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Britain now at higher risk of rabies, says Government's Chief Vet

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When the quarantine rules were changed last year, the Government’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens said he did not believe think the UK would be at greater risk of rabies. However in an interview with Channel 4 Dispatches he now admits to concerns and calls for action to be taken following the programme’s undercover investigation.

Nigel Gibbens accepted that the risk of rabies is higher than it was before the rules changed, adding: “And higher than we intend it to be and higher than it can be, I say again, animals sourced from Europe do not present a very high risk but smuggling and evading the rules definitely does because we don’t know the provenance which is why it’s very important, I agree with you, we are already looking at this to drive down to seek to eliminate that illegal trade.”

Before the change in rules last January only older dogs could come into the UK but now young puppies are allowed in. Gibbens admits the government did not predict the large increase in puppies that would be imported from Eastern Europe exploiting the pet passport scheme and then sold illegally in Britain

The investigation airing tonight (Monday 11th March at 8pm) reveals how Britain’s decision to relax quarantine rules in January 2012 is now putting human health at risk.

The move sparked a dramatic rise in the number of dogs coming into the UK - in particular in the lucrative trade in small designer puppies imported from countries like Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia where rabies is high risk.

The investigation findings also include:

· Puppies crammed into cages and driven across Europe in appalling conditions. One importer was secretly filmed by Channel 4 Dispatches with a van loaded with 45 puppies having travelled for 22 hours from Slovakia

· Pet passport scheme is open to abuse with importers falsifying information including the age of puppies in order to get around Department of Environment (DEFRA) rules restricting dogs under 15 weeks old from being imported into the UK. This 15 week rule is a safeguard against the risk of puppies bringing in diseases such as rabies

· Channel 4 Dispatches hears from some of the country’s leading animal health and veterinary professionals who voice genuine concerns about the risk of rabies entering the UK, including animal health inspector, Sharon Edwards, who warns that the dogs they quarantine are just the ‘tip of an iceberg’

· We hear from the Garth family who were petrified to learn that their English bulldog puppy Winston they bought from Hungary had suspect paperwork and rabies vaccinations. The puppy was put in quarantine and revaccinated by animal health inspectors costing the family hundreds of pounds

Small designer dogs have never been so fashionable and a must for any self-respecting celebrity. Adele’s got a dachshund called Louie, Robbie Williams has got a maltipoo called Poupette and David Beckham’s got an English bulldog called Coco.

The trade in small dogs and exotic crossbreeds like cockapoos is a lucrative business with some of the most popular costing hundreds, even thousands of pounds. A Shih tzu will set you back anything up to £600 and a miniature schnauzer will cost as much as £800. Other fashionable breeds can cost more that £1000 but puppies imported from Eastern Europe, can cost a fraction of the price.

Huge increase in dogs imported on pet passports

Since the year 2000 people could only take their pets in and out of the UK on pet passports. Owners needed to vaccinate pets against rabies and wait six months before taking them overseas, which meant that only older dogs could come in and out of Britain.

However, last year that all changed when the Government relaxed the quarantine rules. Now you can bring in young puppies and it’s fuelled a massive increase in the number of dogs brought in on pet passports - up from more than 85,000 in 2011 to nearly 140,000 in 2012.

Notably, since the relaxation of quarantine rules, thousands of cheap puppies are being brought in from Eastern Europe each year many of them illegally.

Sharon Edwards, City of London animal health inspector based at the Heathrow Quarantine Centre, says: “We’re seeing very fashionable dogs, most of them ones this year, the majority have been French Bulldogs, British Bulldogs, Pugs, Yorkshire Terriers, quite small designer breeds.”

Rabies concerns

Sharon Edwards has detained four times as many illegal dogs since the change in quarantine rules and her big worry is rabies – especially as so many of the pet passports she sees are suspect.

Rabies is a viral disease that can be transmitted from dogs to humans by a bite from an infected animal. For a human, rabies can infects the central nervous system causing disease in the brain and death.

Edwards and her team are on the frontline trying to prevent rabies getting into Britain and respond immediately when they hear of a dog that might pose a risk.

“We’re seeing the tip of an iceberg,” she says. “This year we could put another team on completely investigating illegal puppies. It’s just taken over most of our working lives at the moment because we obviously don’t want to get rabies in this country.”

“Some of the animals we’ve picked up, the passport supplied with them don’t even match the puppy. Some of them have been obviously changed”, she says. “I personally just think it’s money, you know that you are getting these puppies very cheap in Eastern Europe... they are getting what looks like a bargain.”

Secret filming of a van loaded with imported puppies

Channel 4 Dispatches reporter Antony Barnett went undercover as the owner of a new online puppy business and secretly filmed an operator importing puppies by the vanload.

This operator even provided a price list such as offering French bulldogs for £275, they can sell for more than a £1000 and Dachshunds at £139 that can also sell for more than £800.

In January we set up a meeting with the importer not far from the Channel ports in Kent. Milan Vincze and his daughter had just got off the ferry with a van loaded puppies from their native Slovakia.

Like other puppy traders, Vincze is exploiting the change in quarantine rules that allow him to bring in very young puppies.

Although these puppies have passports, Vincze is not importing them as pets but as commercial livestock. This means he can sell them legally but there are no rules on how long you can transport puppies like this.

Vincze and his daughter claimed to have made a 22 hour journey from Slovakia with 45 puppies loaded into the back of the van.

If these were young lambs, they could only travel for a maximum of nine hours without a break but there are no such rules for puppies.

