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PETS Travel Scheme extended to North America

Mr Elliot Morley (right) addresses the meeting in London last week

A high profile press and media briefing was held at the palatial London residence of the American Ambassador, Winfield House, on the outer circle of Regents Park on Wednesday November 20th, to formally announce the extension of the PETS Travel Scheme to include dogs and cats travelling to the UK from the USA and Canada.

The official announcement was made by Animal Health Minster, Elliot Morley, who had come directly from Westminster, where less than an hour earlier, he had officially confirmed to Parliament that the extension to the scheme to include North America would commence as from December 11th 2002.

Since the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) was launched on February 28th 2000, when it applied only to dogs and cats from Western Europe, some 75,000 animals have entered England without the need for six months quarantine. On January 31st 2001, PETS was extended to 28 long haul countries, such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand. Bahrain was added to the scheme earlier this year. The scheme currently operates into England on over fifty sea, air and rail routes from around Europe and the rest of the World.

In theory the announcement means that as from December 11th US and Canadian owners will be able to enter the UK with their pets without the need for six months quarantine.

(pictured - left) Fred the Basset belongs to Michael & Kim Murphy of the diplomatic staff at the American Embassy, London. He came into Britain via the PPS after spending six months in Holland

However such animals will have to comply with the strict requirements which include, microchipping, inoculation with a rabies vaccine at least six months before arrival in Britain, a blood test certificate issued by a USDA-authorised vet and a final treatment against ticks and tapeworms shortly before travelling to Britain. About 250 dogs and cats from North America are already in UK quarantine and may be released from December 11, providing they satisfy all the procedural requirements.

Since 1997, when the easing of quarantine restrictions were first rumoured to be imminent, huge pressure from the US and Canadian governments and their Embassy staff has been put on MAFF, then it's successor, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Government Ministers to extend the scheme to include them.

The US Ambassador William S. Farish commented "For more that 100 years, US citizens hoping to bring their cats or dogs here to the United Kingdom have been faced with the prospect of putting their beloved pets into quarantine for six months. It took a lot of work, by a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic, to get us where we are today. Today's announcement is the one we have all been waiting for and we thank the UK Government for taking this step." Mr Farish and his wife Sarah now plan to take their Bichon Frisé, "Katie" home to Kentucky for Christmas. They also plan to buy a second dog.

Secret move

It was also revealed that special rules were secretly introduced following September 11th, to allow US sniffer dogs into Britain without having to go into quarantine. Elliot Morley confirmed that US military chiefs had demanded extra surveillance at American bases in Britain and that a number of dogs trained in detecting explosives had been allowed in, provided that they remained on American property for six months and did not mix with other pets.

However, at the time of the announcement, no airline company has yet been licensed to carry pets to Britain from North America and until one is, pets arriving at Heathrow after December 11th will have to spend two or three days in quarantine to enable veterinary and document checks to be made. Another procedural hitch may also be that many of the microchips used in North America cannot be read by UK scanners. In this event pet owners are advised to bring their own scanner with them.

Announcing the extension to North America, Elliot Morley said: "When we introduced the scheme we recognised that there was significant demand from people in the USA and Canada, and indeed UK travellers, for those two countries to be included in the scheme. We were cautious about doing so, but did undertake to consider again whether or not to include these countries in the Scheme. We have now done this.

"We have carried out several scientific assessments of the risk of importing rabies if the Pet Travel Scheme was extended to USA and Canada. Both these assessments concluded that the risk of importing rabies into the UK by extending the Pet Travel Scheme to the USA and Canada was low.

"I know that some people feel that we have been too cautious in our approach to including the USA and Canada in our Pet Travel Scheme. But we were not prepared to take such a significant step until we were sure, on a sound scientific basis, that there would be no significant increase in the risks of importing rabies if the scheme was extended to those countries.”

Both the BVA and the BSAVA had expressed concern that the Government's scientific risk assessments may be inadequate. Peter Jinman, BVA President expressed worries that now the PETS scheme had been extended to a "rabies-endemic" area, it raised other serious disease implications. He said that whilst the Government had conducted scientific assessments of the risk of importing rabies, no consideration had been given to other exotic diseases such as Brucella Canis, Leishmania Infantum, West Nile Fever or Ehrilichal and Rickettsial, these last two being virulent tick-borne pathogens. It is known that some of these diseases can severely affect and even kill humans. He said that already UK Vets are seeing a lot more of these types of diseases since the Pets Travel Scheme was opened up to Europe. "America is a much more complex territory that Europe and Britain is a "naive" territory, unused to dealing with such diseases." said Mr Jinman.

Both the BVA and the BSAVA are calling for all pets to be blood tested for all exotic diseases for the next three years, before being allowed entry into the UK. "Only by establishing a system of active targeted surveillance of all animals imported from North America and indeed those from Europe over a three year period will we begin to understand the scale of the risk" he said.

Lady Fretwell, herself a former diplomat, was inspired to form "Passports for Pets" after her own dog had died in quarantine and she has always been an outspoken critic of the "Q" laws. She expressed delight at Wednesday's announcement, after eight years of campaigning for the abolition of Quarantine by her lobbying group. Supporters of the group include such high profile celebrities as singer/songwriter, Sir Elton John, "actress", Elizabeth Hurley, artist, David Hockney and the rock star, "Sting". She now intends to wind down her membership group and operate as a monitor of the scheme.

David McRae, 56 year old wildlife artist died last weekend of rabies after being bitten by a bat. His death marked the first person to contract the disease in Britain for 100 years.