Most Canadian-owned dogs arrived at their homes in a few traditional ways. They were either purchased from a pet store or breeder, and like many, found their new families through local adoption programs.
In recent years, international rescues have become popular. People longing for a new pet have sought the help of North American animal rescue groups, which specialize in bringing stray dogs to Canada from all over the world. On the surface, the efforts are noble. But there are inherent issues with this practice that ultimately had to be addressed.
As of September 28, the Canadian government officially banned the import of dogs from over 100 countries. The reason is simple – the countries on the list are at elevated risk for canine rabies. Various rescue groups have protested the decision and, in the weeks leading up to September 28, they imported a substantial number of international dogs to beat the deadline. While the intent is mostly good, these dogs can create problems in their new country.
“The whole idea of bringing the dog strain of rabies into Canada and putting Canadians and their pets at risk, while also costing Public Health a ton, just does not make sense,” says Woodbine Animal Clinic veterinarian Dr. Jessica Scott. “The rescue groups don’t fully appreciate that their rabies titer and vaccination protocols with dogs they are importing are not enough, which is why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency introduced this ban.”
According to the CFIA, proper vaccination means rabies is almost 100 per cent preventable. But in the rare event that a human or dog is infected, and begins to show symptoms, the disease is more than 99 per cent fatal. In those countries on the banned list, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and mainland China among them, there are a combined 59,000 human deaths annually from rabies. Imported dogs do require vaccinations to enter Canada, though if they have been infected prior, the vaccination will not prevent the disease from developing. Complicating matters more is certain vaccines used abroad are not licensed here.
“Canada only puts resources into assessing the science and approving what we need, so we just don’t know how good or not good other rabies vaccines are,” says Dr. Scott. “If an animal is vaccinated with a product not licensed for use in Canada, which most foreign vaccines are not, the recommendation is to revaccinate that animal with a Canadian licensed rabies vaccine.”
The popular educational blog Worms & Germs, operated by Dr. Maureen Anderson and Dr. Scott Weese of the Ontario Veterinary College’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses in Guelph, documented a rabies case detected in Toronto in January 2022. The dog had come to Canada the previous June and eventually developed the disease (the incubation period can range from three to 24 weeks for dogs, according to the Veterinary Information Network). Fifty- one people who had been in contact with the dog had to undergo expensive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment, an indication of how dangerous an imported animal can be.
The rabies risk is problematic enough. But Dr. Scott says there are many more issues to address with imported dogs, each frustrating to witness as an animal healthcare practitioner. One is the number of Canadian dogs already in need of a home. There is no shortage of animals on our own soil that require saving, yet there is an allure to bringing them in from other countries.
Another issue is how these imported dogs acclimate once they’re here.
“I see a lot of these dogs with huge socializing challenges that the owners did not bargain for,” says Dr. Scott. “Many of these animals have been taken off the streets, having never been handled by people. We need to dispense more sedatives before they come into the clinic because they aren’t used to being touched.
“They can also be extremely reactive to normal, everyday stimuli and need long-term behavioural medication just to cope with life in Toronto. Owners have spent money on professional training to make them more manageable. Some turn out fine and adapt to life here, but there are many who have not been the dream dog the adopting families were looking for.”
Dr. Scott has also seen an uptick in certain uncommon diseases, like heartworm, ehrlichiosis, and other chronic issues that are both difficult and costly to treat.
“In one case, a patient had a chronic health problem that I could not diagnose,” she says. “An internal medicine specialist could not diagnose it either. It’s going to require more diagnostic testing to figure out, but the family who adopted the dog is unable to afford it.”
Dr. Scott adds that the carbon footprint of transporting animals around the world is significant. She feels the new ban is understandable and suggests developing spay and neuter programs in these countries where dog populations have run rampant is a better use of dollars.
“It would make so much more sense to pour resources into spay and neuter programs overseas so we can get to the root of the problem of having so many homeless and stray dogs,” she says, acknowledging that it could be a challenge in developing or unstable countries.
Canada’s ban on imported dogs may seem cruel to some. But there are valid reasons it happened.