Considering the mass movement of animals through wildlife migration, pet relocation, shelter rescue efforts, and agricultural animal export, it is easy to appreciate the constant threat of disease introduction and spread. When considering international transport programs, protecting public health and safety are primary concerns. Animals must be appropriately selected, screened for infectious disease, and the necessary processes followed for transport. Pet transport programs must comply with local and international regulations of both the importing and exporting country. While saving animals lives is a noble goal, it must be done responsibly to mitigate the risk of disease introduction and transmission.
Selecting Transport Candidates
Selecting animals for international pet adoption and transport can be challenging. Animal welfare organizations must carefully screen and choose animals based on both medical and behavioral examinations. Animals should ideally be chosen based on the lowest risk of disease. While there is often emphasis placed on adopting puppies and kittens due to their high adoptability, they are immunologically naïve and the most susceptible to disease.
Dogs should be assessed behaviorally as well as physically. It is critical that animals are well suited for adoptive homes since unlike traditional shelters, adopted animals cannot be easily returned if the adoption is unsuccessful. Ideally, international organizations that adopt animals internationally should have a network of foster homes and/or behaviorists who can help facilitate issues should they arise in the import country.
Written Guidelines and Protocols
Prior to the initiation of animal transport, comprehensive standard operating procedures and guidelines for animal care must be developed. Written protocols should include how animals are selected for transport, screened for disease, preventative health procedures while the animal is in the organization’s care, transport logistics, behavioral assessment, and post-adoption follow-up.
At the Export Site
After selecting an animal for adoption, the organization or individual shipping an animal internationally carries the burden of ensuring that animal is free of disease and eligible for travel into the desired country. Ideally the shelter or facility should have a preventive care program already in existence. Prior to travel, it is recommended that the following be performed noting that import restrictions may vary depending on the country of import and export:
- Spay/neuter surgery - Sterilization should ideally be performed prior to travel. Spay/neuter surgery may allow for the identification of underlying conditions such as pyometra. Adequate time should be allowed between surgery and transport to allow for proper incisional healing. In international settings where veterinary training may be poor, it might be necessary to confirm the removal of all ovarian tissue in female animals prior to transport.
- Comprehensive physical examination - This should be performed when deciding whether or not an animal is a sound candidate for transportation and repeated within 24 hours of transport to detect signs of infectious disease. Vaginal and penile exams should also be performed to detect potential signs of canine transmissible venereal tumor.
- Identification - Microchips are preferred and required by most countries for import.
- Heartworm antigen testing - Many animals are transported from heartworm endemic areas to areas typically considered free of the disease. It is important to ascertain whether or not a dog has detectable antigen near the time of transport. The American Heartworm Society recommends that dogs with a positive heartworm test be started on doxycycline therapy prior to transport.1 Dogs with a negative heartworm antigen test should be re-tested six months following relocation. Some organizations may choose to treat infected dogs with either a two- or split-dose melarsomine protocol prior to transport due to the cost of treatment in the import country. Ideally, the transporting agency should allow 4–6 months to complete heartworm treatment prior to transport to reduce the risk of thromboembolism. All dogs regardless of antigen status should be started on macrocyclic lactone therapy prior to transport.
- Endoparasiticide - A broad spectrum deworming productive effective against hookworms and roundworms should be administered. Certain countries also require tapeworm treatment days before transport.
- Rabies and DHPP/FVRCP vaccination - A rabies vaccination is legally required for all dogs and cats, with minor exceptions which vary per country. All dogs should be appropriately vaccinated for canine distemper and canine parvovirus and cats for panleukopenia.
- CBC/chemistry – Blood work can be used to rule out underlying disease that may not be evident on physical examination, including thrombocytopenia for tick-borne disease which is prevalent in free-roaming dogs.
- IDEXX 4DX SNAP test - Screens for exposure to tick-borne disease and heartworm infection. Some organizations may elect to administer a 21–28 day course of doxycycline to dogs who test positive for E. canis and Anaplasma spp. antibodies.
- Ectoparasiticide - Animal should be free of ectoparasites during their time spent in the organization’s care.
