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Dogs stranded abroad as families face changing rabies rules

By AP | Jul 31, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — She thought she had done everything necessary to bring their dog from Kenya to their new home.

She’d had the rabies shots updated in Nairobi. She’d had a vet there check the spotted spaniel for worms and sent photos of Toffee’s teeth to prove she was at least six months old. She’d scanned her husband’s passport, gotten an export permit, filled out dozens of U.S. and international forms.

Kacey Bollrud, 47, and her husband have been flying their pets from his Foreign Service posts to her parents’ place in Pensacola since 2006. For their girls, 9 and 12, pets help faraway feel like home. Moving their dog has always been complicated, but doable.

But this March, when the girls’ father was sent from Kenya to a post in Washington, D.C, the family learned the rules had changed. New regulations, meant to ward off rabies, were leaving thousands of dogs in limbo as their owners struggled to bring them stateside.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had restricted bringing dogs in from 113 high-risk rabies countries – including Kenya.

Bollrud’s daughters wept when they had to leave Toffee behind.

“They have to start at a new school, make new friends, set up a new house,” their mom said. “Having a pet to come home to at the end of the day to sit on the sofa and lay her head in your lap is incredibly comforting.”

New rules, which went into effect in July 2021, require that dogs coming into the U.S. from those 113 countries have a rabies vaccine approved by the U.S. Then, the dogs have to wait 30 days and have a titer blood test, to see if they have enough antibodies. Only a handful of laboratories around the world process those tests. Results can take months.

People who have to uproot quickly, including from Afghanistan and Ukraine, don’t have time to follow the new protocol – and have to abandon their pets abroad.

Bollrud called labs to test her dog’s blood in Belgium, then South Africa. By the time she found a place, her husband had to report to his new post in D.C.

A friend agreed to foster Toffee in Kenya, take her to get blood drawn for the $1,000 test, try to help reunite her with her family.

Every day, for almost five months, Bollrud’s daughters have asked about their dog: Does she miss them? Will she remember them? When will they be able to hug her again?

If you’re traveling internationally with your dog, or trying to bring one back from abroad, you’ll have to plan months ahead, spend more money and follow CDC guidelines – which keep changing.

Over the last year, thousands of people have had problems trying to bring dogs into the U.S.: military members, State Department workers, federal contractors, refugees and animal rescue groups.

No one knows how many have had to leave pets overseas.

The CDC said new rules “protect the public’s health against the reintroduction of canine rabies” – which was eradicated in the U.S. in 2007.

About 1 million dogs come into the U.S. every year – 100,000 from the restricted countries. To the CDC, each dog is a risk, however slight.

In the last seven years, three dogs flown into the U.S. from Egypt and one from Azerbaijan tested positive for rabies.

CDC workers turned away 458 dogs for having invalid vaccines or improper paperwork in 2020, a small percentage of all imports – but a 52 percent increase over the previous year.

“The COVID pandemic diverted resources from dog vaccination efforts in many high-risk countries,” said spokesperson Belsie Gonzalez of the CDC. “We suspect the risk of rabid dog importation will be higher in the coming years as a consequence.”

Because more people wanted pets during the pandemic, more groups were trying to bring dogs from overseas. That might have caused an increase in dogs being turned away, wrote CDC veterinarian Emily Pieracci.

With fewer international flights, and many airlines refusing to fly animals, dogs denied often have long waits before being sent back, the CDC notice said. Many get sick, waiting in crates. Some die.

Critics say the new requirements are unnecessarily restrictive, sometimes impossible to comply with.

The narrow pathway to get permission to bring a dog into the U.S. now could cost $15,000 instead of $500. Rescue groups may no longer be able to afford to save dogs from foreign meat markets, or get them off streets abroad.

In September 2021, Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, and 50 co-signers asked the CDC to drop the ban after a year. Dogs should be allowed to get vaccinated in their home countries, he wrote. The government should establish a “pet passport” and make room for animal charities to keep saving lives.

In May, Crist wrote another letter, imploring the CDC to help Ukrainian refugees bring their dogs to the U.S. Considering the rarity of rabies, the congressman wrote, “This ban is doing more harm than good.”

Bollrud’s friend took Toffee to the vet in Nairobi in early April. Results came at the end of May: plenty of rabies antibodies.

If the paperwork checked out, their pet could be cleared to come into the U.S.

But Bollrud had to find a way to fly her here. One airline wanted $6,000 to ship her as cargo.

“The new CDC ban is by far the most difficult and frustrating problem we have ever had to deal with,” she said. “I don’t mind bearing the costs as a pet parent, but the government needs to make the process easier.”

She wishes military and government workers posted overseas were exempt.

“The girls are really scared for Toffee,” Bollrud said. “Our family isn’t whole.”

A few weeks ago, her girls were watching Little House on the Prairie. When the dog got lost, her youngest daughter sobbed into the sofa.

Most of the 113 countries the U.S. restricts dogs from are considered “hardship” posts, said Melissa Mathews, 50, a Floridian whose husband has been stationed in Jordan with the State Department. “This ban makes it even harder to recruit workers there.”

At least 40 percent of military and foreign service families abroad have pets, Mathews said. The ban “felt like our own government was attacking us. We can’t leave them behind.”

Her husband recently considered another post in the Middle East but worried about bringing their mixed-breed dog, Evie, back to Ormond Beach.

So they’re moving to Austria, which isn’t a high-risk country for rabies.

In June, the CDC extended the dog import ban through January 2023.

But they had heard the outcry, so they created a route for animal welfare agencies. Once in the U.S., foreign-vaccinated dogs need to be re-vaccinated and usually spend a month in quarantine – all at the importer’s expense.

In most cases, they can only fly in through four airports in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami. The CDC contracts with private facilities to board detained dogs. The government doesn’t have oversight there.

Managers at the Miami contractor, Pet Limo, declined to comment.

Peter Fitzgerald is a retired professor at Stetson Law School in Gulfport and has volunteered with international dog rescue groups for 30 years. He adopted a golden retriever from Turkey and another in Florida. During exams, he brings them to Stetson to help soothe stressed-out students.

He’s encouraged about the revised regulations. But he doesn’t think there are enough entry ports. He believes the CDC needs an advisory committee.

“We need one agency overseeing the process,” he said. “One set of rules for everyone bringing in dogs.”

Before the ban, one of the groups he helps was sending 300 dogs a year to the U.S., saving them from meat markets in Thailand.

Now, he worries the increased hassle – and expense – might make such a mission impossible.

“Compassion doesn’t have international boundaries,” Fitzgerald said. “But adoption fees won’t even cover our expenses.”

Finally, she has a plan.

After weeks of research, phone calls, negotiations, Bollrud found a way to get her family’s dog from Kenya.

She couldn’t fly Toffee to Dulles airport, because some summer days there bring heat embargoes — Toffee could get stuck.

So on Aug. 25, her friend will fly with Toffee from Nairobi to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Boston. Bollrud will drive the 400 miles there from D.C.

And after six months, her girls will have their dog.

They can’t wait to take Toffee to a dog park, to the doggie cafe they discovered, to pick out a puppy popsicle.

To cuddle on the couch and have her home.