Over the past ten years the business of overseas pet importation has seen some pretty impressive growth. Which is a very, very bad thing. That is, if you care at all about animal welfare and public health.

According to a March 1st article in DVM Newsmagazine online,

At last count, in 2006, 287,000 dogs crossed the United States' borders, and veterinary officials fear the problem is getting worse.

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 underage puppies.

So it is that our domestic successes have translated — yet again — into (a) worse conditions for others elsewhere (Latin American and Eastern European puppy mills cannot be a nice place to come from if the health of the imports I've seen is any guide); and (b) a huge potential health hazard — to humans, I mean.

It's this latter point that's usually glossed over, but not in this article, where CDC researchers are looking hard for a solution on the basis of the importation of serious zoonotic diseases along with these puppies:

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…

But it's not just rabies. There are other scary bugs out there, too, bugs that haven't seen our soils for decades due to better health screening of more traditional agricultural species (like hogs and beef cattle). The dog as ag species is still novel enough that we can't even properly track their numbers at our borders:

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 requirements.

Scary, right? The fact that there is a huge loophole in our war on animal welfare is one thing, the yawning gap in our nation's biological defenses is quite another.

To be sure, it's already a big problem where I live. In South Florida, I guesstimate that over 50 percent of the French bulldog and French bulldog crosses (yes, these are popular here, too) are imported from Eastern Europe, where it must cost next to nothing to C-section a bitch.

How do I know? These pups are arriving as four- to six-weekers, I've been informed (and I've seen some terribly young ones, too), which is partly why morbidity and mortality rates in these pups in the days immediately post-arrival are sky-high.

Federal regulators, who are so new to the problem that they lack the capacity to handle this burgeoning new breed of animal import may be asking, but what are we to do?

Well, for starters, I suggest we consider treating these dogs like any kind of agricultural import. But then, that's just a veterinarian's opinion. And what do we know? Animal welfare and public health are obviously someone else's purview when it comes to commerce.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Caged Cuteness by Mike Fischer