Rabies: Pet Passports and Increased Risks

Presenter: Paula Boyden BVetMed MRCVS, Veterinary Director of the Dog’s Trust. Paula is also Treasurer of the Links Group; Chair of the companion animal steering group within Eurogroup; Member of the British Veterinary Association’s Veterinary Policy Group; and Member of the Microchip Advisory Group

Changes made to the Pet Travel Scheme in 2014 included laminating passport entries, restricting rabies vaccination to animals at least 12 weeks of age, recording details of the vet issuing the passport and providing a new set of rules for travel with more than five pets. These changes were implemented to provide a more rigorous system to protect against the illegal smuggling of puppies. However, veterinary director of the Dogs Trust, Paula Boyden, feels these changes do not go far enough and, after relaxation of the rules in 2012, the risk of serious disease such as rabies entering the UK has undoubtedly increased.

Last week’s Platinum Members’ webinar led by Paula discussed the implications of changes to the passport scheme since 2011, some of which made for uncomfortable listening. For example, since these changes there is a now a 60 fold increase in the risk of rabies entering the country, which now stands at 1 case every 211 years and this is assuming 100% compliance with PETS. Worryingly, if compliance drops to 90% this risk increases to one case every 170 years.

The good news is that rabies cases across Europe have decreased significantly over the past few years with a reported 13,000 cases in 1991 reducing to 5,000 cases in 2001. However many of these cases reported in 2001 came from Eastern European countries and many of these countries are now part of the EU. Their borders with non EU countries also pose a risk and the question has to be asked, how good is border control at the perimeter of the EU?

An investigation carried out by the Dogs Trust into puppy smuggling also demonstrated that compliance with the Pet Travel Scheme is a significant problem. Paula explained there was an overall 60% increase in the number of pets travelling under PETS after changes to regulations in 2011 but worryingly, the equivalent increase in Lithuania was 780% and in Hungary, 663%, and this only accounts for dogs that are recorded, and not puppies smuggled into the UK. The Dogs Trust investigation into these countries found that PETS was being used as cover to illegally import puppies into the country, with under age puppies entering the UK without the appropriate treatments. They also found that unscrupulous vets had been falsifying pets’ passports, allowing for illegal travel. This illegal activity should come as no surprise as the potential to make money from puppy smuggling is huge (for every 5 puppies smuggled into the country per week a smuggler can make in the region of £100,000 per year tax free!).

The Dogs Trust also highlighted weaknesses at border control, having been able to bring a soft toy puppy with an implanted microchip across the border into the UK three out of four times. Unbelievably, no visual check of the animal is required at the border with microchip scanners being used on the outside of carrier boxes. Once the chip is scanned and is shown to correlate to the number on the passport that animal (or soft toy in this case) is allowed into the UK.

On the back of the Dogs Trust’s findings, a set of urgent recommendations have been put forward which Paula believes should be implemented to ensure full compliance with PETS, thereby protecting public health and the welfare of travelling animals (many puppies are likely to have travelled for 40 hours without food and water).

These recommendations include banning the import of puppies under 6 months, creating a centrally accessible database for animals with microchips and ensuring there is cross agency working to develop an intelligence system and share data. There should also be an introduction of a fixed penalty because currently, if people are stopped with incorrect paperwork, there are no consequences for their actions other than being sent back with the animal in question.

This was a compelling webinar which opened my eyes to the reality of the risks associated with PETS, especially when the system is abused by both unscrupulous vets and puppy smugglers. The webinar also gave guidance on some of the diseases we may encounter in travelling pets and the route vets need to take if they suspect an illegal landing of an animal. It is imperative all small animal vets are aware of the pitfalls associated with PETS so we can spot and report any potential issue, and this webinar points out those pitfalls in abundance.

The Stethoscope (MRCVS)