As more and more rescue dogs around the world find adoptive homes in Canada, some bring infectious diseases that can be dangerous to humans and pets.
In January, dozens of people required rabies vaccinations after encountering an infected dog rescued from Iran – Toronto’s first rabid dog in decades. In 2018, a Mexican rescue dog caused the first known human infection in British Columbia with Brucella canis, a bacteria that primarily infects dogs.
And between 2017 and 2018, rescue dogs from Asia sparked multiple outbreaks of a canine flu virus that had never been seen before in Canada – infecting dozens of dogs in Ontario and killing two.
“We are seeing more and more health issues in the animals being brought in,” said Dr. Scott Weese, director of the Center for Public Health and Zoonoses at the University of Guelph. “We see dogs bringing infectious diseases that can spread to people – and people have no idea.”
Despite the proliferation of animal rescues importing dogs from everywhere from Texas to Turkey, no one tracks the number of dogs crossing Canadian borders each year, let alone the diseases they might carry.
And in the largely unregulated rescue industry, there is little oversight to ensure organizations are operating responsibly and taking steps to reduce the risk of infectious diseases, veterinary experts say.
A popular Toronto rescue, Redemption Paws, has brought nearly 3,000 homeless dogs from Texas in four years, including 932 in 2021 alone.
A recent Star investigation interviewed dozens of former staff, volunteers and adopters who alleged the rescue was importing more dogs than it could responsibly handle, and missing medical issues. or not treated.
A former chief executive says infected dogs waited months before starting treatments for heartworm, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquito bites. The rescue has also seen at least two distemper outbreaks since late 2020.
At the time of the Star’s initial investigation, CEO Nicole Simone denied the allegations and said her rescue was being carried out in a safe, ethical and responsible manner. In response to questions for this article, she referred the Star to a “verification FAQ” page posted on the Redemption Paws website on March 9.
“Despite the absence of federal regulations and guidelines, we are proud of the evolution of our veterinary efforts,” the FAQ said. “Our rescue provides exceptional access to veterinary care and does not ‘cut the cost’ of treatment.”
In Canada, commercial imports of dogs are increasing – the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates they increased fivefold between 2013 and 2019 – and the pet rescue industry “plays one of the most important roles” in this influx, according to a 2016 report from the Canadian National Canine Import Task Force.
Visit any dog park in downtown Toronto and you might get sniffed by an Armenia pooch or licked by a terrier rescued from a Texas shelter.
Pet ownership has increased during the pandemic. Ethical-minded dog lovers are also increasingly drawn to the idea of adopting from foreign countries, where dogs may have been homeless, abused, or marked for euthanasia.
While many rescues are small operations, some like Redemption Paws import hundreds of dogs a year.
The large number of rescue dogs entering Canada with little oversight is concerning, said Dr. Louis Kwantes, president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. “(It’s) thousands more opportunities for potential damage,” he said.
Relief therefore has an important role to play in mitigating the risk of communicable diseases, he said. He would like imported dogs to be pre-screened, vaccinated against preventable diseases, quarantined after arrival and treated promptly if they show signs of illness. Rescuers must also ensure that volunteers and adopters are educated on the risks and informed of any illnesses the dogs might have, he added.
But he said such measures can be “quite costly” for rescues, especially those dealing with large volumes. At the same time, “the larger the operation, the greater the risk,” he said.
Redemption Paws, one of Ontario’s largest foster rescues, says on its website that its dogs are seen by veterinarians on both sides of the border, receive “basic vaccinations” and are tested. for six vector-borne infections. “Our dogs must receive a health certificate issued by a Texas veterinarian before they are allowed to travel to Canada.”
Former executive director Kyle Hodder, however, said he left the rescue in July, in part due to concerns about a “lack of care” for the dogs.
Hodder said the last year the rescue continued to bring heartworm-carrying dogs from Texas – one of the worst US states for heartworm incidence – even though there were months of d backlog of infected dogs still waiting to begin treatment in Toronto. The American Heartworm Society recommends starting treatments immediately after diagnosis.
