Veterinarians Say Dog Rescue Groups May Unintentionally Raise ASF Risk

01:43PM Nov 15, 2019
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A recent article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) outlines how state veterinarians and industry experts are working to assess disease risk posed by dog rescue groups bringing dogs into the U.S. from overseas.  

Part of the problem is that the groups often don’t understand import regulations fully while bringing the dogs into the U.S. Veterinarians and state officials are concerned that dogs and their carriers could bring with them pathogens, especially the African swine fever (ASF) virus responsible for killing entire pig herds in China and Eastern Europe.

Minnesota’s state veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, Beth Thompson, DVM, found out in August that a rescue group was bringing Greyhounds to Minnesota from a meat market in China. She’d received a message from Missouri’s state government that the group had initially arranged to have the dogs shipped to homes in Missouri, but diverted them to Minnesota at the last minute, the JAVMA article says.

This led Thompson on a meandering journey though agencies to find the dogs. She checked with Customs and Boarder Protection authorities for dogs arriving at Minnesota airports, and also with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which monitors incoming dogs for rabies vaccinations. The piece of the puzzle that she was missing was the rescue group’s name, so she searched for Greyhound rescues in a registry of Minnesota-registered nonprofit organizations and looked for updates from those groups.  

When she finally found a Facebook post that confirmed five Minnesota-bound dogs had arrived in Chicago, the post was more than a week old.

For proper disease monitoring and risk abatement, the dogs should have been kept in quarantine for at least 10 days so they could be watched for signs of illness, Thompson says. When members of the rescue group were contacted by her office, they pled ignorance of state rules to reduce disease risk.

"They thought, with the certificate that they had gotten from the veterinarian in China, they were good to go," Thompson says in the JAVMA article. "So, it's a matter of educating a lot of these people that are traveling."

While Department of Agriculture authorities think the virus is unlikely to spread from imported dogs to pigs, Lisa Becton, DVM, MS, director of swine health information and research for the National Pork Board, cautions that the ASF virus is resilient, and while it can’t infect dogs, she’s concerned it could survive in bedding or on crates.

"Unlike other viruses that can desiccate and become nonviable relatively easily, African swine fever is, unfortunately, not one of those," Becton tells JAVMA.

Becton told the story of six Beagles from China that arrived unannounced this summer in Raleigh, N.C., along with shipping crates, blankets, water and food bowls. The dogs had been destined for a dog meat festival before a rescue group flew them from Beijing to Atlanta, then drove them for hours to North Carolina.

North Carolina’s state veterinarian, Douglas Meckes, DVM, only learned of the dogs’ arrival because the rescue group told news outlets. Meckes ordered the dogs be quarantined, two at a veterinary clinic, and the rest at foster homes, and state authorities gave the veterinary clinic protective clothing for cleaning and disinfecting the clinic.

Becton says that dogs at meat markets can be exposed to blood, feces and insanitary handling.

Requirements for entry

CDC guidelines state that all dogs that enter the U.S. must be at least 4 months old, look healthy and may need proof of rabies vaccination certificates, depending on the risk from the source country. Dogs of Chinese origin, for example, need these certificates.

The Animal Welfare Act guidelines state that dogs entering the U.S. for resale—which includes adoption—must be at least 6 months old, in good health, and have a rabies vaccination certificate and an international health certificate that shows that it is vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus and parainfluenza virus infection, according to guidelines from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Airlines may also require health certificates, and the CDC and USDA recommend that animal importers also check state requirements, according to JAVMA.

In an article on the CDC’s website, Molly Houle, DVM, who completed an internship with the CDC team that is responsible for enforcing dog importation regulations, wrote about the 2017 discovery of hordes of puppies smuggled to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Among the discovery was a 6-month-old Chihuahua with rabies. Houle wrote of the parasites and disease that young dogs in particular can spread, such as tapeworms, roundworms, Giardia, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus skin infections and canine brucellosis.

Moving animals across state lines also poses risk, Megan Jacob, PhD, associate professor and director of diagnostic libraries at the North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, tells JAVMA. Dogs in one area may be naïve to another region’s strain of disease.

"In addition to bringing viruses or bacteria that may be transmissible to other dogs, there is certainly a risk that the animals—any animal—could carry an infecting agent that could be passed to people or other animal species," Jacob says.

Joelle Hayden, APHIS spokeswoman, says that agency officials determined that dogs from China’s meat markets pose a negligible risk of spreading ASF to the U.S. because of long-term security measures designed to protect against foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). When dogs come from China or other countries that have FMD, inspectors at ports check dogs and their bedding for excess dirt, hay, straw or other items that could carry disease.

Officials also recommend bathing dogs after arrival and keeping them away from livestock for at least five days after arrival.

Scott Dee, DVM, director of research at Pipestone Veterinary Services in Pipestone, Minn., agrees that there’s a generally low risk that U.S. swine will be infected by ASF virus arriving in contaminated dog crates and bedding, noting to JAVMA that undeclared or smuggled pork products and contaminated feed are more substantial risk.

Dee was the lead author of a 2018 article that found that ASF virus, along with other pathogens, survived under conditions that simulated overseas trips in feed, pet food and sausage casings. He says the risk of infection rises if someone feeds backyard pigs any dog food leftover from an overseas trip.

Tracking arrivals is tricky

JAVMA found in newsletter and social media posts that the rescue group in North Carolina brought the six beagles to the U.S. this summer in partnership with a group based in Somerset U.K., though at press time neither had responded to questions about their import process.

As part of the news outlet coverage that notified Meckes of the dogs’ arrival, it was reported that the Beagle rescue had also imported eight Beagles in 2018.

Though they acted out of an abundance of caution, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services made sure that bedding and food that came off of the plane with the dogs went to a landfill. Workers then cleaned, sanitized and sun-dried the carriers from the trip, in addition to incinerating all feces, trash and papers.

Meckes tells JAVMA that he wants more federal scrutiny of the animals arriving in the U.S. and worries that animal importation goes unnoticed. He notes that USDA officials at ports sometimes neglect to mention state requirements, and for the six Beagles that came over this summer, no state authorities saw the international health certificate information that should have been required for entry.

Health authorities could also lower any potential health risks by implementing or enforcing quarantines when dogs arrive in the U.S. and conducting follow-up evaluations before allowing adoption or further travel, Jacob says. There’s also an opportunity to utilize better surveillance data, with detailed documentation on each animal’s health and travel history, along with post-health certification monitoring for signs of illness.

Jacob adds that countermeasures should depend on the organisms of concern when discussing potential for fomites to arrive with the animal, noting that some items can be disinfected while others should be disposed of.