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Pet travel and enforcement

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POSSIBLE unintended consequences of changes to the UK's pet travel rules in January 2012 proved to be a hot topic for debate at the BVA's Congress last November (VR, November 30, 2013, vol 173, pp 508, 509-511) and the issue may well resurface during some of the debates scheduled for the BSAVA congress taking place in Birmingham this week. In the meantime, the RSPCA has recently produced a report analysing the available statistics relating to pet travel both before and after the rules were changed, which attempts to add some substance to the anecdotal reports that have been circulating.

The report, ‘Pushing at an open door – how the present UK controls on rabies are failing’,1 notes that European pet travel rules, which are intended to make it easier for people to travel with their pets, apply to non-commercial movements of animals, and that commercial trade is regulated separately. However, on the basis of official statistics and information gleaned from various sources, it suggests that, as a result of inadequate enforcement, the rules on non-commercial movements are routinely being exploited by ‘dog traffickers’ to trade in animals commercially.

To back up its claim, the report refers to Defra statistics on dogs entering Great Britain under the Pet Travel Scheme each year since the scheme was introduced in 2000, but, to give an indication of how many dogs are being imported, it excludes dogs considered to have originated in Great Britain. Each year since 2000 most of the imported dogs (more than 80 per cent) have been from other EU countries. The number of dogs being imported increased steadily up until 2009, when a slight dip was recorded, possibly related to the economic crash. However, in 2012, when the pet travel rules were changed, the number increased significantly, from about 30,000 in 2011 to more than 50,000 in 2012. The change, the RSPCA reports, was most apparent in imports from certain central and eastern European countries, with, for example, a 450 per cent increase in imports from Hungary between 2011 and 2012, a 1150 per cent increase in imports of dogs from Romania and a 507 per cent increase in imports of dogs from Lithuania. Over the same period, it reports, imports from other countries such as the Czech Republic, France and Germany rose by only 44 per cent, 52 per cent and 87 per cent, respectively.

Referring to Defra statistics on animals imported under the rules governing commercial trade, the RSPCA reports that the relaxation in the pet travel rules resulted in a 25 per cent drop in the number of dogs officially being imported for commercial purposes from 2011 to 2013; it notes that no dogs were imported commercially from Romania, Lithuania and Latvia, and that only Hungary reported large exports to Great Britain.

Such figures might not provide incontrovertible evidence that animals are being routinely trafficked illegally but, taken together with some of the case examples discussed in the RSPCA's report, they do suggest that something isn't quite right. They also have implications for the rabies risk assessment commissioned by Defra before the pet travel rules were changed in 2012, which now needs to be revisited. Completed in 2010, this concluded that the risk of rabies entering the UK would increase 60-fold under the new arrangements 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 13,272 years under the existing scheme, assuming the rules were fully complied with. At the same time, it noted that the results of the risk assessment model were sensitive to levels of compliance, with the risks increasing if levels of compliance were reduced; it also drew attention to uncertainties about the number of animals that might be expected to travel under the new arrangements and highlighted areas where data were lacking. A lack of reliable data continues to be a problem, and underlines the case for continuous monitoring. However, given the extent of the increase in the number of recorded animal movements since 2012, and the possibility that the rules are being abused, the risks need to be re-evaluated.

The possibility of an incursion of rabies is not the only issue of concern in this context. Setting aside the animal welfare implications, there is also the possibility that the zoonotic tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis could be introduced via an illegally traded dog.

The RSPCA's report makes a number of recommendations on monitoring and enforcement, including a call for more spot checks at ports. It also calls on the Government to give clearer advice to local authorities on what constitutes an illegally imported dog and suggests that a centralised database should be established to assess trends and record cases of illegal activity reported by vets. In addition, it makes the important point that people thinking about buying a dog should be wary of internet sales and should only buy puppies from sellers or breeders where they can see the animal with its mother, which reduces the chance that the dog might have been imported illegally. The authorities must do everything they can to prevent illegal trade; however, the trade wouldn't exist if the demand wasn't there and an additional approach is for potential owners to try to ensure that they are buying their puppy from a reliable source.

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