Imported dogs bring exotic disease risk to Canada, experts warn

Canadians bring in tens of thousands of dogs from around the world each year. But with few regulations, experts warn these furry refugees could carry pathogens that pose a serious threat to local pets, wildlife and people.

Import system, which amounts to self-regulation, is not enough, vets say

Judy Carter of Edmonton's Heart Prints Dog Rescue Society holds Joey the Chihuahua, one of the rescue dogs she brought into Canada from California. Joey was scooped from the streets of California and taken to a shelter there, but no one adopted him so he was to be euthanized until Carter stepped in. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

This story was originally published Sept. 12.

Joey Chihuahua got a death-row pardon.

A few months ago, he was scooped from the streets of California, taken to a shelter and put up for adoption. But after no one claimed him, he was moved to the kill floor — until a kind-hearted Canadian flew to the rescue.

Judy Carter, who's with Heart Prints Dog Rescue Society in Edmonton, said she heard of Joey's plight and brought him home. She says Chihuahuas are one of the most euthanized breeds in California.

"They're throw-away dogs down there."

Carter isn't alone. It's estimated that Canadians bring in tens of thousands of dogs from around the world each year, many of them rescue dogs like Joey.

But experts warn Canada does very little monitoring and has few regulations for importing adult dogs into the country. The challenge? Some of these furry refugees carry parasites, bacteria and viruses rarely seen in this country — pathogens that could pose a serious threat to local pets, wildlife and people.

'The risk is there — it's already happening'

Veterinarians monitoring the canine migration are sounding the alarm.

"The risk is there — it's already happening," said Dr. Kevin MacAulay, president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

Dr. Kevin MacAulay, president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, said Calgary has already had a case in which rescue dogs from the U.S. and Mexico infected others with Brucella canis, which affects the reproductive organs in dogs and can cause miscarriages in humans. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"We've seen a case here in Calgary where an animal was brought in with a disease … that developed a health risk for the family that had it in their home."

In this case, dogs brought in from the southern United States and Mexico in 2014 carried Brucella canis, bacteria that causes a disease that infects the reproductive organs in dogs, and can cause miscarriages in humans. Five dogs were ultimately infected, but luckily the outbreak was contained.

People and pets aren't the only ones at risk: the exotic diseases can also spread to wildlife. For example, scientists in Ontario have identified a parasitic tapeworm, Echinococcus multilocularis, in that province's wild dog population. They suspect it was imported with domestic dogs.

Canada also needs to worry about exotic diseases that may not seem to pose an immediate public health, another expert warns.

The only foolproof way to stop imported dogs from bringing exotic diseases into Canada is to ban them, according to a report from the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group - but it acknowledges that isn't likely to occur. (The Associated Press)

"One disease we have seen is Leishmaniasis. It's a parasitic disease imported with dogs from countries like Greece and the Mediterranean Basin — a very nasty disease," said Scott Weese, a professor of pathobiology at the Ontario Veterinary College.

Leishmaniasis can be spread to humans by insects, causing skin sores and affecting internal organs.

The assumption is that Canada doesn't have the insects to spread Leishmaniasis, says Weese.

"But we don't know that for sure and, as changes occur due to climate change, there might be an insect that could start spreading this," adds Weese, an expert in infectious diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.

Untracked and unregulated

In order to prevent the spread of diseases, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates the importation of commercial dogs — which includes all dogs brought in by rescue operations, regardless of whether they'll be sold or adopted.

Regulations for bringing commercial dogs into Canada varies according to the age of the animals:

Under three months:

  • veterinary certificate of health
  • a microchip
  • an import permit
  • the dogs must come from a registered kennel
  • no rabies vaccination certificate. (Rabies vaccinations can't be given to puppies under three months of age.)

From three to eight months: By far the most regulated age. Puppies need to come from a registered kennel. The puppies require a:

  • Rabies vaccination certificate.
  • Veterinary certificate of health.
  • Microchip or tattoo.
  • Import permit.
  • Older than eight months: Rabies vaccination certificate.