- Advanced diagnostics - Further diagnostics may be warranted depending on clinical signs. Certain infectious disease including dermatophytosis, parvovirus, and distemper must be ruled out through diagnostics (DTM culture, SNAP test, blood smears), clinical signs, and keeping animals separated from those that might be carrying infectious disease. Radiographs may be warranted depending on physical examination findings. FeLV/FIV tests should be performed to ascertain the retroviral status of cats going into adoption programs.
- Rabies titer test (fluorescent antibody virus neutralization [FAVN]) - FAVN testing is often required by many rabies-free countries and some rabies-controlled countries for dogs and cats to qualify for a reduced quarantine period or no quarantine at all when they are traveling from particular countries. The test consists of a three-fold serum dilution series and is used to detect rabies virus neutralizing antibody after vaccination.
Special Disease Considerations
- Rabies - Organizations must know whether or not their country is considered a rabies-endemic country as specified by the country of import. As a general rule, at a minimum all cats and dogs must be vaccinated against rabies prior to arrival into the import country at least 30 days prior to arrival.
- Canine influenza - Until March 2015, the canine influenza (CIV) strain H3N2 appeared to be limited to Asia, specifically Korea, China, and Thailand. However, an outbreak originating in Chicago was believed to have been due to a H3N2 strain.2 While it was speculated that the virus was introduced to the USA via dogs rescued and imported from Asia, there was no evidence to substantiate this claim. Dogs must be screened for any signs of respiratory disease prior to transport. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that CIV H3N2 can shed for more than 20 days.3
While focus is typically on rabies transmission, the transmission of other zoonotic diseases (e.g., brucellosis, leishmaniasis, campylobacteriosis, leptospirosis, giardiasis, and cutaneous or visceral larva migrans) is also a real threat.
To facilitate shipping, organizations may consider hiring a relocation expert to facilitate transit permits, logistics, etc. Depending on the country, an export permit may need to be obtained first. Depending on where the dog or cat is going, a pre-filled EU FORM 998/2003 (for EU) or USDA health certificate (for USA) is also required.
Transportation crates must comply with International Air Transport Association (IATA) requirements. As a general rule, animals should not be sedated during transport as it is impossible to monitor for potential side effects while the animal is in flight.
Special Import Considerations
For export to the USA, regulations are fairly straightforward. Microchipping and rabies vaccination are the most important procedures. The youngest that a puppy can be imported into the United States is 4 months of age.
If an animal is being imported from a non-EU country, it must be microchipped, then vaccinated for rabies. After waiting 30 days following vaccination, a rabies titer test (FAVN) must be administered. Samples must be processed at approved laboratories. Assuming test results indicate neutralizing antibody in serum equal to or greater than 0.5 IU/ml, the animal can enter no sooner than 3 calendar months after the date the blood was drawn and avoid quarantine.
Prior to entering Finland, Ireland, Malta, the United Kingdom, or Norway, dogs must be treated against the parasite Echinococcus multilocularis. The treatment must be administered by a veterinarian within a period of not more than 120 hours and not less than 24 hours before the time of scheduled entry.3
1. Current canine guidelines for the prevention, diagnosis, and management of heartworm (Diroflaria immitis) infection in dogs. American Heartworm Society. Available at: https://heartwormsociety.org/images/pdf/2014-AHS-Canine-Guidelines.pdf. (VIN editor: Original link was modified on 02–27–2018). Cited 1 May 2017.
2. Kang Y, Kim H, Ku K, Park E, Yum J, Seo S. H3N2 canine influenza virus causes severe morbidity in dogs with induction of genes related to inflammation and apoptosis. Vet Res. 2013;44(1):92.
3. Newbury S, Godhardt-Cooper J, Poulsen K, Cigel F, Balanoff L, TooheyKurth K. Prolonged intermittent virus shedding during an outbreak of canine influenza A H3N2 virus infection in dogs in three Chicago area shelters: 16 cases (March to May 2015). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2016;248(9):1022–1026.
4. Non-commercial movement from non-EU countries – Food Safety. European Commission. 2017 Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/food/animals/pet-movement/eu-legislation/non-commercial-non-eu_en. Cited 2 May 2017.