Updated: Jun 23
During lockdown, the number of dogs imported (and illegally smuggled) into the UK soared. Veterinary professionals are trying to warn people to stop and think before considering importing or 'rescuing' dogs from abroad. But why?
Numbers are on the up
The UK saw a 50% increase in dogs being imported for rescue during 2020 during the Covid 19 lockdowns - with imports from Romania leaping by nearly 70% as the demand for puppies soared.
In 2020 alone nearly 30 thousand dogs were imported from Romania, over 50% increase from 2019 and NOT taking into account the astonishing number of illegal imports! The number of dogs imported from the EU increased during the lockdowns by 52% - it is important to note that these are only the official figures and don’t take into account illegally travelled animals.
More than 66,000 dogs were imported into the UK in 2020 according to Animal and Plant Health Agency figures. However, evidence shows a worrying rise in low-welfare imports and smuggling activity, with border authorities seeing around a 260% increase in the number of young puppies being intercepted for not meeting the UK’s pet import rules.
RSPCA David Bowles, head of public affairs:
"Our frontline investigations into unscrupulous breeders and sellers have uncovered organised criminal gangs who import puppies from overseas - often from Ireland and Eastern European countries such as Romania - to sell on to unsuspecting buyers here in the UK. These latest statistics from Defra just goes to show the scale of this problem, and these figures don't account for the vast numbers of dogs we suspect are being illegally trafficked into the country in addition to these."
Should we import from abroad?
According to a survey conducted via Savanta Comres on behalf of the RSPCA in 2020, 52% of UK dog owners surveyed agree that puppies and dogs should not be imported from other countries outside the UK under any circumstances.
Furthermore, 69% of UK adults agree that there should be greater control on how many imported dogs are allowed into the UK.
This was further supported by the fact that a poll run by Veterinary Voices UK showed that 98.8% of veterinary professionals polled would not recommend importing a dog from abroad.
Veterinary professionals are worried about the risk of diseases that could impact our other UK pet population and livestock, zoonotic disease (can spread from animal to human) that could have detrimental impact on our family or other people coming into contact with the animals, and the severe emotional and behavioral distress many of these animals are going through to be transported to the UK, reports from behaviorists are that they are inundated with requests from owners of foreign imports who are struggling with behavioural issues. In a poll on Veterinary Voices UK, 96% of veterinary professionals asked have seen an increase in behaviour issues in imported dogs.
Brucella Canis is a serious bacterial infection called canine brucellosis, that can infect both dogs and people. It is a growing concern amongst UK veterinary professionals because although we don’t have Brucella in our native dogs, cases are being diagnosed in dogs imported from abroad, particularly from Eastern Europe and the numbers are growing.
Cases appear to be rising due to increasing numbers of untested imported dogs, some of which are infected. Because of mixing and breeding, the first identified cases of within-UK transmission of this disease have now occurred.
It can make infected pets poorly but the symptoms are often subtle and vague, things like a sore back or just being generally under the weather. More concerningly, dogs can be infected and spreading the bacteria without any signs at all.
The main way Brucellosis spreads is via reproductive fluids. The risk is particularly high if a pregnant bitch aborts a litter of puppies, as infected dogs often do, but it can also be spread via blood, urine and saliva. Although the risk is much lower with the latter, it can rise with prolonged exposure, as you might get with living with an infected pet.
Brucellosis is diagnosed with blood tests, which should be performed before any dog is imported and then repeated once they are in the UK. This is because if a dog is exposed to the bacteria, it can take a while for that to show up on tests. So, whilst one negative result is good, two are better. Your vets may ask to repeat the blood test around 3 months after your dog has entered the UK, in case they were exposed shortly prior to transport, for the safety of their team.
Unfortunately, once a dog is infected with Brucella, they can never be cured. Although treatment with antibiotics is possible, they will never fully clear the infection and the dog could begin to spread the bacteria again at any time. Sadly, treatment is not recommended. The only way to fully eliminate the risk to humans and other dogs is, sadly, to euthanise them.
Euthanasia: it is very difficult to cure an infected dog, and if it is suffering from disease caused by Brucella canis then euthanasia may be the only way to stop it suffering. Once infected the only way to eliminate the risk of disease transmission is euthanasia, whether or not the dog is showing clinical signs. Treatment is not recommended.
This is a tragic decision for any family to have to make but can be the kindest one for both the dog and their new owners. Vets do not wish to see anyone have to make that awful choice, which is one of the reasons why they are so concerned about the practice of importing dogs from abroad, particularly with the lack of testing we are seeing and the lack of information importing organisations are giving new owners about this disease.
A tragic situation that highlights the impact of Brucella was seen in 2022 when a positive Brucella canis test in a rescue dog imported from Belarus in March 2022. 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 (passing animal to human) disease. The foster animal and four pet dogs who were exposed to the disease, three of whom also tested positive, all had to be euthanised.
In 2018 Professor Sandy Trees, a Professor of Veterinary Parasitology and a Crossbench member of the House of Lords, explored why the veterinary profession are growing concerned about the risks associated with rehoming stray dogs from abroad.
