With the Pet passport scheme it has become much easier to travel with your pet as well as import and export pets since the process forgoes the quarantine measures previously in place. As great as this is for pet owners who can afford to travel with their pet, we feel the MSPCA has a responsibility to educate the public on the concerns that arise from this facility, so people can take better informed decisions based on the facts.
What is required for legal pet travel?
For your pet to travel as well as for animals to cross political borders they need to have a complete and up-to-date passport. This involves microchipping the animal, vaccination against the rabies virus at least 21 days before travelling if the pet is at least 12 weeks old and anti-parasite medication given 2 to 3 days before travel, and all must be certified by the treating veterinary surgeon. If rabies vaccination was carried out earlier, the owner may present vaccination certificates which have the veterinary stamp and the animal's microchip number as proof, or subject the animal to a titre test to confirm immunization, then the vet can complete a different section of the passport instead of the place where they normally attack stamps. These sections of the passport must be completed in a manner that is tamper proof, thus will be covered over with a transparent self-adhesive screen so they cannot be altered. The rabies vaccine cannot be considered valid if given before 12 weeks because the current evidence suggests it doesn't work that early on the pet's immune system, and it takes 21 days to work, if it does, hence why you need to wait 21 days to be eligible for travel.
With this information you'd be forgiven to think that everything is dandy. We are not even talking about illegal smuggling here; it's perfectly legal. The animal is covered against the deadliest virus known to man and prevented from transporting stow-aways in their body or on their fur. After all, we assume that the people we put in power, to take such decisions for us, know more than we do and know what they're doing. You know the words that go into assume.
Assume = Ass + U + Me
Let us assume instead that the people in power are not omniscient and are just humans like you and me, which is in fact the case. Unless they've actually looked into things they probably don't know everything they need to know and therefore are prone to making decisions that aren't in your or your pet's best interest.
If you go about obtaining a passport the regular way, that is, you go to your vet, ask for a passport, they give your pet the rabies vaccine, fill in the passport, and ask you to come back 2-3 days before you travel so they can adminsiter parasite treatments and sign that last part you need to travel. You go on boarding the plane some days later with the peace of mind that your pooch is safe. Right? I'm the wasp that is going to strip you of that peace of mind.
This article quotes as many as 14.3-54.5% of dogs showing <0.5IU/mL antibodies for rabies 4 to 6 months after primary vaccination. Vaccination failure is not something new; it's just an inconvenient reality that few speak up about. Therefore vaccinating a dog does not necessarily mean they are immunized against the disease you want to prevent. The only way to confirm the vaccination has worked is to do a titre test which is not necessary to obtain permission to travel. It is only necessary if you don't have documented proof of vaccination. You won't know that your adorable munchkin is vulnerable.
Vaccines can fail for a number of reasons. Storing them in the wrong conditions can reduce their effectiveness. Some animals' immune response is weak. Other animals' immune response has a shorter memory. A number of things have to be just right for the vaccination to work, so logically I'd say the odds are stacked against certainty, and I'd prefer to see more titre tests done to ensure sufficient immunization has in fact occurred.
How does this effect your decision to travel and state policies on pet travel? Dogs Trust have been raising this flag for years now and with Brexit around the corner it is becoming more likely that the UK will be able to impose stricter criteria to allow animals into the country. Good! I hope they manage and I hope the rest of Europe follows suit because we cannot afford to allow diseases to spread to new areas where animals are naive to them and we cannot afford to burden the health services with zoonotic disease they are not equipped to treat.
Rabies is not the only disease of concern. Leishmaniosis, aka Sandfly, is endemic in the Mediterrenean and temperate zone countries, but is not in other latitudes. This is moslty because the vector that transports the leishmania parasite from one animals to the next, does not live in the cold climates you find when you travel northwards. However, direct transmission (that didn't need the mosquito) is not unheard of and has been documented. Therefore when we send dogs abroad with the parasite they might infect other dogs and humans in some way that isn't 100% certain but is suspect to happen through bites or wounds. I care about dogs whether they are here or in Germany, but I know that the German population of dogs is naiive to sandfly and therefore I would not want to increase their risk of infection. Do the authorities require us to test for sandfly before travelling or exporting dogs? No. Likewise that means that the importation of dogs also could bring new diseases to our naiive population of pets, especially if those imported animals come from a high risk/exposure demographic.
While we have nothing against the ability of pets to travel with their owners, we want to urge the public to exercise good judgement in their animal travel related decisions. Before sending your animal abroad, test for the diseases endemic to Malta. Do your research about the disease profile of the country where your pet is going to or coming from. If there are diseases that we do not have in Malta, ask yourself if it is worth the risk. Ask whoever is sending you the animal to test for those diseases and if they refuse, ask why. Learn to question what you are told because no one else will on your behalf.