By Professor Sarah Cleaveland, University of Glasgow. This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of the RSGS’s magazine, The Geographer.

Globalization has brought huge benefits and opportunities. We now expect to be able to eat tropical fruit every day of the year, even in the depths of a European winter. We assume that we can travel to almost any corner of the world for both leisure and work. And, increasingly, we expect that this right to travel will extend to travel for our pets. These expectations have invariably led to demand for greater freedom of movement of dogs and cats and, over the past 13 years, this has resulted in major changes to the regulations concerning the importation of dogs and cats to the UK. These regulations are concerned principally with reducing the risk of rabies coming into the UK.

dontsmuggledeathRabies is a deadly and terrifying disease, and the UK is currently free of the rabies virus (although some types of viruses causing rabies do circulate in British bats). Not surprisingly, rabies is far from the thoughts of most people in the UK – some of us may remember the posters of snarling dogs warning about the risks of rabies – but most people are probably not aware that rabies still occurs widely across the world. It is estimated that more than 60,000 people die from rabies each year, mostly in Asia and Africa; this translates to more than 150 people dying each day, mostly children from the most disadvantaged communities in the world. This is a horrifying statistic. But the disease is not only a humanitarian concern, it is also of direct relevance to the UK because of the risk of rabies to us as travellers, and the risk of the disease being introduced to the UK through travelling pets. This is no imaginary threat: the disease is already very close to our borders, with recent cases of rabies confirmed in puppies that have been imported into the Netherlands, and a kitten recently imported into France.

While the UK still has a greater degree of protection due to its island geography, the consequences of rabies introduction could be devastating in a country where very few pets are currently vaccinated, and where we have a huge population of foxes. Most of our towns and cities currently harbour very high densities of foxes, and we know that foxes are highly susceptible to rabies and can easily spread the disease. We are also used to the freedom of being able to walk our dogs in public places and to move our dogs freely around the UK, freedoms that are likely to be severely constrained were rabies to appear in the UK. The economic consequences could also be enormous. People coming into contact with suspected rabid animals are likely to require a course of vaccinations and treatment, and while these treatments are very effective at preventing rabies, they are extremely expensive and also in limited supply. There is no doubt that widespread exposure of people to rabid animals would stretch the resources of our health service.

Initially, in 2000, the Pet Travel Scheme (PETS) was introduced to allow dogs and cats from specified countries (either free from rabies, or considered very low risk) to enter the UK without the six-month quarantine period that had previously been required. This six-month period was considered necessary to detect rabies in animals that may be incubating the disease, as rabies can develop up to six months after an animal is bitten, but the animal appears entirely healthy during this incubation period. While removing the requirement for physical quarantine, the original PETS regulations incorporated a six-month waiting period after vaccination, which achieved a similar outcome – dogs incubating rabies would be detected before entering the UK. Furthermore, these regulations included mandatory blood testing to ensure that the dog had sufficient immunity from vaccination prior to the six-month waiting period.

However, these regulations were demanding, time-consuming and expensive, and not in line with our growing expectations and demands for freedom to travel at short notice with our pets. As a result, since 2012, the regulations have changed, with travel within the EU no longer requiring a blood test, and with a waiting period reduced to 21 days. For pets travelling from other countries, including the highly endemic countries of Asia and Africa, there is no longer need for a quarantine period, and although vaccination and blood testing are required, the waiting time is now only three months after a positive blood test ( ahvla-en/imports- exports/pets).

These changes have profound implications for disease risk, not only the direct risks associated with dogs coming in to the UK from much higher-risk areas, but the indirect consequences of changing movement patterns. Now that it is relatively simple and cheap to bring dogs and cats into the UK, the dynamics of the pet trade have changed dramatically, with massive expansion of a commercial trade in dogs from rabies-endemic areas, particularly pedigree dogs, for sale in the UK. The ease of dog movements has also led to an upsurge in the number of street dogs or shelter dogs that are being adopted and re-homed in the UK, often from high-risk areas of the world where people travel on holiday. And while the risks are still small if the regulations are followed correctly, ensuring compliance with regulations is increasingly dependent on the legitimacy of paperwork, and there are concerns that the huge commercial opportunities now opening up may be spawning unscrupulous practices.

The global connectivity between supply and demand has created new markets, which apply as much to supply of cheap puppies as to cheap clothing. These clearly present us with new challenges, and we need to be alert and vigilant to disease threats that may arise as a result. Our island situation and animal movement restrictions have protected us from rabies in the past. If we consider that the freedom of cheaper, simpler and more flexible movement of pets is worth the loss of this protection, we should at least do so with our eyes open.