If a dog has not received a rabies vaccination, it may be allowed in provided it gets it within 14 days and proof is provided to the CFIA veterinarian. A rabies vaccination is not needed if the dogs come from a "rabies free" country.

Veterinary specialist Scott Weese is part of the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group, which has put forward a series of recommendations to address the risk. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

As well, there is no quarantine requirement. If dogs are ill, they are referred to a CFIA veterinarian and may be denied entry.

It's hard to get an estimate of how many dogs are being imported commercially, because the only tracking mechanism is the import permit — which is only needed for dogs ages three to eight months and which can be for one or multiple dogs.

We just don't know a lot about infectious diseases carried by animals in many countries.- Dr. Scott Weese, veterinary specialist

According to the CFIA, it issued 515 import permits in 2015 and another 331 by mid-August in 2016.

In other words, many dogs entering the country as commercial animals aren't counted at all.

And there's an even bigger loophole that makes it hard to estimate the number of dogs entering the country.

The majority are brought in as personal pets. Considered noncommercial dogs, these animals do not need import permits regardless of their age and are cleared by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Even rescue operation staff can import puppies this way — if they're coming to Canada to live with them or someone they know as a family pet.

More diseases to diagnose, vets warn

Canada's lack of tracking data and minimal health regulations were noted as concerns in a report published by the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group, which consists of provincial ministries, federal departments, the Canadian Veterinary Association and experts like Scott Weese.

Canada's entry regulations are affected by the World Trade Organization, which sets out rules of international trade. Canada can only impose import restrictions on diseases for which a control program is in place — and the only disease regulated in domestic dogs is rabies.

"We just don't know a lot about infectious diseases carried by animals in many countries," said Weese. "So we can't say: here is a list of all the different diseases that we are worried about because we don't actually know what are on that list."

'We are actually enabling a problem elsewhere because people need to learn to spay and neuter their dogs,' says Bragg Creek veterinarian Judith Samson-French. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

That's why the big increase in imported dogs can pose real challenges for veterinarians, says Dr. Judith Samson-French, who has a practice in Bragg Creek, Alta.

"Some of these dogs may come in with diseases that haven't been addressed and aren't well known to us. So we have to expand our repertoire of diagnostic checks," said Samson-French.

Twenty years ago, one of the biggest concerns was kennel cough, which was mostly controlled with vaccinations.

"Now, when a dog is coughing, I have 13 different pathogens to worry about, and only two of those are included in the kennel cough vaccine."

She's also seen vaccination certificates that were clearly falsified, making it difficult to treat the sick animals.

She would like to see the industry regulated, with registration of rescue groups and better tracking of the dogs.

"A person may have taken in a dog from another country, kept it for six months and realized, 'We're not a good match' and it goes back to the rescue chain and then gets adopted by someone else…. We don't know that dog has had an origin outside of Canada and what other diseases it has."

'Worst nightmare' would be introducing disease

Ashton Teulon is the medical director with Pawsitive Match Rescue Foundation, which brought in almost 300 dogs from the U.S. and Mexico last year. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Many rescue dog operations are keenly aware of these issues.

When Judy Carter started Heart Prints Dog Rescue Society in Edmonton in 2012, she went door-knocking at established rescue groups to find how to become a reputable rescuer. She discovered that many commercial importers have protocols more stringent than official requirements.

Carter's non-profit organization imports about 42 small-breed dogs each year, working only with rescue shelters in California that satisfy her standards for health checks.

"I don't want to be the rescue that's known as, 'You brought in a dog that has THIS [disease],'" she said. "That's my worst nightmare."

When dogs are taken off the streets, the shelters hold them in quarantine for at least four to six weeks. During that time, the dogs are spayed and neutered, dewormed, microchipped and vaccinated for rabies, heartworm, distemper, parvovirus, andenovirus and parainfluenza. But the process is expensive.

