Want to rescue a dog from overseas? It might carry a new strain of disease, researchers say.
By MICHAEL BRICE-SADDLER | The Washington Post | Published: March 29, 2019
A dog believed to have been rescued from a Korean meat farm and imported into Western Canada last year carried a strain of the highly contagious canine distemper virus, never before reported in North America, according to new research.
The dog, which was reportedly between 3 and 4 months old, developed a cough and seizures when it arrived to Canada in October and had to be euthanized, according to researchers. Its remains were examined by scientists at the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at Cornell University, who learned the dog carried a variant of the canine distemper virus called Asia-1, which is prevalent in East Asia and linked to North Korea.
Dr. Edward Dubovi, director of the virology laboratory at the center, said the potentially fatal distemper virus is a problem in all parts of the world, including North America. It affects the respiratory and nervous systems in dogs and is seen frequently in wild animals such as raccoons and foxes. Most puppies, however, are immunized against disease, he added.
But Dubovi said the possible introduction of this strain to the continent is emblematic of a larger problem: animal rescue organizations with good intentions, who aren't always aware of the viruses and illnesses these canines carry. He said he could not determine if the sick dog arrived in Canada alone, or alongside other animals that were potentially infected.
"Well-meaning people are trying to save animals, but when you move animals, you move their infectious disease," Dubovi wrote in a report of their findings. "If this particular Asia-1 strain got out into the wildlife population, then it's here forever, because you can't get rid of it once it hits wildlife."
He cited a strain of canine influenza that affected about 1,300 dogs in Chicago in 2015 — the source of which was linked to South China and Korea. Experts at the time feared influenza vaccines they had at their disposal would not be effective against the foreign strain, according to the Chicago Tribune. Doggy day cares were shut down, some dogs were required to wear a mask and potentially contaminated dogs were quarantined from others.
Dubovi estimated the Chicago influenza outbreak cost dog owners anywhere between $25 million to $75 million. While it was never determined exactly how the disease reached Chicago, Dubovi stressed not enough is done to keep track of illness in companion animals being transported overseas.
"The bottom line, at the end of the day, is we have some porous borders no matter who is bringing them in," he said.
A domestic example can be seen in the thousands of dogs affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2006. The American Heartworm Society reports that more than 60 percent of the dogs displaced by the hurricane were infected with heartworm, which is most prevalent in humid regions such as Louisiana. Veterinarians at the time expressed concern that the heartworm could spread to "non-endemic areas" such as the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, where many of the animals were relocated.
"People with great intentions didn't think about what the consequences would've been," Dubovi said. "We have the same issue here with all these poor dogs in the meat markets."
While Dubovi assumes the puppy arrived in Canada after being rescued from a dog meat farm, Adam Parascandola, senior director for animal protection at Humane Society International, said it's also possible that the dog was purchased on the Internet and imported from Korea through popular online vending services that provide consumers with tiny dogs, also known as "teacup puppies."
"I highly suspect this dog was not a rescue dog," Parascandola said. "It is certainly an issue of importation, but I don't think it is exclusively for rescue dogs."
Humane Society International estimates that more than 200,000 dogs are ordered online and shipped into the United States each year from puppy mills across the world, Parascandola said. These puppies are not always immunized for canine diseases like distemper, but as long as they aren't being flown in for commercial sale or adoption, they only need proof of a rabies vaccination to enter the United States or Canada.
"These people want this little cute dog, but they don't know what [vaccinations] to ask about," he said.
Parascandola said groups such as Humane Society International are diligent in traveling to countries like Korea to test the dogs they are saving for distemper, rabies, canine coronavirus and influenza. Even if the disease is not present, the dogs are quarantined and immunized anyway — as long as they are not too young to receive the vaccination.
That differs from the practices of some other animal advocacy groups in the United States, who may coordinate with Korean rescuers without inspecting the dogs themselves before they are imported into another country.
"We're probably one of the only groups that has full responsibility of the dogs from the moment we rescue them from where they come from," Parascandola said. He noted that while the Asia-1 strain of distemper had never been reported in North America before, that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't already exist in wild animals in the continent.
Both Parascandola and Dubovi reiterated that unlike the influenza case in Chicago, the current canine distemper immunization will likely be effective against spreading the Asia-1 strain in domestic pets. Other at-risk animals, such as those in zoos, are almost always immunized.
"They've proven themselves over the last 30-40 years," Dubovi said. "Different strains of the vaccines seem to be holding in this stage in the game."
As for other rescue organizations, Parascandola said Humane Society International recommends they consult with veterinarians about how to properly treat and quarantine the dogs they are saving to prevent the spread of disease.
"I can't speak for every rescue group, but I think the majority of them want to do what's right," he added.