In a major wake-up call about the dangers of importing foreign dogs from certain regions, the U.S. will begin in mid-July banning the importation of dogs from more than 100 nations that are at high risk for rabies and other highly contagious diseases, many of which can jump species and infect humans.
“This temporary action is necessary to ensure the health and safety of dogs imported into the United States and to protect the public’s health against the reintroduction of canine rabies virus variant (dog rabies) into the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said in a recent statement announcing the decision that goes into effect July 14.
The measure is a pyrrhic victory for public health officials, veterinarians, animal welfare advocates, and lawmakers who have been raising the alarm for several years about the importation of potentially diseased animals that are often placed in rescues and then into the homes of well-meaning but unsuspecting Americans.
But the ban also is the inevitable result of a generation of populist but scientifically unsound laws that have demonized U.S. dog breeders – inaccurately arguing dogs from random sources are healthier or preferable to purposely bred pets. Passage of such laws has regulated out of business some of our best domestic pet breeders, thus dramatically curtailing our own supply of healthy dogs in favor of imported potentially diseased or sick dogs.
Measures at the state and local level such as in California, Illinois, Virginia, and Iowa punish responsible and law-abiding U.S. breeders while also creating an environment that incentivizes large puppy mill operations overseas from dubious locales whose animals ultimately end up in U.S. pet markets as “rescue” pets.
The CDC estimates that of the approximately 1 million dogs imported annually into the U.S., about 110,000 originate from countries with “high risk” for rabies and other diseases. High-risk regions include many countries in the Middle East, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, including China.
What is sparking the ban is a dangerous mix of forgery and negligence in the exporting countries. Because of lax laws in the country of origin, some dogs designated for export to the U.S. will not have received necessary vaccinations, and health certificates accompanying imported dogs from these regions are commonly invalid or forged.
Most recently, a dog imported with rabies from Azerbaijan by a U.S. rescue was placed with a family in Pennsylvania. The dog was one of 34 animals — 33 dogs and one cat — imported into O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on June 10. The rabid dog also exposed 12 people to the disease, sparking a multi-state investigation to determine the potential spread and costing taxpayers as much as a half-million dollars.
The CDC’s ban is warranted as a temporary fix given how dangerous the situation has become. But for the longer term, policymakers should take two tacks.
First is the passage of the Healthy Dog Importation Act of 2021 (HR 4239) supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association and numerous other animal and public health experts. This would require validated health certifications for all dogs imported into the U.S., comparable to what most other countries have required for years. The Healthy Dog Importation Act would go beyond a blanket ban and instead focus on the validated health of animals imported while allowing the responsible import of healthy dogs from a wider range of countries.
The second is recognizing the immense public health value of high-quality local pet breeders in our own communities. Encouraging new and responsible domestic breeders who can be a local source of expertise and quality pets will remove the incentive for mass imports of random and unhealthy dogs.
The annual demand for dogs as pets in the U.S. is estimated at 8 million animals per year, 1 million of which are imported due in part to those state laws that punish responsible domestic breeders. It’s time to eliminate those laws and welcome back responsible breeders as a bulwark against the importation of public health dangers.