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THE number of pets entering the uk under the Pet Travel Scheme (pets) each year has increased significantly since the scheme was launched at the end of February 2000. Figures from defra show that a total of about 15,000 dogs and cats entered the country under the pets in 2000, rising to 27,000 in 2001, 41,000 in 2002, 55,000 in 2003 and 70,000 in 2004. Over the past two years, the rate of increase has shown signs of levelling off: a total of about 73,000 was recorded in 2005 compared with the 70,000 in 2004 and, in the first six months of 2006, the total was more or less on a par with that recorded in the first six months of 2005 (34,083 compared with 34,168). These numbers are nevertheless significant and, as in previous years, traffic might be expected to increase in the summer months as people take their pets abroad on holiday. defra's website indicates that, by the end of June 2006, about 314,000 animals had entered the uk under the pets since the scheme was launched in 2000, including 278,837 dogs, 35,007 cats and 56 ferrets.
The growth in popularity of the pets can be accounted for by the inclusion of more countries in the scheme and increased awareness among pet owners. The increase in the number of travel operators offering facilities for transport on approved routes has also contributed; a glance at the list of potential carriers on the pets pages on defra's website shows just how much more extensive this is than in the early days of the scheme, when each new addition was announced by a departmental press release.
The increased freedom of movement afforded by the pets has not been without its downside, whether in the form of potential animal welfare problems for animals being transported long distances to unfamiliar climes, or the risk of exposure to and introduction of diseases not normally found in the uk. In March 2003, defra, in conjunction with the bva and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, set up a voluntary reporting scheme, dactari, to quantify the occurrence of exotic diseases in imported or native pet animals in Great Britain. The scheme focuses on four main diseases — babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, dirofilariosis and leishmaniosis, although other diseases may also be reported. By the end of March 2006, a total of 49 cases of disease had been reported under the scheme, all in dogs. They included 10 confirmed cases of babesiosis, 10 of ehrlichiosis, 19 of leishmaniosis and one of dirofilariosis; three animals were found to have more than one of these diseases. Most of the cases reported (40 of the 49) were in dogs resident in England at the time of examination, and 35 of them had arrived in the uk via the pets. As the dactari reporting scheme is voluntary, these figures are likely to underestimate the number of cases; however, they demonstrate that the disease risks are real, and there is no doubt that surveillance could be improved.
The bva Animal Welfare Foundation (awf) has produced a leaflet providing general advice for owners considering taking their pets abroad. It describes and gives advice on preventing some of the tick- and insect-borne diseases that may be encountered. The leaflets are available from the BVA and can also be downloaded from the bva awf website, www.bva-awf.org.uk.
It is worth noting that pet travel is not the only means by which exotic diseases of companion animals may enter the country. A short communication on pp 179-180 of this issue of The Veterinary Record describes a fatal case of babesiosis in a dog that had never left the uk.
The arrangements for the pets have become reasonably well established over the past few years, but it is possible that they may have to change in future as a result of a review of European Union legislation. As things stand, some of the requirements of the pets go beyond those applied by most other European countries, but are allowed as a result of a derogation. The eu plans to review the situation before February 2007 and may challenge the uk requirements. Meanwhile, defra itself is re-examining the requirements with a view to informing the uk's response to the eu review, and to ensure that controls are proportionate and sustainable (see VR, November 26, 2005, vol 157, p 670).
Both the pets and the European legislation are primarily concerned with the prevention of rabies, and it is obviously important that controls against rabies remain effective. However, while the importation of diseases other than rabies is not the primary focus of the legislation, it would be unwise to ignore other diseases, particularly those that can affect human health. If the current requirement for tick and tapeworm treatment before entry is removed as a result of the review, other, more effective, means of prevention should be found. Controls must indeed be proportionate and sustainable, and it would be wrong to adopt changes that allowed greater pet movement at the expense of human health or animal health and welfare. Whatever the outcome of the reviews, it is important that the situation is monitored and that disease surveillance in companion animals is improved.