The Health Considerations Of Travelling With Or Importing Animals From Outside The UK
As pet travel has become more common, we have seen a significant increase in the number of pet dogs imported from abroad to be rehomed in the UK. Dogs that come from other countries have specific health concerns, due to the presence of foreign diseases that are not currently found in the UK. Many of these diseases are difficult to test for and, for the majority, testing is not a requirement before the dogs are brought into the UK.
Dogs who travel from the UK to other countries for short periods are at some risk of contracting infections, however, dogs who have been born, or lived for some time, in a foreign country are significantly more likely to become infected. This is due to increased opportunity for exposure; some diseases are passed from mother to pup, many street dogs will never have received parasite control (unlike owned dogs that travel), and the longer the dog is abroad the higher the chance of contact with infectious diseases.
Why should we worry about foreign diseases?
Some foreign diseases can make the infected dog very poorly, often months or years after exposure. Since most of these diseases are rare or not found in the UK, vets have less experience of recognising the symptoms and it can be challenging to make a diagnosis. For some conditions, the drugs needed to treat them can be difficult to obtain in the UK and very costly.
Some foreign diseases can be passed between dogs, so the imported dog is a risk to other pets. Our existing pet population has little to no immunity against these rare diseases, so if they become widespread in the UK, the consequences for pet dogs could be devastating.
Less commonly, some foreign diseases can spread from animals to people (known as zoonotic diseases). This poses a potentially serious public health risk, especially to people with a weak immune system.
What should we do?
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) recommends that anyone looking to rehome a rescue dog should adopt from UK dog shelters where possible. Many rehoming shelters are at capacity, full of dogs in just as much need of homes as those abroad.
For dogs who have already been imported, education about the diseases they could be carrying is essential. Some diseases, such as Brucellosis, can be screened for and this is strongly advised not only for the health of the individual animal but also their family and other dogs in the area. Other diseases cannot be detected until they cause symptoms. The most common conditions in foreign dogs are listed below, with information regarding testing and treatment. If you have concerns about your dog’s health, please speak to your vet directly.
Babesia is a protozoal parasite that is spread by ticks and is found around the world. The parasite most often spreads when a tick feeds on an infected dog, then transfers the parasite to an uninfected dog. However, rarely can it be spread by an exchange of blood, such as during a dog fight.
Babesia causes fever, lethargy, jaundice and anaemia. It can be diagnosed using a blood test; however, the treatment is not licensed in the UK and would need to be imported which is expensive. An outbreak of Babesia was reported in Essex in 2016, but not all affected dogs had travelled suggesting the infection spread from an imported dog once in the UK.
Brucellosis is caused by the Brucella bacteria and is spread in blood and bodily fluids (especially reproductive fluids). Brucella can cause a range of symptoms including abortion, swollen testicles, lameness, back pain and lymph node enlargement; however, some infected dogs show no symptoms at all. Brucella can spread from animals to people, and there has been one case of a human infected in the UK from an imported dog.
Diagnosing Brucella can be tricky. It can show on a blood test, but a diagnosis is usually reached through a combination of blood test results, clinical signs and the status of other animals the dog has been in contact with. A Brucella blood test is recommended for all imported dogs as a screening tool.
Dirofilaria are worms that mostly affect dogs. They are spread by mosquitoes and found across Europe. Dirofilaria repens cause lumps within the skin and can infect the eyes and are diagnosed by analysis of a surgically removed skin sample. Treatment is using a specific combination of drugs.
Dirofilaria immitis is more commonly known as heartworm, as the worms travel in the bloodstream to the heart and surrounding vessels. This causes damage to the heart function, seen as a cough, weakness, breathlessness and sometimes heart failure. In some cases, the parasite can also affect liver and kidney function. It can take many months for symptoms to develop after infection as the worms grow slowly. Diagnosis is using blood tests and imaging of the heart and chest. Heartworm can be killed using drugs; however, this is risky as killing the worms can lead to blockages around the heart and allergic reactions.
Echinococcus is a tapeworm found commonly across continental Europe. Most dogs carry the worm without becoming unwell, but rarely Echinococcus can cause weight loss, jaundice and fluid build-up in the abdomen. Legally, all dogs travelling from countries with Echinococcus must have a tapeworm treatment before re-entering the UK to prevent spread of this parasite. This parasite can cause very serious infections of the brain in people and is currently absent in the UK.
Ehrlichia is a bacteria affecting dogs, spread by a specific type of tick found in most European countries but especially in Southern Europe. Signs of infection include lethargy, fever, bleeding, pale membranes, and enlargement of the lymph nodes and spleen. Although some dogs become ill once infected, some develop chronic disease or have no symptoms at all. If Ehrlichia infection is suspected, a diagnosis is confirmed by a blood test. Ehrlichia can be treated using antibiotics; acutely infected dogs often respond well but dogs with chronic infection may do poorly.
Although the tick that transmits Ehrlichia is not found in the UK, some cases have been reported in untraveled dogs suggesting the ticks we do have may be able to spread the disease. It is not currently advised that screening tests are routinely done for Ehrlichia, however, it is important that you inform your vet that your dog has been imported so that Ehrlichia can be considered if they are ill. It can take months to years for symptoms to develop.
Leishmaniasis is a protozoal infection that can affect dogs, cats and humans. It is spread by sand flies and is commonly found in Mediterranean Europe. Leishmaniasis can cause a wide range of symptoms affecting the organs, skin and eyes. Diagnosis is confirmed with a blood test, though sometimes tissue biopsies are also needed. Leishmaniasis can be controlled with medication, however not all dogs respond well, and the treatment can be very expensive.
Leishmaniasis is fairly common in imported dogs. This infection can be transmitted to humans directly from dogs if they have active skin lesions. Owners of imported dogs should be aware of this if new skin lesions on their dogs develop.
Linguatula serrata is more commonly known as tongue worm and is common in Eastern Europe. The worm affects dogs and causes gagging, choking, upper respiratory signs and nosebleeds. The worm can occasionally be passed to humans. Rare cases have been reported in the UK; however, the parasite is easily treatable.
Onchocerca lupi / Thelazia
Onchocerca and Thelazia are both worms that affect dogs, cats and humans. They are spread by black flies, fruit flies and biting midges and are common across Europe. The worms affect the eyes, and can cause conjunctivitis, swelling, excess tears, corneal ulcers and inflammation inside the eye. Rarely they can lead to blindness. Symptoms can occur a long time after infection. It is diagnosed using a biopsy, a blood test or by visualising the worms, and treatment is possible. These worms can affect humans, though direct transmission from animals to humans is rare.
Rabies virus is a very serious infection that is fatal in all cases; a case has not been reported in the UK for over one hundred years. Rabies can affect all mammals and is widely found across Africa, Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe, where rabies is a major cause of human death. The virus is spread by saliva, with infection occurring through bite wounds or contamination of the eyes, mouth or nose. Rabies can cause a range of symptoms including aggression, lack of fear, hypersensitivity to noise or light, salivation, excessive thirst, itching, incoordination and seizures. Some animals show no symptoms. Rabies is untreatable and will always be fatal. It can only be diagnosed definitively after death and any animal suspected of having rabies must be euthanised due to the human risk.
All dogs imported legally must have been vaccinated against Rabies, and some will have had a blood test to confirm the vaccine is effective, depending on their country of origin. Dogs found not to have been vaccinated against rabies, or vaccinated at the wrong age, will have to enter quarantine. It is absolutely essential for a pet owner rehoming an imported dog to have confidence that the proper vaccinations have been undertaken and that reputable rescue centers are used.