Politics

Thousands call on government to reconsider ban on dogs from countries at risk of canine rabies

Thousands of Canadians are calling on the federal government to lift a recent ban on imports of rescue dogs from countries with a "high risk" of canine rabies — but a representative of a veterinary association says the move was necessary to protect public health.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says ban is needed to protect Canadians from deadly disease

Brownie, left, and Smokey, who were rescued earlier this year from Afghanistan, sit in their insulated shelter at No Dogs Left Behind in Toronto on June 29, 2022. As of Sept. 28, all commercial dogs — including rescues — from Afghanistan and roughly 100 other countries are not permitted to enter Canada. (The Canadian Press)

Thousands of Canadians are calling on the federal government to lift a recent ban on imports of rescue dogs from countries with a "high risk" of canine rabies — but a representative of a veterinary association says the move was necessary to protect public health.

In June, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that commercial dogs — including dogs intended for resale, adoption, fostering, breeding, exhibition or research — from roughly 100 countries would be prohibited from entering Canada as of Sept. 28.

A parliamentary petition calling on the government to reconsider the ban and look for regulatory options that would allow these rescue dogs to keep coming to Canada has collected more than 15,000 signatures since it opened last month.

Heather Hulkenberg, who initiated the petition, said that while she supports some regulations to protect Canadians from a deadly disease, she believes there's an alternative to the ban that would allow these dogs to be rescued.

"It just seemed to me that it was a bit overreaching," she said of the CFIA's ban. "When you do a blanket ban like that, you're missing a lot of the reason why people are bringing animals into Canada."

The Calgary resident, who has worked with rescue organizations, said the policy will end up harming dog populations overseas.

"We do have to look at how we can alleviate the concerns of dog rabies coming into Canada while still being able to rescue animals from other countries," Hulkenburg said.

Veterinary association says ban is warranted

Louis Kwantes of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) said the CFIA's decision likely was linked to two cases of rabies from imported dogs that were confirmed in Ontario in 2021.

Both dogs had received rabies vaccines that aren't licensed in Canada before their arrival, according to the province's Ministry of Agriculture and Food. A total of 49 people who came into contact with the dogs received rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, a type of treatment that is estimated to cost about $2,000 per person.

Unlike other forms of animal rabies, the canine strain has been eliminated in Canada. But even one case can present a deadly threat to both humans and dogs, Kwantes said.

"We cannot take our canine variant rabies-free status in Canada for granted," he said, noting that once an individual starts showing clinical signs of an infection, it's too late.

"Once a person or a dog is infected and showing signs of rabies, they're going to die."

Stray dogs in a volunteer-operated shelter in Nis, Serbia in 2015. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Kwantes said CFIA's ban was warranted, given the risks.

But Rebeka Breder, a Vancouver-based lawyer specializing in animal law, said there may have been options other than a blanket ban.

"It's essentially a death sentence for all these dogs," she said. "And instead of the CFIA and the federal government taking a thoughtful approach to this, they're just kind of using one paintbrush to stroke it all off their list."

Instead, Breder said, the government should work with rescue organizations to come up with tighter regulations that would protect public health while allowing these rescue dogs into Canada.

Camille Labchuk, executive director of the advocacy group Animal Justice, told CBC in an email that tighter regulations could include having a foreign veterinarian sign statutory declarations stating they've administered a rabies vaccine, having Canadian veterinarians review vaccine certificates and requiring that all dogs undergo a blood antibody test prior to their arrival.

Before the ban, Kwantes said the CVMA had been lobbying the CFIA for years to impose stricter import regulations to protect Canadians from canine rabies. He said strengthening regulations to change the ban is something the CFIA could look at — but cautioned that any such regulations would have to be stringent.

"In many of these countries from which dogs originate, the veterinary services are not necessarily as robust and reliable as the ones we have in North America and in Canada," he said.

The CFIA told CBC in an email that a ban was needed to immediately address the problem — but the agency left the door open to future regulations.

"At a later date, the CFIA will explore options to further strengthen the requirements for the import of personal pet dogs and assistance dogs from these countries," a CFIA spokesperson said in an email.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner rises during question period in the House of Commons on June 18, 2021. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who is sponsoring the petition in Parliament, said she hopes the thousands of Canadians calling for a revision of the ban will spur the CFIA to act.

"I think that the government will eventually move on this. It's just a matter of keeping the pressure up and also saying that there are different ways to approach this issue," she said.

Both Hulkenberg and Rempel Garner said they're encouraged by the number of signatures the petition has gathered so far.

"I'm surprised at how many people have taken the time to actually make sure that their voices are heard," Hulkenberg said.

"It's something that Canadians care about," Rempel Garner said.

"And I think that that's at the heart of this. It's compassion, it's caring."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email darren.major@cbc.ca or by tweeting him @DMajJourno.

With files from Rebecca Zandbergen

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now