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Concerns about pet travel

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SEVERAL issues were raised during the ‘contentious issues’ debates during the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show last week. However, it was clear from a congress question and answer session involving the UK's four chief veterinary officers that a hot topic for debate among companion animal practitioners at present is pet travel. The UK's pet travel arrangements were changed in January last year, to bring them in line with the rest of Europe, and, judging from some of the questions asked by practitioners, the consequences of those changes are currently causing concern (see pp 509-511 of this issue).

Key aspects of the changes, which were intended to make it easier for people to travel with their pets while still preventing the introduction of rabies, were that pets entering the UK from other EU member states or specified countries outside the EU no longer have to have a blood test after being vaccinated against rabies and are able to enter the country 21 days after being vaccinated, rather than having to wait six months after a successful blood test as previously. Pets coming from unlisted countries outside the EU no longer have to go into quarantine for six months, but are able to enter the country if they have been vaccinated against rabies, passed a blood test and have then waited three months in the country of origin. As previously, all animals need to be identified by a microchip and have appropriate documentation.

Before the changes were introduced, Defra commissioned both a qualitative and a quantitative risk assessment of the likely consequences of the changes. The quantitative risk assessment was completed in 2010. It concluded that the risk of rabies entering the UK would increase under the new arrangements (60-fold) but that, even so, the risk of entry remained low, with the possibility of one rabies introduction every 211 years, compared with one introduction every 1327 years under the old arrangements, assuming 100 per cent compliance with the regulations.1 It also drew attention to uncertainty about the number of animal movements that might result from the changes and highlighted areas where data were lacking.

As might be expected, the number of pets entering or re-entering the UK has increased since the new arrangements were introduced. Figures from Defra's PETS database show a 61 per cent increase in the number of dogs entering or re-entering Great Britain last year (from 88,661 in 2011 to 142,665 in 2012) and a 67 per cent increase in the number of cats (from 8712 in 2011 to 14,587 in 2012). This is a significant rise and the numbers can be expected to have increased further in 2013. These figures relate to animals presented under the pet travel scheme, for which compliance rates are reported by Defra to be high. Perhaps more worrying are the anecdotal reports, discussed at the congress and also being discussed elsewhere, of animals being brought into the country illegally without being checked, of a potentially lucrative trade in imported animals via the internet, and the possible involvement of criminal gangs in such trade. These kinds of activities raise animal health and welfare concerns that extend beyond the possibility of rabies being introduced; they need to be investigated and, if possible, dealt with at a European level. Importantly, they were not considered in the original risk assessment of the possibility of rabies entering the UK under the new arrangements and, to the extent that they can be, they now need to be factored in.

Practitioners are on the front line in helping to implement the pet travel rules and, judging from some of the comments at the congress, this is not always a comfortable place to be (see also the letter from M. V. Dale on p 532 of this issue). As was pointed out, practitioners have an important role in surveillance; they also have a role in helping to educate potential owners about the risks of buying pets of uncertain origin, although this requires that they have access to potential owners in the first place. Concern about the changing situation resulted in a call in Veterinary Record for frontline veterinary staff to be eligible for free pre-exposure vaccination against rabies (VR, October 12, 2013, vol 173, pp 348-349), which has also been taken up by the BSAVA (VR, November 23, 2013, vol 173, p 486). The risks of a disease incursion may be considered to be low, but recent cases of rabies in two puppies in the Netherlands (VR, November 2, 3013, vol 173, p 407) and a kitten in France (VR, November 9, 2013, vol 173, p 435) highlight the need to remain vigilant. The four-month-old puppies involved in the incident in the Netherlands were from a shelter in Bulgaria and, according to a preliminary outbreak assessment by Defra, were understood to have a passport with evidence of vaccination and an identifying microchip.

One of the aims of the pet travel arrangements is to make it easier for people to travel with pets and in this it is certainly succeeding. However, as a general rule when introducing new arrangements, it is a good idea to keep a close eye on developments, and then either modify the arrangements or deal with any problems or unintended consequences as necessary. Reports so far are largely anecdotal, but there would seem to be a case for applying that principle to pet travel.

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