Carter raises funds through online auctions and collects pop bottles to cover her shortfalls. "I'm lucky if I break even at $450. I'm usually out $100 to $50 per dog."

Ashton Teulon, medical director with Pawsitive Match Rescue Foundation, agrees that going the extra mile to ensure the rescue dogs' health is costly.

The Calgary-based non-profit, staffed entirely by volunteers, brought in 297 rescue dogs from the U.S. and Mexico last year, as well as taking in local dogs.

"Our vet bills can range from $10,000- $30,000 a month," said Teulon, adding that the organization almost never comes out ahead financially despite asking for adoption fees of $350 to $450 a dog.

The dogs are mostly flown in on Westjet, accompanied by escorts — usually tourists heading down to the U.S. and Mexico, who bring the animals back with them. Every escort can bring in seven dogs at a time.

As a commercial importer, Pawsitive Match makes sure the dogs are vetted and all the paperwork is filed with the CFIA before the escorts touch down in Canada. It also supplies adopters with contracts that disclose all the vetting and treatment received by the dog and any follow-up care it might need.

"There are some amazing rescue groups at both ends in this country and other countries," acknowledges Samson-French, the veterinarian in Bragg Creek.

However, she's not convinced that the current system, which largely amounts to self-regulation, is enough.

"There are also unscrupulous breeders so it becomes very difficult for the prospective dog owner to maneuver: who am I dealing with?"

Make requirements more robust, group urges

The best solution is for Canada to share knowledge and financial help with other countries to help them deal with their dog overpopulation problem, some experts say. (The Associated Press)

There's one truly effective way to stopping imported dogs from bringing exotic diseases into Canada, says the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group in its report — ban them.

"Ideally, from a disease and risk management standpoint, dog importation would simply be halted altogether, and animals would not be allowed to cross provincial (or even regional) borders unless accompanied by their owner of six months or more, and meeting specific health and vaccination criteria," the report states.

However, the group pragmatically admits an outright ban isn't likely to happen.

"There are some low-hanging fruit that can be addressed that will reduce our risks dramatically," said Weese, a member of the group. Those recommendations include:

  • Make sure dogs that arrive without rabies vaccinations receive their shots and are kept in quarantine for at least 28 days.
  • Confirm dogs entering as personal pets actually are so.
  • Educate importers to make sure they can assess the health of the animals.
  • Get "fit to travel" certificates from reputable veterinarians to accompany the dogs.
  • Apply the regulations for dogs aged three to eight months to dogs of all ages.

Other non-regulatory measures suggested in the report include:

  • Provide a list of diseases for which imported animals should be tested/treated and that should be discussed with the dogs' veterinarians.
  • Work with the Canadian Border Services Agency to provide a record of commercial dogs and traveller-accompanied dogs imported into Canada, as well as country of origin, port of entry and intended final destination within Canada.
  • Develop guidelines for commercial carriers (especially airlines) regarding verifying the health status of animals being transported.
  • Approach commercial airlines, bus companies and train companies to provide a tally of dogs transported domestically and internationally to Canada.
  • Promote a voluntary registry of canine rescue organizations.
  • Discourage canine importation by promoting domestic dog rescue over foreign dog rescue.

This last point might ultimately be the best solution, says Samson-French.

"We are actually enabling a problem elsewhere because people need to learn to spay and neuter their dogs and how to help the overpopulation of dogs," the veterinarian said.

"If we always take care of the problem from the outside, it never brings a solution from the inside… [We should] lend resources, in terms of knowledge and financial help, to do that."


  • An earlier version of this story said puppies under three months do not face any import restrictions. In fact, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, they must come from a registered kennel, have a veterinary certificate of health, a microchip and an import permit.
    Sep 14, 2016 3:01 PM MT


Monty Kruger is a Video Producer at CBC Calgary.