Thousands call on government to reconsider ban on dogs from countries at risk of canine rabies

Thousands of Canadians are calling on the federal government to lift a recent ban on imports of rescue dogs from countries at ‘high risk’ of canine rabies, but a representative from a veterinary association says the move was necessary to protect the public health.

In June, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that commercial dogs – including dogs for sale, adoption, fostering, breeding, exhibit or research – from approximately 100 countries would be banned from entering Canada as of September 28.

A parliamentary petition calling on the government to reconsider the ban and seek regulatory options that will allow these rescue dogs to continue to come to Canada has garnered more than 15,000 signatures since it opened last month.

Heather Hulkenberg, who started the petition, said she supports some regulations to protect Canadians from a deadly disease, she believes there is an alternative to the ban that could save these dogs.

“I thought that was a bit of a stretch,” she said of the CFIA ban. “When you make a blanket ban like that, you miss a lot of the reason people bring animals to Canada.”

The Calgary resident, who has worked with rescue organisations, said the policy will ultimately harm dog populations overseas.

“We need to look at how we can alleviate concerns about canine rabies coming to Canada while still being able to save animals from other countries,” Hulkenburg said.

Veterinary association says ban is justified

Louis Kwantes of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) said the CFIA’s decision was likely linked to two cases of rabies in imported dogs that were confirmed in Ontario in 2021.

Both dogs had received rabies vaccines that are not licensed in Canada prior to their arrival, according to the province’s Department of Agriculture and Food. A total of 49 people who came into contact with the dogs received rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, a type of treatment that is revealed to cost around $2,000 per person.

Unlike other forms of animal rabies, the canine strain has been suppressed in Canada. But even one case can pose a deadly threat to humans and dogs, Kwantes said.

“We cannot take our free status for canine variant rabies in Canada for granted,” he said, noting that once an individual begins to show clinical signs of infection, they are too late.

“Once a person or a dog is infected and shows signs of rabies, they will die.”

Stray dogs at a volunteer-run shelter in Nis, Serbia, in 2015. (Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images)

Kwantes said the CFIA’s ban was justified, given the risks.

But Rebeka Breder, a Vancouver animal rights lawyer, said there may be options other than a blanket ban.

“It’s basically a death sentence for all those dogs,” she said. “And instead of the CFIA and the federal government taking a thoughtful approach to this, they’re just using one brush to wipe everything off their list.”

Instead, Breder said, the government should work with rescue organizations to develop regulations plus restrictions that would protect public health while allowing these rescue dogs to enter Canada.

Camille Labchuk, executive director of the advocacy group Animal Justice, told CBC in an email that stricter regulations could include a foreign veterinarian signing statutory declarations indicating that they have administered a rabies vaccine, verification by Canadian veterinarians of vaccination certificates and the requirement that all dogs undergo an antibody blood test before arrival.

Prior to the ban, Kwantes said the CVMA had been lobbying the CFIA for years to impose stricter import regulations to protect Canadians from canine rabies. He said the CFIA could consider providing the regulations to change the ban, but cautioned that any such regulations would have to be strict.

“In many of these countries where the dogs come from, the veterinary services are not necessarily as robust and reliable as the ones we have in North America and Canada,” he said.

The CFIA told CBC in an email that a ban was needed to immediately address the issue, but the agency left the door open for future regulations.

“At a later date, the CFIA will explore options for further requirements for the importation of personal pet dogs and service dogs from these countries,” a CFIA spokesperson said in an email.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on June 18, 2021. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner, who is sponsoring the petition to parliament, said she hopes the thousands of Canadians demanding a review of the ban will inspire the CFIA to act.

“I think the government will eventually act. It’s just to keep the pressure on and also to say that there are different ways to approach this issue,” she said.

Hulkenberg and Rempel Garner said they were encouraged by the number of signatures the petition has gathered so far.

“I’m surprised how many people have taken the time to make sure their voices are heard,” Hulkenberg said.

“It’s something Canadians care about,” said Rempel Garner.

“And I think that’s at the heart of it all. It’s compassion, it’s benevolent.

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