Canada faces rabies problem in dogs after many unregulated imports

Read the original article by Tom Blackwell at here.

Visit any dog park in urban Canada these days and you’re bound to encounter at least one or two: rescue dogs adopted from an exotic foreign or domestic locale.

It’s estimated, in fact, that tens of thousands of winsome canine refugees enter the country every year — while many others are shipped vast distances inside Canada.

But the growing, humanitarian-motivated trend is inadvertently creating a major public-health headache, fuelling a rebound in the deadly rabies problem and importing other nasty diseases, public health officials warn.

A federal-government journal has just documented three recent cases of stray puppies being taken from Nunavut or northern Quebec — where the deadly disease is endemic among Arctic foxes — to new homes in southern Canada, only for the owners to discover they had acquired rabid animals.

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In one case, the animal bit another dog and the owner’s roommate, before being put down.

Meanwhile, as dogs stream in from the Caribbean, Latin America, east Asia and the Middle East, Canada’s pet-import rules are among the loosest in the world, vets say.

“There are thousands upon thousands of dogs that come into Canada every year, and it’s a completely unregulated process,” said Scott Weese, Canada research chair in zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases at the Ontario Veterinary College.

“Animals aren’t supposed make it into the country if they’re sick, but we see it all the time.”

The problem is exacerbated by bogus rabies-vaccination certificates reportedly accompanying some import dogs, including an Egyptian puppy who landed in the United States with the illness last year.

“The new reality is that translocation of animals, whether wild or domesticated, can drastically change an area’s local rabies risk picture from one day to the next,” wrote Catherine Filejski, the Ontario Health Ministry’s public-health veterinarian, in an article. “Fresh approaches are needed.”

Her rabies caution also stems from a new incursion in three provinces of rabid raccoons, but Filejski singles out dog “translocation” as a key issue.

As illustration of how easy it is to bring even an ailing dog into Canada, Weese points to a crowd-sourcing campaign last year for Teddy — a stray puppy a Canadian tourist found wandering and “very sick” in Ecuador.

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It was the visitor’s last day in the country, so she simply brought the dog back with her to Ottawa, where a vet eventually diagnosed Parvo virus, a serious infection that dogs here are immunized for.

“Why is a sick dog that has not been vaccinated against rabies and which can barely hold itself up … allowed into the country?” asked Weese.

At the very least, Canada should adopt more stringent rules for any “trans-boundary” dog shipment, including mandatory registration of incoming animals and perhaps even quarantine of some, say veterinarians and dog advocates.

The council of all the provincial chief veterinary officers is preparing a statement calling for more regulation, while the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is drafting its own position.

We’re pushing the limits now, without any regulation

“We’re pushing the limits now, without any regulation, without anything, in effect, to slow this down,” said Linda Rohdin, who founded the Air Angels rescue group, but believes the transport of homeless dogs needs more oversight.

“I don’t know how bad it can get but I don’t want to wait to find out.”

While the long-distance adoption phenomenon is clearly huge, no government agency keeps track of the numbers.

Rohdin said one of her volunteers, sifting through Facebook postings, counted 600 dogs imported in just one, typical week.

Where in the world do they come from? “Anywhere that has an airport,” she said.

Her figures jibe with the estimates of Weese and Edmonton’s Duane Landals, a former president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association who works on the issue.

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“There’s probably tens of thousands of dogs coming into Canada every year, from areas where we don’t know the disease status,” said Landals.

A range of diseases have arrived in Alberta with foreign rescue dogs, he said, such as parasites rarely seen here and cases of Brucella canis, a virulent bacteria that can infect humans.

Weese said he is aware of rescue dogs bringing distemper to Canada and fatally infecting local canines. More worrisome are repeated instances where the migrant dogs carried leishmaniasis, a tropical disease that can affect people and animals, he said.

The Canada Food Inspection Agency does have fairly strict rules for importing young dogs commercially, prompted by earlier concern over puppy mills.

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But rescue dogs often enter the country with travellers who claim them as their own, meaning little more than a rabies certificate is needed, if that, said Rohdin. Some foreign rescue groups even recruit “soft-hearted” travellers at airports and convince them to declare the dogs as their’s, thus circumventing the tougher regulations, she said.

As articles in the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Communicable Disease Report indicate, the also-popular practice of adopting dogs from the country’s far north and isolated First Nations communities can bring similar problems.

Puppies flown from northern Quebec to Montreal in 2012, and from Nunavut to Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2013 and 2014 appeared healthy, only to develop rabies. Several dogs were euthanized, dozens of people had to get the four-dose preventive treatment.

And it is always possible there have been other cases that were never reported to authorities, said Phil Curry, zoonotic disease consultant for the Saskatchewan Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, “what’s preventing us from shipping a rabid dog again?” asks Rohdin. “Not much.”

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