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Pet travel moves on

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THE Pet Travel Scheme was launched as an alternative to quarantine in February 2000 and, given the uncertainties (not to say misgivings) that preceded the launch, it is remarkable to reflect on just how established the scheme has become. Now, as announced by Defra last week, the rules are about to be changed further as the arrangements aimed at preventing rabies are brought in line with those applied by the rest of the EU (see p 33 of this issue). From the beginning of next year, pets entering the UK from other EU member states or specified countries outside the EU will no longer have to have a blood test after being vaccinated against rabies, and will be able to enter the country 21 days after being vaccinated rather than having to wait six months after a successful blood test as at present. Pets coming from unlisted countries outside the EU will no longer have to go into quarantine for six months, but will instead be able to enter the country if they have been vaccinated against rabies, passed a blood test and then waited three months in the country of origin. All animals will need to be identified by a microchip and accompanied by the appropriate documentation. Quarantine will be retained for animals that do not meet the scheme's requirements.

Defra pointed out last week that the changes would make it cheaper and easier for people to travel abroad with their pets while ensuring that the risk of rabies coming into the country remained ‘extremely low’. Meanwhile, in a letter on p 53 of this issue, the Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, and the BVA President, Harvey Locke, state that the changes will mean a better, more proportionate way of managing the risk of rabies, in line with current science. They point out that modern rabies vaccines offer reliable protection against rabies and that, for animals coming from countries where the risk of rabies is very low, blood testing may be of limited value. They also note that the incubation period of rabies is now considered to be less than four months, which means that a six-month wait after vaccination is longer than necessary. As they point out, correct identification and certification of animals will be essential to the effective functioning of the scheme.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, also seems convinced that vaccination against rabies provides a robust alternative to quarantine and that there is good reason for the UK to change its ‘very precautionary’ rules (see pp 33–34).

Treatment against ticks will no longer be a compulsory requirement for pets entering the country after January 1 next year, although owners wanting to travel with pets would be well advised to continue to take appropriate preventive measures in consultation with their veterinary surgeon. A number of previously exotic vectorborne diseases have already found their way into the UK since the Pet Travel Scheme was launched in 2000 and, with the changes in the rules, the number of animals moving in and out of the country seems likely to increase. The Chief Medical Officer said last week that the public health risks from exotic tickborne infections and the need for tick controls for pets entering the UK would be kept under review. The animal health and welfare risks also need to be considered (see VR, January 3, 2009, vol 164, pp 28–29) and, from both an animal health and public health perspective, it would seem important that companion animal disease surveillance is enhanced.

The UK is pressing the EU to allow it to retain controls requiring dogs entering the country to be treated against tapeworms to prevent the introduction of the zoonotic tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis, and it must be hoped that it proves successful in this. Given the public health significance of this organism, and the near impossibility of eradicating it once it becomes established, this is surely an instance where prevention is better than cure.

In attempting to prevent disease, effort must be devoted to ensuring that controls are proportionate, with the potential benefits of any changes being weighed carefully against the risks. This is certainly true with regard to the various elements of the Pet Travel Scheme, where it is clearly important to get the balance right.

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