Federal authorities are set to close Canada's borders Wednesday to commercial dogs, including ones being put up for sale or adoption, from more than 100 countries deemed to be at high risk for canine rabies.
The move has been met with fierce opposition from some animal rescuers and advocates, but the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association says it's necessary to protect people and dogs from a deadly disease.
Canada currently has no active cases of dog rabies, which is caused by a different variant of the virus than the one that circulates in wildlife such as raccoons and foxes, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in announcing the policy in June.
While rabies is nearly 100 per cent preventable with proper vaccination, the disease is more than 99 per cent fatal for humans and dogs once they start to show symptoms, the agency said.
The CFIA said dog rabies kills 59,000 people every year in the countries affected by the ban, including Afghanistan, Ukraine and mainland China.
Canine rabies has become a growing concern in Canada since the U.S. implemented a similar ban last year, prompting some rescue groups to redirect their efforts to send more dogs to Canada,said Louis Kwantes, past president of Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
"We always knew that the risk was there," Kwantes said. "But when it's actually in your country, that theoretical risk becomes a real and present danger."
Two cases of rabies in dogs imported from Iran — one of the banned countries — have been confirmed in Ontario since July 2021, according to the province's Agriculture and Food Ministry.
Both dogs had received rabies vaccines that aren't licensed in Canada before their arrival, Ontario officials said. A total of 49 people who came into contact with the dogs received rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, a type of treatment that is estimated to cost about $2,000 per person.
Kwantes said these cases are illustrative of the danger posed by even a single case of canine rabies making its way into the country.
While dogs are routinely vaccinated against rabies, most Canadians are not, he said. Given the close relationship between them, the canine variant is cause for concern, he said.
Rabies is a slow disease, and depending on where the bite is, it may take months for symptoms to be detected, said Kwantes. That means if a dog was bitten and exposed to rabies before it was vaccinated, the virus could be "hidden" for months in its nervous system, he said.
Many of the banned countries don't have robust veterinary systems, said Kwantes, raising concerns about fraudulent vaccine certificates or inadequate inoculation.
While the CFIA's stance may seem severe, Kwantes said he believes it's warranted given the risks that canine rabies and other contagions that are endemic to other countries pose to Canada's human and dog populations.
"Even though it's a very difficult step, I do not think it's an unreasonable one," he said.
But Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice Canada, said the CFIA should have explored less stringent measures before imposing an all-out ban.
"They've gone from zero to 100 very quickly," said Labchuk.
U.S. authorities have extended the country's ban on dogs from countries where rabies is a problem until 2023, but also created a pathway to allow the entry of dogs that meet certain requirements.
Labchuk said Canada should have considered making similar exceptions as part of its policy, suggesting protocols such as additional vaccine verification, antibody tests and mandatory quarantines.
These steps would be labour-intensive and expensive, she acknowledged, but would still be preferable to "condemning" dogs in need of rescue.
"Canada has really been a lifeline for dog rescue agencies operating internationally," said Labchuk. "The dog rescue organizations that we work very closely with are devastated."
A number of dog rescues from across Canada have spoken out against the ban, with some even pledging to bring in as many animals as possible before it takes effect Wednesday.
Susan Patterson, founder of Thank Dog I Am Out Rescue Society in Vancouver, said the frenzy is emblematic of some of the issues surrounding the "rescue" of international animals.
Many well-meaning but inexperienced rescuers don't consider the infrastructure and resources it takes to ensure the dogs'welfare in Canada.
Patterson said she sees the CFIA ban as a tough but necessary measure until policies are developed to hold rescue groups "accountable" by making sure they do their due diligence before importing dogs they might not be equipped to care for.
"There's a huge passion to bring in as many animals as you can," said Patterson, whose group was part of an effort to bring hundreds of animals from Afghanistan to Canada.
"But it doesn't end when the dog's feet land on Canadian soil. There's a lot to do once they arrive."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2022.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press