Breed wars: Imports
As states crack down on puppy mills, imports spike and so do health concerns
Mar 1, 2010
By: Rachael Whitcomb
NATIONAL REPORT At last count, in 2006, 287,000 dogs crossed the
United States' borders, and veterinary officials fear the problem is
Consumer demand for pure-bred and cross-bred puppies coupled with strict
new domestic breeding laws is believed to be driving importation numbers
even higher than four years ago. To exacerbate the problem, federal
regulators have no real way of tracking exactly how many dogs are
brought in the country, where they come from, where they are going and
whether importers are following up on vaccination requirements for
"One thing that really concerns veterinarians is, underage puppies come
in and not only are they at greater risk of zoonotic diseases, but also
other canine diseases," says Nina Marano, DVM, of the Center for Disease
Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of Global Migration and
Quarantine. "It is a concern. It's a consumer issue; it's a public
health issue; it's a veterinary issue. Really, it's a moral and ethical
CDC has a rough idea of how many puppies are crossing United States
borders, but only anecdotally, Marano says.
"The fact is that we have a very big country and many, many ports of
entry to monitor," she explains. "We've been looking at this closely
over the last five to six years and ... the takeaway message is that,
anecdotally, we do believe there has been an increase in imported animals."
No definitive data is available on the number of dogs and puppies
imported to the United States each year since no single agency is
required to keep track of those numbers. The United States Department of
Agriculture (USDA) monitors only commercial breeders who sell animals
through pet stores, brokers and research facilities. The CDC monitors
rabies vaccinations in imported pets, but its regulations neither
require a health screen for dogs prior to arrival to the United States,
nor an evaluation for specific zoonoses of concern. Enforcement of
regulations are "problematic, because there is no federal requirement
mechanism, or capacity for documenting compliance," according to a 2008
article in the journal Zoonosis and Public Health by Marano and fellow
CDC veterinarian G. Gale Galland, DVM.
Plus, CDC can't man all the nation's ports of entry, leaving Customs and
Border Protection, whose officers have no veterinary training, as the
first line of defense to ensure all imported animals meet federal agency
CDC has taken "snapshots" of data to gauge dog import trends and found
that 287,000 dogs were imported in 2006. About a quarter of them were
too young to have rabies vaccinations. Their importers were required to
sign agreements stating the dogs would be confined until the vaccine was
administered, but enforcement is passed on to local animal-control
agencies once the dogs are in the country. And critics contend most
imported dogs are sold as soon as the dogs are brought home from the
airport, not after the agreement is fulfilled.
More than 5,100 confine agreements were signed between January 2006 and
September 2007 at just 15 of the 20 quarantine stations monitored by the
CDC, but about 4,000 of those agreements were violated in 2006 alone,
with the puppies being sold before the confinement period ended. There's
no telling if any had been vaccinated at all.
"Based on import trends suggesting that the annual number of
unvaccinated puppies being imported into the United States increased
substantially from 2001 to 2006, imported dogs pose a risk for
introducing zoonotic pathogens such as rabies into the United States,"
Galland and Marano wrote.
At John F. Kennedy International Airport, reports of unvaccinated dog
imports doubled from 2003 to 2006. Reports of unvaccinated dogs imported
into California increased by more than 500 percent from 2001 to 2006,
the article adds.
But dogs aren't the only imports on the rise. According to another
article co-authored by Galland that appeared in a May 2009 edition of
Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, the volume
of live animal imports to the United States has roughly doubled since 1991.
"From 2003 through 2006, annual increases in wildlife trade ranged from
6 percent to 11 percent. From 2000 through 2004, approximately 588,000
animals were imported into the United States each day," the article
states, adding those are just the animals that border agents find.
"Interpol estimates that wildlife smuggling ranks third on the
contraband list of items of value, behind drugs and firearms."
Some blame falls on federal regulators, who lack the time and resources
to follow up on every animal import.
"In 2000, most imported dogs were single import," Galland wrote in the
2009 article. "In 2003, the number of imports of multiple puppies per
shipment began to increase. The number of puppies imported into
California through airports increased from 110 multi-dog imports in 2003
to 365 in 2004. Each shipment contained as many as 40 puppies. A similar
increase was seen nationally ... As the number of shipments containing
more than one dog increased, tracking puppies became increasingly
But the problem also can be attributed to market demand, uneducated
consumers and puppy millers turned irresponsible importers.
