Moves by the European Commission to loosen controls on pet passports could spark the return of rabies to the UK, warn specialists in this week's Veterinary Record.
The Commission wishes to harmonise the regulations for all pets travelling between EU member states and abandon additional controls for rabies, ticks, and tapeworms on the grounds that these diseases are now rare and pose little threat.
But say the authors, who all work in a specialist commercial veterinary testing laboratory that performs serological testing for rabies and related viruses, this goes against the advice given by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
This specifies that dogs and cats from countries wishing to avoid quarantine should be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies, and tested a maximum of 24 month and a minimum of 3 months before shipment to confirm they are not at risk of passing on infection.
The authors acknowledge that the risk of importing rabies into the UK is small, nevertheless this must be set in the context of the UK being completely free of rabies at the moment.
They point to France and Germany, which are also supposedly free of rabies, yet carry out substantial numbers of tests for the disease and provide a good deal of preventive treatment for people and pets every year.
While the pet passport scheme has worked well and there have been no cases of rabies, "a significant proportion of animals fail the rabies serology test and are prevented from travelling," they write. Rabies has also been reported in dogs vaccinated against the disease, and it is far from eradicated in several parts of Europe, they add.
"Leaving aside the possible issues of under reporting, there are still recorded cases of rabies in many eastern European states and Northern Italy," they say.
Several organisations in the UK, including the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), have strongly opposed the EU plans.
This opposition must continue, say the authors. "At present rabies is not a significant differential diagnosis in neurological disease of UK cats and dogs, but this will not be the case in future if current controls are lost," they conclude.