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The CDC issues new rules for bringing dogs into the U.S., aimed at keeping out rabies

Traveling internationally with a dog — or adopting one from abroad — just got a bit more complicated. The CDC issued new rules intended to reduce the risk of importing rabies.
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Traveling internationally with a dog — or adopting one from abroad — just got a bit more complicated. The CDC issued new rules intended to reduce the risk of importing rabies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new rules Wednesday aimed at preventing dogs with rabies from coming into the United States.

Under the new regulations, all dogs entering the U.S. must appear healthy, must be at least six months old, must have received a microchip, and the owner must verify the animal either has a valid rabies vaccine or has not been in a country where rabies is endemic in the last six months.

Dogs coming from a country that is considered at high risk for rabies and who received a rabies vaccine from another country must meet additional criteria. Those include getting a blood test before they leave the other country to make sure the animal has immunity against rabies, a physical examination upon arrival and getting a U.S. rabies vaccine. If the dog doesn't have a blood test showing immunity, it must be quarantined for 28 days.

These are much stricter requirements than existing regulations for dog importation — for those who want to adopt from abroad and for those traveling internationally with their pets.

But, U.S pet owners shouldn't panic, says Dr. Emily Pieracci, a CDC veterinary medicine officer. "This really isn't a big change," she says. "It sounds like a lot, but not when you break it down, it's really not a huge inconvenience for pet owners."

Rabies was eliminated in dogs in the United States in 2007, but unvaccinated canines can still contract the disease from rabid wildlife such as raccoons, skunks or bats.

And rabies remains one of the deadliest diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans around the world. Globally, about 59,000 people die from rabies each year. The illness is nearly always fatal once a person begins to experience symptoms.

Today, pet dogs in the United States are routinely vaccinated against rabies.

"This new regulation is really set to address the current challenges we're facing," Pieracci says. Those include an increased risk of disease "because of the large-scale international movement of dogs," she adds, as well as fraudulent documentation for imported dogs.

The U.S. imports an estimated 1 million dogs each year. In 2021, amid a surge of pandemic-inspired dog adoptions, the CDC suspended importations from 113 countries where rabies is still endemic because of an increase in fraudulent rabies vaccination certificates. The countries include Kenya, Uganda, Brazil, Colombia, Russia, Vietnam, North Korea, Nepal, China and Syria.

That suspension will end when the new rules go into effect Aug. 1.

"This will bring us up to speed with the rest of the international community which already has measures in place to prevent the importation of of rapid dogs," Pieracci said. "So, we're playing catch-up in a sense."

The new regulations replace rules that date back to 1956. Those rules only required that dogs be vaccinated before entering the country.

"As you can imagine a lot has changed since then," Pieracci says. "International travel has increased dramatically and people's relationships with dogs have changed since the 1950s. During that time, it really wasn't common for dogs to be considered family member. They didn't sleep in peoples' beds. They certainly didn't accompany them on international trips."

The new rules won praise from the American Veterinary Medical Association. The organization "is pleased to see the implementation of this new rule that will help protect public health and positively impact canine health and welfare," said Dr. Rena Carlson, president of the AVMA in a statement to NPR.

Dog rescue advocates also welcomed the changes.

"This updated regulation will allow us to continue bringing dogs to the U.S. safely and efficiently," Lori Kalef, director of programs for SPCA International, said in a statement.

"We have seen that dogs have been a lifeline for U.S. service members during their deployments. One of our key programs reunites these service members and their animal companions here in the U.S. once they have returned home," she said. "The CDC's commitment to improving its regulations has a profound impact on the animals and service members we support, and this new policy is an important piece of that effort."

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.