While estimates vary, the population of dogs worldwide may be as high as 500 million, with the majority living much differently than traditional pets by Western standards.1 Most are classified as free-roaming or ‘community-owned,’ and are frequently subject to malnutrition, abuse, poisoning, and road traffic accidents. During the last decade, animal welfare organizations have sprung up in poorly resourced areas in an effort to rescue cats and dogs and improve animal welfare. In order to help more animals, groups have started pursuing international pet transport as an option to increase their live release rates when there is little local capacity for adoptions. This practice, while a life-saving mechanism for many animals, is not without inherit risks and controversy.
Types of Animal Transport
The type and scale of transport programs may vary considerably. Some are small, loosely organized grassroots efforts while others are performed by large international animal welfare organizations using a network of overseas organizational partners. The transportation of dogs for commercial purposes also accounts for a significant number of dogs and cats transported each year.
Trends in Animal Transportation
In most countries, pet transportation is on the rise. Increased awareness of certain international animal welfare issues such as the dog and cat meat trade in Asia has created a market for the adoption of certain animals. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines transported pets 24,741 and 12,595 times in 2016, respectively.2 The combined number increased 19.2% from a year ago (2015) to reach an all-time high. Considerable expansion in animal transportation is expected in the coming years. Currently, there is no formalized system to track exactly how many animals are transported for adoption purposes annually.
Reasons for International Transportation
In areas with a significant stray cat and dog overpopulation, there are often not enough adoptive homes or interest locally in rescued animals. Adopting animals internationally helps local shelters reduce overcrowding, relieve stress on staff, and ultimately save more animals. Performing international adoptions may also increase the profile of the organization.
On the receiving end, shelters that receive imported dogs and cats may also reap certain benefits. In the USA, the arrival of internationally rescued dogs often generates so much community interest that every animal is quickly adopted from the facility through adoption events. The novelty of imported rescued dogs also increases the public awareness surrounding important international animal welfare issues.
There is considerable controversy involving the transport of dogs and cats internationally to communities where there is already an overabundance of animals in shelters. Furthermore, international transport can facilitate disease transmission. Given the public health risk posed by the importation of animals for adoption and the euthanasia of adoptable animals in certain countries, many suggest that organizations first consider improving their local capacity through spay/neuter and community engagement before sending animals abroad.
Risks to Animal Welfare
The transportation of animals is not without inherit risk to the animal. While small dogs and cats may be able to travel in an aircraft cabin with a passenger, most typically fly under the cabin in cargo, a pressurized hold. While cargo holds are pressurized, they can be dark, noisy, and have fluctuating temperatures and air pressures. While most airlines have time and temperature restrictions, undoubtedly such environments can be stressful. While animal deaths in cargo are relatively rare, injuries can be common. The most frequent injuries observed result from biting and scratching at kennels and respiratory distress, most likely attributable to stress, particularly at the time of loading. The risk of transport is significantly higher for brachycephalic breeds.
On an individual level, the stress of transport may also lead to immune compromise and/or recrudescence of disease and increased viral shedding.
Risk of Animal Disease Transmission
A major counterargument against international adoptions is the potential for disease spread and transmission. If animals are shipped, careful management is required to minimize the risk of disease.
This risk is magnified when animals of unknown disease status are co-mingled or group-housed prior to or during transport. In August 2010, 221 rescued dogs ranging in age from 4 weeks to >1 year arrived by cargo plane from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Florida. The dogs were destined for transport to New York for a national adoption event following a 4-day lay over in Florida. Unfortunately, several of the imported dogs were incubating parvovirus and distemper virus which led to the Florida State Veterinarian declaring an official quarantine due to diseased dogs, the first state-mandated quarantine for dogs.
Public Health Concerns
The most significant zoonotic risk is the importation of a dog or cat incubating rabies. Rabies, the deadliest of all zoonotic diseases accounts for over 50,000 human deaths around the world annually. The introduction of any non-endemic rabies viruses into a naive animal population has the potential to change the epizootiology of rabies in-country leading to severe health consequences and economic losses.3
In June of 2015, a free roaming dog and her puppy were captured in Cairo, Egypt. Her vaccination certificates were forged to avoid exclusion of the dog from entry under the USA CDC’s current dog importation regulations, and she was transported to the USA by an animal rescue organization in a shipment that included seven other dogs and 27 cats.4 Following her arrival and placement in a foster home in Virginia, the rescue dog developed signs and symptoms classic of rabies. The dog was quickly euthanized and trace-back steps were implemented to assess exposure and risk.
Responsibilities of Those Involved
It is critical that those involved in transport are familiar with the import and export requirements for all relevant countries as well as airline requirements to ensure safe and responsible transport. To learn about quarantine policies, documentation and other requirements, organizations must check with the appropriate agency (typically the Department of Agriculture) in their country. It is particularly important that all health conditions of the animal are properly documented.
Falsification of Documents
The USA CDC and state agencies have received reports of invalid or questionable health and rabies vaccination certificates for imported dogs. Further complicating matters is the fact that importation regulations may be difficult to enforce in certain countries due to limited resources at ports of entry to inspect dog shipments. In May 2014, the USA CDC issued the health alert notification “Imported Dogs with Questionable Documents” due to ongoing concerns with dogs’ entry documents listing incorrect ages and rabies vaccination status.
Similarly, falsified documents have been reported in relation to the sale of puppies from intensive breeding operations to supply the demand for certain pure breed dogs. While the USA requires that animals form rabiesendemic countries not be imported until one month after they receive their rabies vaccination (3 months of age), puppies younger than 3 months can sell for a higher price. As a result, importers may falsify documents to make the dogs’ age older than what they really are. There are also reports of falsifying breed registration and birth location.
Rabies titer tests can also be falsified. Serum can be banked for animals already known to have adequate antibody titers and submitted in the place of another dog who may have failed the titer test previously.
The risks and benefits of transport programs both in the area of export and import must be carefully considered. As a general rule, international transport programs should be a last resort after all efforts for local adoption, transfer, and welfare promotion in the local community have been exhausted.
1. Hsu Y, Severinghaus L, Serpell J. Dog keeping in Taiwan: Its contribution to the problem of free-roaming dogs. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2003;6(1):1–23.
2. Min-hee J. Pet transport by air doubled in six years. Business Korea. 2017(cited 3 May 2017). Available at: www.businesskorea.co.kr/english/news/insight/17848-travel-pet-pet-transport-air-doubled-six-years.
3. Wallace R, Gilbert A, Slate D, Chipman R, Singh A, Wedd C, et al. Right place, wrong species: A 20-year review of rabies virus cross species transmission among terrestrial mammals in the United States. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(10):e107539.
4. Sinclair J, Wallace R, Gruszynski K, Freeman M, Campbell C, Semple S, et al. Rabies in a dog imported from Egypt with a falsified rabies vaccination certificate-Virginia, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2015;64(49):1359–1362.