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Pet travel and illegal trade

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PET travel was a hot topic for debate during the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show in 2013 (VR, November 30, 2013, vol 173, pp 508, 509-511) as well as at this year's BSAVA Congress in April (VR, April 19, 2014, vol 174, pp 394-395). With changes to the pet travel rules, along with new pet passports, due to come into effect on December 29, the topic was again the subject of discussion at this year's BVA Congress, both in a question and answer session involving the UK's chief veterinary officers (see p 551 of this issue) and a separate debate about tackling rabies globally (VR, November 29, 2014, vol 175, pp 524-525). Although the main purpose of the pet travel rules is to prevent the introduction of rabies while making it possible for people to travel with their pets, the discussion at this year's congress focused not so much on the risk of rabies, which the UK's Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), Nigel Gibbens, assured delegates was small, as on the ‘unintended consequences’ of changes to the pet travel rules made in January 2012 and the potential implications of illegal trade.

Concern about illegal trade was highlighted in a report from the RSPCA in April, which argued that, following changes to the pet travel rules in 2012, and as a result of inadequate enforcement, the rules on non-commercial movement of pets were routinely being exploited by ‘dog traffickers’ to trade in animals commercially (VR, April 5, 2014, vol 174, pp 336, 339-340). Similar concerns have been expressed more recently by the canine charity Dogs Trust which, in a report last month following a six-month investigation into the trafficking of dogs into the UK from eastern Europe, called on the Government to end what it called ‘the puppy smuggling scandal’ (VR, November 22, 2014, vol 175, pp 493-494). Much of the concern centres on the welfare of the puppies involved but, as the two charities have highlighted, there could also be implications for animal and public health. The changes being introduced at the end of this month, which implement a European pet travel regulation agreed in June 2013, are intended to help address some of these concerns, although questions remain about whether the changes in themselves will be adequate.

As Defra explained in a consultation document published in August (VR, August 9, 2014, vol 175, p 130), the aim of the changes is to ‘strengthen the compliance regime across the EU and improve the security and traceability of the pet passport’. Although the main elements of the pet travel scheme remain the same, there are some significant changes to the detail after December 29 that will affect both veterinarians and pet owners. These include a new minimum age of 12 weeks before a pet can be vaccinated against rabies. There is also a new pet passport, which includes laminated strips intended to make it harder to tamper with and will require more contact details for the vet issuing the document and certifying treatments. Other changes include a requirement for all EU member states to carry out documentation checks on their borders, and new requirements on people travelling with more than five pets or flying a pet into the EU/UK.

Information for veterinary surgeons on filling in the new passports, including information on record-keeping requirements, is available at http://ahvla.defra.gov.uk/external-operations-admin/library/documents/exports/ET141.pdf.

Information for pet owners on the changes to the rules is available https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pet-travel-guidance-on-changes-to-the-eu-scheme-from-29-december-2014

The new rules should certainly help in terms of making it harder for unscrupulous dealers to tamper with pet passports and in helping to check passports with the issuing vet. Meanwhile, the minimum age for vaccination should, by standardising vaccination requirements across the EU, help with compliance checks and to avoid some of the problems encountered in assessing the age of young dogs. However, no system is foolproof and, as is so often the case with legislation, much will depend on enforcement, in this case not just in the UK but also in other countries that issue pet passports. The BVA has expressed concern about the level of checks at UK borders, and about the subsequent ability of Trading Standards officers to deal with issues of non-compliance. Similarly, in its report last month on illegal trade, Dogs Trust left little room for doubt about its view that more effective border checks were needed, including a rigorous programme of spot checks on vehicles at ports.

That additional checks will be instituted in the near future seems unlikely. Speaking at the BVA Congress last month, Mr Gibbens noted that it was not possible to ‘hermetically seal’ UK borders and that adding physical checks to the current documentary checks undertaken by ferry companies would require a huge input of resources. This had to be measured against the risk of an animal with rabies being brought into the UK which, under the current regime, remained low. This was not to say that he was not concerned about the implications of illegal trade for animal welfare and disease risks, but there were other ways of dealing with this. These included stopping people evading the regulations at ‘the point of source’, and discouraging people from buying animals when they don't know where they have come from.

It remains to be seen how effective the changes being brought in this month will be at stopping abuse of the pet travel rules. At the very least, it would seem important to monitor the situation in terms of the number of animals recorded as entering the country and the type and number of non-compliance issues that come to light. Inevitably, veterinary practitioners will continue to have a front line role in this; in a BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey involving 444 members undertaken in September, one in eight practitioners said that they had reported concerns regarding non-compliant pet passports to Trading Standards in the previous 12 months. Meanwhile, after all the spending cuts of recent years, the level of resources available to Trading Standards and other agencies responsible for enforcing rules relating to animal health, animal welfare and public health remains of concern. With the main political parties currently falling over themselves to show that they are ‘competent on the economy’ and the prospect of more public spending cuts during the next Parliament, it will be important to keep an eye on this in the years ahead.

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