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New CDC Dog Import Rules Will Affect Border Crossings and Air Travel

New CDC Dog Import Rules Will Affect Border Crossings and Air Travel

Live animal crates are stacked on a cart to be loaded onto an airplane

The CDC is expanding rabies requirements for importing dogs into the United States from all foreign countries

In May of 2024, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new rules governing dog imports into the United States. The rules are aimed at standardizing the process between countries and preventing the introduction of canine rabies into the U.S., but the broad-sweeping changes will have lasting impacts on breed clubs that depend on imported puppies for genetic diversity as well as dog owners who regularly cross international borders—including Canada.

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The CDC differentiates between countries considered to be high-risk for rabies and those that are low-risk or rabies-free. Currently, the rules and requirements for importing dogs from high-risk countries are much stricter than they are for dogs coming from low-risk or rabies-free countries. Starting August 1, however, the rules will be broadened to essentially apply the high-risk protocols to every foreign country regardless of their rabies risk status. 

What’s changing in the dog import rules?

The details of the new requirements are available directly from the CDC and should be used as the official reference for preparing travel documentation. The changes come down to a few key items:

  1. No dog may enter the U.S. until it is at least six months of age
  2. All dogs entering the U.S. must have an ISO-compatible microchip with the chip number included on all veterinary documents, including proof of rabies vaccination
  3. All dogs entering the U.S. must have a CDC Dog Import Form filed online and processed prior to the border crossing

While the microchip and documentation requirements may introduce more hassle to the border crossing process, it is the six-month-old requirement that will cause the greatest impact with the least amount of supporting data to justify it.

Why can’t puppies cross the border anymore?

When asked for data supporting the minimum age requirement for puppies arriving from low-risk countries, David Daigle of the CDC’s communication department provided the following remarks.

“The six-month age requirement for entry is not new for dogs from high-risk countries; under the current temporary suspension (expiring July 31, 2024), dogs from high-risk countries must be at least six months to enter. The updated regulation makes this requirement consistent for all dogs entering the United States. All dogs must be at least four months old to receive a rabies vaccine, and that vaccine takes approximately 28 days to become fully effective. If a blood titer is needed for the dog’s entry, it must be drawn at least 30 days after the rabies vaccination and 28 days before entry. This adds up to six months.”

If it seems like this answer is aimed at countries with a high risk of canine rabies, you’re not wrong. That’s when some of the reasoning behind the standardization came to light. Daigle continued, “The update addresses the numerous documented government partner challenges with dog importations, including fraudulent vaccine documentation and fraudulent documentation about the country of origin.”

That explanation makes it clear that there is no scientific reason to prohibit the importation of young puppies from low-risk countries, but rather a problem with enforcing the current rules for those coming from high-risk countries. Commercial importers can falsely claim that a dog came from a low-risk country, thereby reducing the documentation requirements and even eliminating the need for a rabies vaccine if they also claim the dog is too young to be vaccinated. Daigle didn’t specify the extent of the problem with import fraud, but it is apparently enough for the CDC to have genuine concerns about its ability to prevent the reintroduction of canine rabies in the U.S. 

Daigle also noted that it’s easier to age dogs after six months, once their adult teeth emerge, further highlighting the concern about fraudulent imports.

What is the impact of the new import rules on the veterinary community?

Dr. Jessica Bell is an associate professor at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. As part of her duties in the Community Practice department, she is responsible for processing international health paperwork for companion animals imported and exported to and from the U.S.

Dr. Bell noted that, overall, the concept of streamlining the import process was a good idea—especially when it comes to standardizing dog identification with microchips and ensuring that the correct dog is identified on all accompanying paperwork.

“I’m actually surprised that this update didn’t happen sooner, as our current process is pretty lax compared to some other countries when it comes to records and identification. I see the necessity in order to keep our dog, livestock, and human populations safe,” Bell said. “The U.S. technically has no rabies in our dog population because of our vaccination protocols. We really do a good job of vaccinating our domestic animals.”

She, too, is aware of the problem with fraudulent paperwork and falsified veterinary records, including even forged names and signatures of veterinarians who never examined or treated the animal in question. The hope is that a tighter process will make it more difficult for sick dogs to make it into the country and bring unwanted diseases across the border.

The rollout and communication of these changes, however, has left a little to be desired within the veterinary community. When asked for any parting thoughts on the subject, she didn’t hesitate to say what was on her mind. “Please understand that it takes time for vets to learn the new process and the new paperwork. Plan ahead for your travel and be patient with us while we figure it out.”

Unintended consequences for the U.S. dog community

Standardizing and streamlining processes is generally a good thing, and there are certainly positive aspects to the new import rules. However, the sweeping nature of these changes has unintended consequences for breed clubs and dog owners in North America. Organizations such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) have submitted letters to the CDC describing their concerns with the new regulations.

The AKC’s letter notes that the organization is enthusiastically in favor of requiring microchips for positive identification and to reduce the risk of fraudulent entries. However, they protest the six-month-old rule for personally-owned dogs arriving from low-risk countries:

Responsible purebred dog breeders are not strangers to international collaboration. For many decades, these practices—which may include export and import for breeding and whelping, and private transfer of promising show, working, performance, and breeding prospects—have not only helped ensure that the world’s unique breeds are preserved and improved, but also that health benefits may be realized through genetic diversity

While we understand CDC’s enforcement efficiency-rationale…we respectfully disagree that it should apply to personally-owned dogs arriving in the United States by air. Not only would it take away opportunities currently available to a person to import a personally-owned dog under six months of age, but it would also reflect a failure of the to consider the difference in risk profiles between non-commercial importers of personally-owned dogs and commercial importers who import dogs for further distribution via shelters, rescues, or retail outlets.

NAVHDA’s response focused instead on the additional burdens placed on members that regularly cross the Canadian border as well as Canadian breeders who sell puppies to U.S. families.

Many of NAVHDA’s members travel between the U.S. and Canada with dogs under six months of age for veterinary care as well as training and testing. The new regulations would unfairly put a stop to these practices along with our general ability to travel with our dogs for recreational and business purposes.

The NAVHDA membership—as well as that of other sporting dog organizations—includes Canadian breeders who rely on sales to individual puppy buyers in the U.S. For reasons including health, socialization, and training, puppies should be placed in their new homes between 8-10 weeks of age. It is not only detrimental to wait to place a puppy in its home until it is 6 months of age, but it also puts a financial and logistical burden on the breeder.

Overwhelmingly, dog-based organizations are asking for the CDC to revisit the new rules and consider waivers or common-sense exemptions. However, it was those very exemptions for low-risk countries that allowed fraudulent imports to gain traction in the first place. It’s a challenging question of how to prevent the illegal actions of a few commercial importers without punishing rule-abiding individuals in the name of national biosecurity. For now, the pendulum has swung toward holding everyone accountable for the bad actors.

Regardless of opinions on the matter, Americans will soon have to adjust to the new requirements affecting international border crossings with their dogs. Early preparation such as having microchips done prior to vaccination will help ensure correct identification on all documents. Breed clubs and breeders will have to look at other options to increase genetic diversity without the possibility of bringing in puppies from foreign countries. One can hope that more common-sense flexibility may be granted in the future, but until then, Americans are stuck with the new rules as they are currently written. Above all, following the words of Dr. Bell, “Please be patient with your vet.”

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