Vets call for stricter pet import measures and vigilance after first confirmed dog-to-human case of Brucella canis in the UK

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has issued a strong reminder to members of the public about the serious disease risks from importing dogs from abroad and is urging all prospective dog owners to protect the health of dogs and humans in the UK by rehoming dogs from within the country instead. BVA is also re-issuing its calls to Government to tighten pet import rules.

The advice follows news earlier this month about a positive Brucella canis test in a rescue dog imported from Belarus in March this year. The woman fostering the dog was hospitalised after coming into close contact with it, in the UK’s first confirmed dog-to-human transmission of this zoonotic disease. The foster animal and four pet dogs who were exposed to the disease all had to be euthanised.

Stray dogs in some European countries and other parts of the world often live in harsh conditions. Along with Brucella canis, they may harbour other undetected and potentially life-threatening exotic diseases not found in the UK, such as leishmaniasis, rabies, canine babesiosis and heartworm, without showing any outward clinical symptoms. When imported into the UK, such chronically infected ‘Trojan’, or carrier, dogs risk passing on the infections to susceptible pets and, in the case of some diseases, to humans as well. These infections can be difficult to detect or successfully treat in such carrier dogs.

Data released by the Government* shows a steep rise in confirmed Brucella canis cases since the start of 2020, rising from just three before that year to 107 till July this year. The dogs were all either imported from countries such as Romania, Bosnia, Greece, and Belarus, returned from holiday overseas, or been bred with an imported dog.

The Brucella canis bacterium causes canine brucellosisan infectious disease that leads to often painful and chronic illness in dogs, as well as serious health risks to humans and other dogs exposed to them. Symptoms in dogs include reproductive issues, including miscarriages during the last trimester of pregnancy in females and inflammation of the prostrate and testicles in males, as well as spinal problems in chronic cases. Treatment is often unsuccessful, and, in many cases, vets will recommend euthanasia keeping in mind the welfare of the dog.

British Veterinary Association President Justine Shotton said:

“This recent case of Brucella canis in a foster dog is extremely tragic and highlights why vets have long raised concerns over the real and serious risks of importing ‘Trojan’ rescue dogs with unknown health histories into the UK.

“We are a nation of animal lovers, and so the desire to rescue stray, neglected or abused animals from other countries and give them loving homes in this country is completely understandable. Unfortunately, as this case shows, the hidden consequence of this can be disastrous for the health and welfare of other pets as well as humans here. This includes the risk to veterinary teams who treat and handle these animals.

“With thousands of dogs needing homes within the UK, the British Veterinary Association is strongly urging prospective owners to adopt from a UK-based rehoming charity instead. You can also support organisations in countries abroad to rescue and rehabilitate any stray animals locally.

“If you already own an imported dog, be vigilant to symptoms of Brucella canis and other exotic diseases and call your local vet for advice on testing and treatment for any underlying conditions.”

While rescue dogs are a particular risk group for Brucella canis, importing any dog from countries with high levels of stray dog populations and known presence of the disease will carry a risk. This includes puppies bred for commercial sale in such countries. BVA advises anyone looking to adopt or buy an imported dog to make sure it has been tested for this disease and neutered before being brought into the UK.

A BVA survey of vets in 2018 showed that more than nine out of ten companion animal vets in the UK were concerned about the import of rescue dogs. Worryingly, 40% of these vets had seen new or rare conditions in their practice over the previous year that are associated with dog import. BVA calls on the government to impose strict restrictions on the movement of pets, including testing in stray dogs for any such diseases as a mandatory before travel to the UK. It also calls for the strengthening of enforcement provisions and checks on dogs brought in through the commercial route.

Dr. Shotton added:

“While some charities do carry out some pre-import health tests, there’s currently no requirement to test for diseases not commonly found in the UK. We would ask all rescue charities to test dogs for Brucella canis and other exotic diseases of concern before importing them to the UK, and to seek advice from a vet here to ensure compliance with import best practice.

“We at the British Veterinary Association continue to call on the Government to take urgent action to introduce stricter pet import measures, including mandatory pre-import testing for dogs coming into the UK, so we can minimise the spread of such emerging diseases.”

BVA’s recommendations on tightening pet travel legislation are available to read at: https://www.bva.co.uk/uploadedFiles/Content/News,_campaigns_and_policies/Policies/Companion_animals/BVA%20Position%20on%20Pet%20Travel%20Full.pdf

The Animal Welfare Foundation has produced a pet travel leaflet with more information on dangerous exotic diseases: https://www.animalwelfarefoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Taking-Your-Pets-Abroad.pdf

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