puppy mill” bills like New Jersey’s S. 63/A. 2338 that ban pet stores from sourcing professionally-bred pets in lieu of pets sourced from rescues threaten to expand the problem to epic proportions.
The threat to public health is anything but theoretical. On May 30, 2015, eight dogs rescued in Egypt arrived in New York, all but one bound for U.S. rescues. Within days, a dog sent to Virginia became ill and was diagnosed with rabies.
The discovery necessitated an enormous public health investigation involving four state departments of health, three U.S. agencies, the transporting airline and the Egyptian government. Numerous people were interviewed from the airline, rescue organization and veterinarian’s office. In the end, 18 people were vaccinated for rabies either due to direct exposure or concern for possible contact. The rabies vaccination certificate for the dog had been forged, according to the CDC.
This is just one case. The CDC reports a significant uptick in public health concerns and incidents of disease in imported dogs that can be passed between animals and humans.
For example, an outbreak last year in the Midwest of canine influenza that sickened more than 1,100 dogs was traced to the importation of foreign animals, very likely a foreign dog or cat.
“There are multiple international groups who are rescuing dogs from the meat market in Korea and shipping them into the U.S., and we have sketchy quarantine requirements if any at all,” said Dr. Ed Dubovi, director at Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center.
Also at issue is the safety and suitability of foreign rescue dogs as family pets. Sources of dogs that are not socialized or bred to be pets are likely to require special handling and training that typical adopters — and even rescues –are not equipped to provide.
Without knowledgeable care, these dogs will end up back in a shelter situation.
Opening our doors is having other undesirable effects. Though some imported dogs are taken by legitimate U.S. rescues, others are becoming the product of unregulated, informal markets, including online retail “rescues.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, there have been numerous incidents involving smuggling of underage and sick animals. Substandard foreign breeders are taking advantage of all of these avenues into the U.S. market, rescue or otherwise.
The importation of rescue dogs does nothing to address issues at the source, and it actually encourages irresponsible breeding overseas. It has created an incentive for irresponsible brokers to round up street animals, buy dogs from Asian livestock markets and allegedly breed animals specifically for export to U.S. rescue markets. And because the animals are labelled as rescues, standards appear to be optional.
A pipeline for unrestricted imports of foreign “rescue” animals undercuts the mission of U.S. rescues, while creating a potential health and safety crisis.
The CDC is exactly correct in its analysis of the problem and its potential risks to Americans.
“Considering the public health risk posed by importation of animals for the purposes of placing them in adoptive homes in the United States, and the current oversupply of adoptable animals already in the United States, persons and organizations involved with importing pets for the purposes of adoption should consider reevaluating, and potentially redirecting, their current efforts,” the agency wrote.
Plenty of domestic dogs are languishing in shelters and in need of homes. Our duty is to help these dogs first.
Sheila Goffe is Vice President, Government Relations for the American Kennel Club. Follow the AKC on Twitter @akcdoglovers.