This concern has only grown since the number of dogs imported and illegally smuggled has soared in recent years - and veterinary professionals are dealing with the negative implications of the disease and illness, as well as the behaviour issues seen in many of these dogs.
The infections concerned include a range of parasitic and bacterial infections which are characterised by an initial acute infection which may cause illness and death followed by, in survivors, persistent infection which can be transferrable to other susceptible dogs. Stray dogs from rescue centres are especially likely to have acquired such infections during months or years living a feral existence. Whilst specialised tests may reveal whether a dog has been exposed to these infections, it is difficult or impossible to eliminate the acquired infection so that the animal is no longer a potential source of infection to other dogs. It is particularly worrying that as the practice of rehoming rescue dogs from abroad in the UK appears to have increased, there have been reports of canine diseases that have not previously occurred as endemic infections in the UK.
Rabies causes about 59,000 deaths worldwide per year, about 40% of which are in children under the age of 15. More than 95% of human deaths from rabies occur in Africa and Asia. Although the incidence of rabies has significantly decreased since 1991, animals are still being moved from states deemed 'rabies positive' meaning that when illegal movements are on the rise, so too does the risk increase.
The huge increase in numbers of dogs, including rehomed stray dogs, imported dogs and illegally smuggled dogs entering the UK from rabies-positive member states is particularly concerning. Between 2011 and 2013 we saw huge increases in dogs entering from Hungary increasing by 663 per cent (399 to 3044) and Lithuania (considered to have a ‘high risk’ of rabies in terrestrial animals) by 780 percent (239 to 2102). This number has continued to increase and in 2022 the UK government set a temporary ban on commercial imports from Belarus, Poland, Romania and Ukraine which were lifted with new rules coming into force 29th October 2022.
The Biosecurity minister stated:
We are committed to ensuring safe commercial pet movements including rescues can continue and stopping those which carry too great a biosecurity risk. The new scheme means we can safely lift the temporary suspension and allow only for safe movements from Animal and Plant Health Agency approved importers, helping to ensure we maintain our biosecurity standards and our vital rabies free status.
Despite these new rules, illegal transportation is still a risk and it is getting closer to home. French Authorities reported a case of rabies in a possibly illegally imported dog, approximately 4 years old, in Évry-Courcouronnes in Essonne, in the southern Île-deFrance region around 20km south of Paris. The dog was being held in a shelter and health authorities were alerted on 25 October after the dog started showing signs of aggression and biting several people. The dog was euthanased and the diagnosis of rabies was confirmed on 27 October. Thankfully, it is still believed that there is an overall low probability of rabies being introduced into the UK on an annual basis through the movement of significant numbers of ill-prepared or illegally imported dogs and cats, in the absence of additional checks and control measures.
Babesiosis is spread by tick bites. In the case of babesiosis, the two main tick vector species - they are present in the UK but are thought to be uncommon.
The UK had been considered free of endemic B. canis infection despite the presence of its vector, D. reticulatus. However, with the increase in imported dogs and other pets in the last few years, the UK has increased risk of establishing itself in the UK, as was seen in four untravelled dogs in Harlow, Essex in 2016 and 2017.
The Animal and Plant Health Agency, which is an executive agency sponsored by Defra, confirmed the affected animals had not been abroad.
"These particular dogs have not travelled outside England raising the possibility they have become infected within the country. We are providing support to veterinary practices to identify the possible source of infection,"
Canine leishmaniosis is caused by the parasite Leishmania infantum, carried by the female sand fly and transmitted in its bite. Dogs have been known to become infected after being bitten or wounded by another infected dog. Between dogs, there is evidence to show that the parasite can be transmitted vertically (from a female dog to its pup), venereally and through blood transfusions of infected donors. But up to a few years ago, this has not been reported in the UK.
Treatment is available for dogs with leishmaniosis, but infection is difficult to clear and long-term medication is therefore frequently needed. Leishmaniosis can be zoonotic - meaning it can be passed to people in rare situations.
A case of leishmaniosis in the UK in a dog without a history of travel to an endemic area is described in the Veterinary Record. The case most likely represents a case of dog-to-dog transmission, the authors say.
“It is important to take note of this first reported case of likely dog-to-dog transmission of Leishmania infantum in the UK. Historically we had considered this to be a condition affecting dogs with a travel history to areas where Leishmania infantum is endemic. Dog-to-dog transmission in non-endemic areas has previously been reported, for example in the USA, but this case serves as a reminder to UK veterinary surgeons that we must be vigilant for conditions such as Leishmania in non-travelled dogs and that alternative transmission mechanisms do exist.”
Echinococcus multilocularis is a tapeworm that can infect foxes and other canids, including domestic dogs, the disease can also cause serious illness in humans. Thankfully, so far there have been no known domestically acquired cases of Echinococcus multilocularis in the UK.
If you import animals, you must follow the rules to make sure they are free from disease and fit to travel. It is recommended that domestic dogs are treated with a worming treatment that contains praziquantel or an equivalent proven to be effective against the Echinococcus multilocularis tapeworm. This must be done before entering the UK - however, people illegally smuggling animals do not care for these rules and risks.