"It's getting tougher to raise dogs in the United States. The USDA is
requiring more of commercial breeders," Marano says, adding many former
puppy millers are believed to have turned to importing to increase profits.
In Pennsylvania â€” a state known for its concentration of puppy mills â€”
256 kennels were closed in 2009 compared to just 65 kennels closed in 2004.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) tracks anti-puppy
mill legislation and saw a huge jump after 2008, with 90 bills
introduced across 33 states â€” five of them adopted in 2009. "There's a
campaign, clearly well-organized, to bring these bills forward," says
Adrian Hochstedt, AVMA's assistant director of state legislative and
Additionally, foreign countries make it easier to breed dogs because of
loose animal-health standards, contends California attorney John
Hoffman, who has crusaded against puppy importers on behalf of various
For instance, one French Bulldog group he provided services for claims
there are now more French Bulldogs imported into the United States than
are bred here, because artificial insemination and cesarean deliveries
can be performed cheaper by unlicensed veterinary workers in other
"The sale over the Internet of both commercially bred puppies and
imported puppies has become a big business â€” and probably considerably
outstrips sales of puppies through pet shops," Hoffman said during
testimony before Congress in 2006 on an importation law that never
passed. "USDA regulations prohibit carriers from accepting animals for
transport without a health certificate signed by a licensed veterinarian
and from transporting puppies younger than 8 weeks. It appears that both
regulations are routinely flouted by commercial puppy exporters abroad.
That health certificates are being forged is evidenced by the large
incidence of illness and death among puppies within a day or two of
arrival in the United States."
Many of these imported dogs are irresponsibly bred with a host of
genetic problems and are shipped young â€” too young to vaccinate â€” to
meet market demand. Importers often lie about age and health issues on a
dog's records and get away with it, Hoffman claims.
"If the form said 8 weeks, nobody questioned it," Hoffman says, adding
that rabies requirements are treated with disdain by some importers.
"There's been no enforcement of (confinement agreements) and the
importers have been thumbing their noses at it for years."
But importers for profit aren't the only violators. One rescue
organization alone imported 295 dogs from the Middle East in 2006,
according to Galland and Marano's article, and even veterinarians can be
pulled into a laissez-faire attitude about pet importation.
Galland's 2009 article reveals a 2007 case of a puppy imported from
India by a Washington state veterinarian. The dog was given to another
veterinarian, bit veterinary clinic staff and another dog while showing
signs of rabies, but wasn't diagnosed with the disease until another
veterinarian brought it to Alaska. Eight people had to be treated for
Several rabies cases in imported dogs have been tracked in recent years,
as well as cases of other diseases long-eradicated in the United States,
like screwworm. Screwworms are monitored by the USDA and could cause up
to $750 million in livestock production losses, the article notes. New
World screwworms were eradicated from the United States in 1966, and Old
World screwworm had never been seen in this country until it was found
in a puppy imported from Singapore to Massachusetts in 2007.
"Veterinarians should be vigilant when examining new puppies" Galland
wrote. "Many imported dogs are never confined properly or inspected for
infectious diseases, and many diseases may not be detected readily in
imported dogs ... a veterinarian could be the one who prevents the next
A lot of imported puppies arrive at U.S. ports dehydrated, but not
really ill. It's a few days after entering the country that they become
"Rabies is of particular concern in imported dogs because of its long
incubation period," wrote Galland and Marano. "Because of this, dogs may
be admitted on the basis of apparent good health, but may be incubating
the virus and could develop disease after entry."
An importation clause in the recently passed Farm Bill could provide
some relief, as it prohibits the commercial importation of any dog
younger than 6 months of age, Marano says. But USDA must write the
regulations to put the Farm Bill into effect, and that has not even been
started, Hoffman says.
"Buyers and veterinarians report that imported puppies suffer from
higher than normal incidences of pneumonia, parvovirus, rabies, ringworm
and severe congenital defects," wrote Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who
supported passage of the Farm Bill, in a press release about the
legislation. "The CDC lacks the staff, law enforcement powers and
resources to ensure each shipment is safe."
CDC is reviewing its regulations â€” written in 1956 and last updated in
1983, when international travel was less frequent and dog imports
consisted of the occasional family pet â€” and has found that the general
public would like to see more stringent laws. But changes take time,
"There are only two ways to attack: regulations to dry up supply and
education to dry up demand," she explains.
"Veterinarians are really one of the first lines of defense, and they
need to be educated on the regulations of their state so they can
educate their clients about the risk involved in buying these puppies,"