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Canadian Food Inspection Agency working to reduce risk of unhealthy dog imports

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Any animals, including domestic pets, imported into Canada must meet requirements established by the Canada Food Inspection Agency [CFIA].

The agency says work is underway to improve those requirements around the commercial import of dogs for adoption and sale.

“The CFIA is working to identify additional import measures with the goal to further reduce the risk of unhealthy dogs being imported into Canada and prevent incidents of inhumane transport,”  Patrick Girard wrote in an email, the assistant manager of media relations with the CFIA.

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Canadian veterinarians say there’s been an ongoing need to improve the health and safety regulations of imported dogs into Canada.

“The last thing we want to do is put the effort and stress into bringing a dog up here and not having it do well because it’s sick, or because it has behavioural issues. So, everyone has to play a role and that includes government,” said Scott Weese, a Canadian veterinarian and infectious disease specialist.

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Alex Hare, a veterinarian in Nova Scotia, says his clinic has seen an increase in the number of imported dogs needing treatment for heartworm.

The disease is described as ‘serious and potentially fatal’ by the American Heartworm Society.

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Hare says that’s one of the reasons why it should be taken seriously by everyone involved in the dog importation and adoption process.

“I’m one of four doctors [at the clinic] and we’ve all had a heartworm-positive dog in the last few months. They’ve all come up through those kinds of situations. They’ve all originated in the southern United States where heartworm is infectious and an endemic disease down there,” Hare said.

He adds that although heartworm isn’t common in Canada, there are risks that it could spread during warmer months because of the way it’s transmitted to other dogs.

“It’s a mosquito-borne disease and our mosquitos here don’t carry the heartworm, just yet.”

“But, that’s the concern with all these dogs coming up here,” Hare said.

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The CFIA requires import permits for commercially imported dogs that are eight months of age and younger and says any commercial dog transports that aren’t in compliance with humane transport requirements, or that pose a potential animal health risk, can be referred to them by the Canadian Border Service Agency [CBSA] for further inspection.
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Dogs eight months of age and older require a valid rabies certificate in order to cross the border into Canada.

Weese says unless dogs look visibly ill, they will most likely be allowed into the country with relative ease.

“We see sick dogs, we see dogs that die of issues, we see diseases brought in that might be able to spread here which is a separate issue and we see some diseases that come in here that can be spread to people. So, we’ve got a whole range of issues here,” he said.

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Hare says these are all reasons why thorough conversations about all the potential health risks are essential before people decide to adopt an imported dog.

“It’s a bigger concern that owners don’t know the true health status of animals that they’re adopting,” he said.

Philip Brown from Halifax says he recently adopted a dog from the southern United States and was told by the rescue organization that the dog was in good health.

“[I asked] ‘do we have to worry about immediate vet bills? Do we have to worry about any worms?’ They said, ‘No, she’s fully clean, fully cleared, nothing to worry about,'” he said.
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But Brown says he was told his dog was heartworm-positive when he took her to his Halifax vet for an assessment shortly after receiving her.

He says he feels the communication lines need to be improved in order to ensure everyone involved in the adoption process is fairly and adequately informed.

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Katrina MacLeod, an adoptive owner from Fredericton, echoes Brown’s sentiment. She says she also found out her dog was heartworm-positive after her first vet visit in New Brunswick.

She says when she told the rescue agency about the heartworm-positive diagnosis, she was told not to pursue treatment and that following the advice of the vet was as good as “poisoning” her dog.

“[They said] Canadian vets didn’t have a clue what they were talking about when it came to heartworms and that [the dog] had already had the pills and would be fine within a year,” MacLeod said.
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Katrina MacLeod says her dog tested positive for heartworm shortly after being imported into Canada. Submitted / Katrina MacLeod

Holly Lyons with Dog and Cat Adoptables in Canada says their rescue group informs people of all risks associated with adopting dogs from the United States.

“We give them all the information that we have on the dog at the time of intake, to the time that they’ve spent in the rescue. We give everybody information about heartworms, ringworms, any type of parasite that they could get along the way,” she said.

Lyons says despite allegations from some owners that they weren’t informed, she stands by her agency providing that information.

“We bring them back to health, they get their blood panels, they get all of their treatments,” she said.

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Jeanine Christian is a dog rescuer out of Texas who helps transport dogs to Canada.

She says the groups she rescues with work tirelessly to meet the necessary cross-border requirements.

“To get a dog up to Canada we have to spay or neuter, we have to have all the shots, we have to worm them — there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it.”

“They have to have all their health certificates,” she said.

Christian says there are such large populations of stray dogs in Texas that shelters are overrun and the demand to export them to adoptive homes in Canada continues to grow.

“We could do a vanload a week but it’s just impossible to get the dogs prepped in time,” she said.

Hare says while there are many successful adoption stories, there is room for improvement in the communication and vetting process to ensure that imported dogs have the best possible outcomes.

“[Rescues] have to have 100 per cent transparency because everyone who’s involved has good intentions from my perspective but perhaps there’s such a volume of individuals that some fall through the cracks,” he said.
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