Posted by: glamielle | October 31, 2014

Dog imports into the United States

A long break from posting once again…I’ve been busy studying and taking the examination for the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine (ACVPM) certification, which I passed so that’s good news.

One thing I’ve wanted to talk about for a while is public health issues associated to importation of animals, more specifically small animals (dogs and cats).

Golden retriever puppies passing through Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

Golden retriever puppies passing through Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

The number one risk of moving animals internationally is that they may bring in infectious agents into a new area, where they were not present in the past. If the population in the destination country is not immune to this new pathogen, it could cause significant consequences to the human or animal population, or even agriculture.

There are several ways that dogs and cats can cross borders, which include: 1) families moving with their pets, 2) people rescuing animals from overseas, and 3) importation for commercial purposes (especially puppies).

Personal pets of people moving internationally are more likely to have seen a veterinarian beforehand. Therefore, they tend to be up to date on their vaccines, anti-parasitic treatments and are generally healthy. Because of this, the risk that they introduce diseases is fairly low. On the other hand, animals that are rescued from other countries are often stray cats or dogs, and thus with higher chances of being exposed to infectious diseases.

In 2004, a stray dog was rescued and brought into the US from Thailand and was later found to be rabid. No veterinary checks were done on the animal before the plane ride back and it took several veterinary visits in the US to finally come up with a suspect diagnosis of dog rabies (canine rabies has been eradicated from the US, although bat rabies remain). This incident prompted an international investigation to identify anyone who had been in contact with the sick animal in order to assess their need for lifesaving rabies post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Another similar incident occurred in 1987 when a rabid cat was rescued from Mexico and brought into the US. In another example, a dog was rescued from Turkey and brought to Los Angeles, where it was was diagnosed with leishmaniasis (see previous post: Working in Morocco – Recurring leishmaniasis in a canine patient). This is a disease that is not established in Los Angeles and dogs need to be on lifelong treatment to prevent spread. Fortunately, these diseases have not been established in the local population. However, every time a pet travels internationally without proper prior veterinary care and treatment, it is another chance for diseases that can impact both human and animal health to establish themselves in a new area.

Physical examination of a Yorkie puppy at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

Physical examination of a Yorkie puppy at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

This doesn’t mean that stray animals abroad should not get a chance to be adopted and have a better life, but it needs to be done in a proper way. There are some important steps to take when one wants to rescue or bring an animal to another country. In order to protect human and animal health alike, the following recommendations should be taken when trying to adopt/rescue/import an animal from abroad:

  • Have the animal evaluated by a veterinarian in the country of origin. Proper anti- parasitic medications and vaccines (especially rabies) should be given before leaving the country. Once vaccines are given, the pet should wait one month before it can travel.
  • If a veterinarian visit is not possible before the trip, it is of utmost importance to isolate the pet once it enters the destination country. This means the pet should not be adopted out to people until it gets all proper treatments and vaccinations. There should be no contact between the pet and other animals or people before the animal has been cleared by a veterinarian. Until they are out of quarantine, these animals can potentially expose both people and other pets with serious diseases. Veterinarians should consider foreign animal diseases if presented with a sick animal from abroad.

Another important aspect of international pet movements is the importation of dogs for commercial purposes. The sale of puppies is a big market in countries like the US, and that has driven some people to establish intensive puppy breeding operations (puppy mills) to quickly supply the increasing demand in specific dog breeds. Doing this in countries with limited regulation regarding small animals allows this industry to escape some of the oversight that exists in the US in regards to pet health and welfare. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulates importations of dogs and cats and these animals should not be imported from rabies-endemic countries until one month after they receive their rabies vaccination (given at 3 months of age). This puts the animals at a minimum of 4 months of age until they can be shipped to the US. Unfortunately, puppies younger than 3 months can be sold at a much higher price (sometimes thousands of dollars per dog) and some importers have falsified the dogs’ documents to state that they are 4 month old in order to comply with import requirements, when in fact they are much younger.

