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PETS under pressure

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ATTENTION of late has tended to focus on ‘exotic’ diseases of farm animals-foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and particularly bluetongue. However, a recent meeting of the Comparative Medicine Section of the Royal Society of Medicine provided a useful reminder that companion animals are also at risk of diseases considered exotic to the uk (see pp 429-430 of this issue). In the week when companion animal veterinarians gather in Birmingham for the bsava congress, it seems like a good time to catch up on developments concerning the Pet Travel Scheme (pets).

Movement of dogs and cats in and out of the uk has increased significantly since the introduction of the pets in 2000, and could undergo a further step increase next year if, as seems likely, European rules on the prevention of rabies are changed. At present, a derogation under eu law allows the uk, along with Ireland, Sweden and Malta, to apply stricter conditions on pet movements than other member states, with a serological test and a waiting period after vaccination against rabies being required before a pet can enter the country. Although recently extended, this derogation is due to expire next year, and the European Commission (ec) is still reviewing the rules with a view to harmonising arrangements across the eu.

If the review results in the uk falling into line with the rest of Europe, its current arrangements could change substantially. As things stand, animals entering the uk from eu member states or approved countries outside the eu are eligible to travel under the pets, which requires that they be identified by microchip, vaccinated against rabies and tested for antibodies to rabies two to four weeks later. Following a successful blood test, they must then wait six months before entering the uk for the first time. They must also be treated for ticks and tapeworms 24 to 48 hours before entry. Animals from non-approved countries outside the eu must spend six months in quarantine.

In contrast, most other eu member states simply require that animals travelling from another member state or from listed countries outside the eu be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies and then wait 21 days before entry. Animals travelling from non-listed countries have to be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies and tested for antibodies up to 30 days later. Following a successful blood test, they must then wait three months before entry.

The ec had hoped to be in a position to put forward proposals for harmonising the rules by now but, in the event, this has been delayed. Last year it obtained a scientific opinion on the risk of rabies being introduced into the uk, Ireland, Sweden and Malta if their additional requirements were abandoned (see VR, March 10, 2007, vol 160, p 313). However, in a subsequent consultation with member states, it has been unable to find a consensus on what should happen next. Essentially, most member states are in favour of full harmonisation of the rules, to reduce annoyance and confusion among those wishing to travel with their pets, while the countries that apply the additional requirements want the current rules to be maintained. In the meantime, decisions on tick and tapeworm treatments have been hampered by a lack of reliable data on which to base risk analyses.

Although a decision has been deferred, it seems increasingly likely that pressure on the uk to amend the pets will increase. If so, moves to abandon the serological test should be resisted, and steps to reduce the waiting period after vaccination will need to be considered very carefully in relation both to levels of compliance with the requirements and to the risk of exposure to rabies in the country of origin. Rabies vaccines are highly efficient, but they are not 100 per cent efficient, and a ‘vaccinate and go’ policy will increase the number of animals travelling without necessarily being protected, and probably the number of animals travelling overall. Any increase in the risk cannot be brushed off lightly. As a risk assessment commissioned by defra last year remarked, ‘even a small risk of importation of rabies is of serious concern’, and the consequences of the introduction of rabies ‘though variable, are all severe’ (VR, February 3, 2007, vol 160, p 138).

Unless appropriate precautionary measures are taken, greater movement of animals will increase the chances of other diseases being spread — as recognised by the current requirements for treatment against ticks and tapeworms. While the pets has made it easier for owners to travel with their pets, it has also resulted in previously exotic diseases being imported. Cases of babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, leishmaniosis and dirofilariosis that have been identified in the uk since the pets was introduced are recorded by defra's dactari reporting scheme (www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/veterinary/dactari/index.htm); however, the scheme is voluntary and there are concerns that diseases may be under-reported. Whatever is ultimately decided about tick and tapeworm treatments under the pets, surveillance should be improved. In the meantime, vets continue to have an important role to play in advising their clients on the risks of pet travel and appropriate prophylaxis. A bva Animal Welfare Foundation leaflet* provides general advice to animal owners considering taking their pets abroad. Meanwhile, an article in the latest issue of the Government Veterinary Journal (vol 18, pp 21-25) discusses the risks of exotic tickborne diseases becoming endemic in the uk, and the responsibilities of owners and their vets to ensure appropriate prevention and treatment.

    Footnotes

    • * ‘Taking your pets abroad’. Available to download from the bva awf's website www.bva-awf.org.uk

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