THE GOVERNMENT’S Chief Vet and Chief Scientific Adviser have said that current rabies controls in Britain are ‘overly restrictive’.
Both officials are involved in an ongoing review, overseen by DEFRA, of the issue to assess whether current regulations should be relaxed, thus bringing them into line with other EU countries.
As reported exclusively in OUR DOGS two weeks ago, pressure for a rethink came about because the UK's dispensation for extra controls over and above those of the EU runs out next year.
It is just a few years ago that fears of rabies arriving in the UK meant that cats and dogs travelling back from Europe had to be kept in quarantine.
Now the Pet Travel Scheme - which came into effect in February 2000 - allows owners to vaccinate their dogs and confirm it with a blood test six months before travel. It is widely viewed as a more humane system - but still too complex and rigid for many pet owners. Each year, pet owners say they have to cancel holiday plans because they did not know the system well enough.
The Government's Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Debby Reynolds, told BBC News last week that she believed the current system was more than was needed to keep the UK rabies-free.
She said: ‘Our scientific conclusions do suggest that the controls themselves are precautionary; that they actually may be more than is necessary to achieve the level of protection that we want.’
It is a view that is backed up by the government's chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King’ who said: ‘I've reviewed all the available evidence and I agree that the current restrictions are too precautionary.
‘There's a case to consider bringing our rules more in line with other European Union countries.’
Within Europe, animals can travel between countries 21 days after vaccination.
Dr Reynolds and Professor King have been asked to advise ministers on the issue. They say that there has been a dramatic decline of rabies in Western Europe.
They also say that it is possible to tell within three - rather than six - months whether a dog is carrying rabies. Most animal welfare groups agree the current system is too severe.
Yea or Nay
But Chris Laurence of the Dogs Trust believes that it would be wrong to bring the waiting time for pets travelling on the Pet Passport Scheme down to 21 days after vaccination.
‘Rabies is prevalent in Poland, Eastern Europe and many accession countries and by harmonising our regulations, [we] would increase the risk of rabies arriving in the UK,’ he said.
‘A three-month waiting period is supported by the science - and separate blood tests should continue to be required because one can't be completely sure of all vaccine stocks.’
Quite apart from the prevalence of rabies in Eastern Europe, the disease is still endemic in many other so-called ‘Third Countries’, such as India and Africa. Some experts feel that any kind of relaxation of quarantine for animals entering the UK from these countries may be ill advised unless cast-iron safeguards can be ensured.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) has welcomed fewer restrictions where supported by scientific evidence.
A spokeswoman said: ‘The UK has been very stringent on these issues. It is one of the strictest countries in the world and there is a good reason for that - to protect the people and animals already here.
‘It would be good to have more evidence that shows we can reduce the measures while still retaining the safe degree of protection and we would support that.’
Dr Jeff Sampson, the canine genetics co-ordinator at the Kennel Club, said they accepted the advice from specialists when it came to the vaccination programme.
‘It would make things a little bit easier for dog owners because they would not have to wait as long between vaccination and going on holiday,’ said Dr Sampson. ‘But most have had no problems with the current restrictions and have planned well in advance.’
Dr Sampson’s stance was echoed by the KC’s Secretary Caroline Kisko who told OUR DOGS: ‘Providing the Government is certain that this reduction will in no way increase the risk of dogs contracting rabies, then in general terms we would welcome the change.’
An OUR DOGS Breed Correspondent who resides in France took a clear overview of the current situation and DEFRA’s plans to amend the UK’s quarantine system, particularly on the matter of the cost to dog owners, saying: ‘The only clear-cut statement to have emerged so far from Government sources is an acceptance that the current regulations are disproportionate to the risk posed by rabies and other exotic diseases. This has prompted speculation that there will be a modification of the existing regulations.
‘The situation throughout Europe and in other pasts of the world is quite different. A puppy under 12 weeks old can enter any of European country except the UK and Sweden without a rabies vaccination if identified with a microchip. After 12 weeks of age, a 30-day incubation period must elapse after initial rabies vaccination before the dog can enter these countries. Effectively, therefore, there is easy movement of dogs throughout Europe.
‘The expected change in UK regulations will almost certainly insist on rabies vaccination before any dog of whatever age can enter the country, so the most radical change that may be on the cards is for the UK to adopt the minimum 30 day rule imposed elsewhere but the speculation aired in OUR DOGS’ Opinion column two weeks ago is that a blood test may be retained, albeit after three months rather than six, which would shorten the time required to obtain a PETS certificate.
‘However, this change will do nothing to reduce the cost of the PETS certificate which is currently around £200 per dog, requiring as it does microchipping, vaccination against rabies and the all important and expensive blood test, without which no passport can be issued.’