Examination of a French bulldog imported at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

Physical examination of a French bulldog imported at Los Angeles International Airport (Photo source)

Investigations by public health authorities have inspected puppy shipments into Los Angeles International Airport and found that many  dogs were underage with falsified documents. The paperwork accompanying the animals stated that they were 4 months old when public health veterinarians actually aged them to be between 6-8 weeks. The implications of this are that 1) these dogs were not vaccinated against rabies as they should and could risk introducing the disease locally, and 2) travelling long distances in cargo can put more of a toll on underage puppies, compared to dogs that are older. It has been found that some importers sell these puppies online and advertise them as local, where that the person buying the animal online has no idea that the dog was imported from another country, sometimes the day before they are made available for pick up by new owners. If someone is planning to buy dogs (especially pure-bred puppies) from the internet, they should:

  • Consider adopting animals from their local animal shelter. Most shelters in places like Los Angeles are overcrowded and getting a pet from these shelters can help fight local pet overpopulation rather than bring in more dogs from overseas.
  • If buying from an online source, make sure to visit the animal beforehand to check that the animal is truly local.
  • Buy a puppy from sources licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • If a puppy was recently bought online, make sure to bring it to the veterinarian for a health check, vaccine, and to ensure that the puppy’s age based on its teeth matches the document provided by the breeder.
  • If there is a chance that the puppy came from abroad and it is sick, veterinarians should consider the possibility that the animal is infected with a disease not present locally.
Puppies imported for retail purposes (photo source)

Puppies imported for retail purposes (photo source)

Fortunately, laws have recently been put in place to address the issue of puppy importations. A CDC regulation is in place to refuse shipments of puppies from rabies-endemic countries if they are underage, or with falsified rabies certificates. Likewise, the USDA is increasing its oversight on online puppy retail stores to improve the animals’ conditions.

It is easy to think how international travel can spread pathogens globally, especially when it comes to human movements (the current devastating Ebola outbreak reminds us that disease can spread rapidly). However, it is important to remember that animals move across border as well, whether it is from commercial puppy importations, pet rescue efforts, wildlife migration or even through agricultural trade (livestock or food products). In a globalized society, we need to look at population migrations from a One Health perspective (encompassing humans, animals and the environment) in order to effectively anticipate and prevent disease spread.

More information on animal importations in the US:

CDC – Instructions for Veterinarians and Government Officials on Reviewing Rabies Certificates

CDC – Bringing an Animal into the United States

Dogs entering the United States from rabies-endemic countries, 2011-2012

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Veterinary Public Health Program – Importing and Exporting a Dog or Cat

US Fish and Wildlife Service – Importing and Exporting Your Commercial Wildlife


  1. This would be better if it also covered the illegal trafficking of dogs/puppies from completely unregulated countries where rabies, other diseases and parasites are endemic.
    Retail Rescue is a big business, importing (often underage) puppies from Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Iraq, Iran, Mexico and other countries. The animals often do NOT pass through USDA checkpoints, and are usually sold (under the guise of adoption) to new owners within days of import.
    Many of them are trucked hundreds of miles, in close contact with other ankmals, across the US; interstate and unregulated transport. The stress of travel may make them more suscsptible to disease processes.
    Retail Rescue must be regulated the same way anh other animal import ot transport business is regulated.

    • Hi Adrianne,

      Thanks for your comment. Dogs that are rescued from abroad are under the same jurisdiction as other dogs that are imported into the US. For import, the CDC regulates them. One issue is that resources are not always there to support visual assessment of these animals when they enter. Fortunately, the USDA’s new law in regards retail pet stores includes rescue groups and it requires them to obtain a permit from USDA prior to import. The USDA has the authority to investigate these rescue groups and cite them if they bring in dogs from abroad illegally (i.e. without a prior USDA license). I know that this can be a slow process and the investigation is done after import of the animals but hopefully it will help obtaining more information on the issue and hopefully, down the line, more oversight can be put on dog imports for all purposes.

      In any case, rescuers bringing dogs from abroad must absolutely remember to deworm, vaccinate & quarantine the dogs in the country of origin. If this is not possible, these dogs should be isolated once they enter the destination country and see a vet. Some severe disease like rabies and leishmania have been brought into the US from dogs rescued from abroad.

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