Heartworm is a serious parasitic disease that rarely infects humans, but can be fatal to dogs if left untreated.
And because it spreads to other dogs through mosquito bites, untreated dogs become disease reservoirs, Weese said. “If your neighbor has an untreated heartworm dog and you have a dog, then your dog will be at higher risk.”
On its FAQ page posted last week, Redemption Paws said it treats all of its dogs with heartworms and follows protocols set out by the American Heartworm Society.
The rescue has at times experienced backlogs due to shortages of heartworm medication and used “a second-line protocol” in which infected dogs were put through “an extended method of treatment with the goal of forever kill the worms while preventing the spread of the parasite,” according to the FAQ page.
“Rather than giving up, our rescue has always continued to treat the dogs,” reads the FAQ page. “In dog rescue you can’t avoid identifying some dogs with heartworm infection and we refuse to stop taking dogs because they might have this disease.”
Hodder and other former staff and volunteers who spoke to the Star were also concerned about Redemption Paws’ distemper outbreaks. Simone previously told the Star that the rescue had three “incidents” of distemper.
Distemper is a highly contagious disease that is often fatal to dogs. The key to eradicating a deadly outbreak is good communication and quick action, Weese said.
Jackie McClelland and her partner, Larry Huynh, said they were frustrated with Redemption Paws’ responsiveness when their foster dog, Clinton, developed respiratory symptoms in October 2020, followed by multiple seizures.
Hodder said Clinton was one of five dogs infected with distemper in a shipment of 55 dogs from Texas. He survived but three other dogs died, according to Hodder. (Huynh and McClelland have since adopted Clinton and renamed him Buster.)
The first dog developed symptoms on October 13. The Fosters received an email regarding the distemper case on October 27 – with a note at the top asking people not to spread the information and reminding them of their nondisclosure agreements, which all volunteers must sign. During those two weeks, Clinton had brief interactions with dogs on walks and visited households that owned pets.
Simone did not respond to questions from the Star as to when the first case was confirmed by tests. On its FAQ page, Redemption Paws said NDA reminders are standard for mass emails sent out by the rescue, and foster families and adopters have been “encouraged to share this information”.
Hodder said after Redemption Paws’ first distemper outbreak, dogs had to be vaccinated against distemper before leaving Texas, though he’s unsure how rigorously the policy has been. respected. In August, Redemption Paws experienced another distemper outbreak.
On its FAQ page, Redemption Paws said the distemper outbreaks were “deeply traumatic” for the rescue, which did its best in a difficult situation. He said the rescue had strict quarantine and isolation protocols and was pursuing “all recommended veterinary diagnostic tests and treatments”.
“For our foster families who suffered from distemper, they received round-the-clock care and support via phone, Zoom and text,” he said. “No one was neglected or left without support.”
Weese and Kwantes say they would like to see better data collection on dog imports, as well as regulations for the dog rescue industry, which would help educate organizations while better protecting human and animal health.
Kwantes said he supports rescues that help overseas dogs. But they can do more to ensure their missions don’t inadvertently cause damage at home as well, he said.
Canine flu outbreaks in 2017-18 — which were traced to rescue groups imported from China and South Korea — infected at least 104 dogs in Ontario.
Although canine flu does not infect humans, a 2019 paper co-authored by Weese raised concerns that the virus could mix with other flu viruses capable of infecting dogs, creating potentially new strains with “a broader host range and pandemic potential”.
Weese’s article also showed how the virus spread from dog to dog, moving through foster networks, boarding houses, kennels, veterinary clinics, dog daycare centers and a “canine group activity”.
Weese said canine flu was eradicated in Canada after those first cases emerged, thanks to rigorous contact tracing and rapid response. But the virus has gained a foothold in the United States, where it continues to trigger massive outbreaks.
“A single dog introducing a virus, and you can introduce a disease to a country that affects thousands of animals,” he said.