We showed our evidence to Paula Boyden, Veterinary Director, Dogs Trust.

“There’s no way that that number of puppies can all lie down and rest at the same time. And having cage stacked upon cage. Unless you’ve got a good deep-litter system there, there’s also the risk that as they start producing faeces and urine that it may well affect the puppies underneath. It’s just- that’s just not a good way to transport puppies,” she says.

Dispatches wanted to know what sort of puppies Milan Vincze and his daughter could supply.

“I can offer you French Bulldogs, I can promise you bulldogs. I can promise you any normal breed you want,” Milan Vincze daughter says.

But as we talked terms, Vincze’s daughter made a startling admission: that the ages on many of their puppies’ passports were false.

“The age is officially 15 weeks but they are younger mostly. Well, those are older because they were before Christmas and our customers had troubles to sell puppies, so we kept them with ourselves but usually they are younger than the stated age,” she says. “…. it's, good to tell, tell Defra and other, that's it's 15 weeks, but well, what do you tell the customer is up, to you.”

They told us that they were delivering these puppies to two regular clients. Later that day Channel 4 Dispatches secretly filmed them making a delivery to a pet shop in London.

In a statement to Dispatches Mr Vincze denied any wrongdoing. He said all his puppies are 15 weeks old and they only told Channel 4 Dispatches that the dogs were younger to win a potential new customer. He said his company fulfils all the health regulations of Slovakia and the UK and that all their puppies are properly vaccinated against rabies and echinococcus.

He told us his puppies are transported in approved conditions and has a good litter system.

Government’s Chief Vet concerned about rabies

In an interview with Channel 4 Dispatches reporter Antony Barnett the Government’s Chief vet Nigel Gibbens says he has concerns about a higher risk to the UK of rabies and calls on action to be taken:

Antony Barnett (AB): “When I started this investigation, I wasn’t concerned, now from what I’ve seen I am genuinely concerned.”

Nigel Gibbens (NG): “And so are we [genuinely concerned], it’s right to be concerned…. Under this regime we have to do the same thing, so our evidence of an increase in trade in puppies with some people evading the rules, your investigation that shows. … So it is important that we understand what’s going on and it’s important that we act and we are working with the Local Authorities and the carriers to do what we can to act to catch people when they’re doing this and provide a deterrent.”

AB: “Was it predicted that there would be this large increase in puppies coming from Eastern Europe?”

NG: “No it wasn’t predicted so now we need to deal with it.”

AB: “It seems to me that you are saying that the risk to the UK of seeing an outbreak of rabies is higher than it was before the rules changed.”

NG: “And higher than we intend it to be and higher than it can be, I say again, animals sourced from Europe do not present a very high risk but smuggling and evading the rules definitely does because we don’t know the provenance which is why it’s very important, I agree with you, we are already looking at this to drive down to seek to eliminate that illegal trade.”

AB: “Isn’t it just simply that the pet passport scheme is too open to abuse.”

NG: “Yeah unpredictable things happen and why there is this big market for puppies might be due to the economic situation as well as the potential source, certainly to do with people not being wise about their purchasing. We now know where we are, the important thing now is that we act on that knowledge.”

Puppies must be at least 15 weeks old

According to the Department of Environment (DEFRA), a puppy must be at least 15 weeks old before it can be imported into the UK. That’s because a puppy should be 12 weeks old before it’s vaccinated against rabies, to ensure the vaccine is effective. Then you must wait a further 3 weeks before importing it.

Paula Boyden, Vet Director, Dogs Trust says: “The whole reason that this 15 week mark is critical is that you can’t give a first dose before the puppy’s 3 months of age in terms of vaccination against rabies assuming that she has actually vaccinated the puppies in the first place, they should not be coming into the country at under 15 weeks of age.”

When asked if the puppies imported from eastern Europe and secretly filmed by Channel 4 Dispatches offered a genuine risk of bringing disease into this country, Paula replied: “Absolutely”.

We took our evidence to Robin Hargreaves from the British Veterinary Association: “I’d have all sorts of concerns. Once we start talking about whether these documents are fraudulent well then all bets are off.

When asked if there was a chance these dogs won’t be properly protected against rabies, Robin says: “Oh yes. Yeah, if they’ve been, if, if the documents are falsified they may not have been protected against rabies at all.”

Responding to the chance that they therefore might be bringing rabies in, he says: “Yeah. I mean a very specific set of circumstances would have to arise for that to be the case but yes, you’d have to say … it’s a possibility.”

Case Study: Garth family and Winston their English bulldog

Animal health inspectors will respond immediately when they hear of a dog that might pose a risk.

That’s exactly what happened to the Garth family. Just like David Beckham, they bought an English bulldog. But Winston turned out to come from Hungary and his paperwork and rabies vaccinations were suspect.

Father of two Adam Garth says: “They [the animal health inspectors] said that he could have rabies”.

His wife Samantha was so worried she went to stay with family. “I wanted the puppy to just go because I thought that he could have had rabies...I was petrified weren’t I in case he bit any of the children and passed it on to them,” she says.

Winston was taken into quarantine and revaccinated. Buying a puppy from Hungary proved to be a costly mistake for the Garth family.

“It cost us three hundred and fifty pound to get him back from the kennels obviously for the VET fees, the passport we had to pay for and for him to stay in the kennels,” says Adam. “The message is to make sure that you check all the paperwork before you hand any money over whatsoever.”

Undercover Designer Dogs – Channel 4 Dispatches – Monday 11th March at 8pm

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