Rescue dogs may carry diseases dangerous for Canadian pets

As more dogs rescued from across the world find adoptive homes in Canada, some are bringing infectious diseases that can be dangerous for both people and pets.

In January, dozens of people needed rabies shots after encountering an infected dog rescued from Iran—Toronto’s first rabid dog in decades. In 2018, a Mexican rescue dog caused British Columbia’s first known human infection of Brucella canis, a bacterium that mostly infects dogs.

And between 2017 and 2018, rescue dogs from Asia sparked several outbreaks of a canine influenza virus that had never been seen before in Canada — infecting scores of dogs in Ontario and killing two.

“We’re seeing more and more disease issues with 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 bring in 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, nobody is tracking how many dogs are crossing Canadian borders every year, let alone the diseases they might be ferrying.

And in the largely unregulated rescue sector, there is little oversight to ensure organizations are operating responsibly and taking steps to reduce the risk of infectious diseases, veterinary experts say.

One popular Toronto rescue, Redemption Paws, has brought nearly 3,000 homeless dogs from Texas in four years, with 932 in 2021 alone.

A recent Star investigation interviewed dozens of former staff, volunteers and adopters who alleged the rescue imports more dogs than it can responsibly handle, and that medical issues are being missed or untreated.

A former executive director alleviates infected dogs have waited months to initiate treatments for heartworm, a parasitic disease spread through mosquito bites. The rescue has also had 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 operates safely, ethically and responsibly. In response to questions for this article, she referred the Star to a “vetting FAQs” page posted on Redemption Paws’ website on March 9.

“Despite lack of regulations and federal guidelines, we are proud of how our veterinary efforts have evolved,” the FAQ stated. “Our rescue provides exceptional access to veterinary care and does not ‘cut costs’ with treatments.”

In Canada, commercial dog imports are growing — Canada’s public health agency estimates a fivefold increase between 2013 and 2019 — and the pet rescue industry “plays one of the largest roles” in this inflow, according to a 2016 report by the Canadian National Canine Importation Working Group.

Visit any dog ​​park in downtown Toronto and you might get sniffed by a mutt from Armenia or licked by a terrier rescued from a Texas shelter.

Pet ownership spiked during the pandemic. Ethically minded dog lovers are also increasingly drawn to the idea of ​​adopting from foreign countries, where dogs might have been homeless, abused or marked for euthanasia.

While many rescues are tiny operations, some like Redemption Paws import hundreds of dogs per year.

The high volumes of rescue dogs coming into Canada with little oversight is concerning, said Dr. Louis Kwantes, president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. “(That’s) thousands more opportunities for potential damage,” he said.

Rescues therefore have an important role to play in mitigating the risk of communicable diseases, he said. He would like to see imported dogs pre-screened, vaccinated against preventable diseases, quarantined after arrival, and promptly treated if they show signs of illness. Rescues also need to ensure volunteers and adopters are educated on the risks and informed of any diseases the dogs might have, he added.

But he said such steps can be “quite costly” for rescues, especially those that deal with larger volumes. At the same time, the “bigger the operation, the more risk there is,” he said.

Redemption Paws, one of Ontario’s largest foster-based rescues, says on its website that its dogs are seen by veterinarians on both sides of the border, given “core vaccinations” and screened for six vector-borne infections. “Our dogs must be given a health certificate by a veterinarian in Texas before they are cleared for travel to Canada.”

Former executive director Kyle Hodder said he quit the rescue in July, however, partly due to concerns over a “lack of care” provided to dogs.

Three Redemption Paws rescue dogs — left to right, Storm, Seneca, Butterscotch — died from a distemper outbreak in October 2020.

Hodder said that last year the rescue kept bringing heartworm-positive dogs from Texas — one of America’s worst states for heartworm incidence — even though it had months-long backlogs of infected dogs still waiting to initiate treatments in Toronto. The American Heartworm Society recommends initiating treatments immediately after diagnosis.

Heartworm is a serious parasitic disease that rarely infects humans but can be fatal for 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 heartworm-positive dogs and follows protocols established by the American Heartworm Society.

The rescue has experienced backlogs at times due to shortages in heartworm medication and resorted to “a second-line protocol” in which infected dogs were put through “a prolonged method of treatment with the goal of still killing the worms while also preventing the spread of the parasite,” according to the FAQ page.

“Rather than giving up, our rescue has always continued to treat dogs,” the FAQ page reads. “In dog rescue, you cannot avoid identifying some dogs with heartworm infection and we refuse to stop taking in dogs because they might have this disease.”

Hodder and other former staff and volunteers who spoke to the Star also had concerns with Redemption Paws’ distemper outbreaks. Simone previously told the Star the rescue has had three distemper “incidents.”

Distemper is a highly infectious disease that’s often fatal for dogs. The key to stamping out a deadly outbreak is good communication and swift 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.

Clinton, now named Buster, was one of five Redemption Paws dogs infected with distemper in a 55-dog shipment from Texas to Toronto.

Hodder said Clinton was one of five dogs that became infected with distemper in a 55-dog shipment 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 Oct. 13. Fosters were emailed about the distemper case on Oct. 27 — with a note across the top asking people not to circulate the information and reminding them of their nondisclosure agreements, which all volunteers have to sign. During those two weeks, Clinton had brief interactions with dogs on walks and visited households that owned pets.

Simone didn’t answer the Star’s questions as to when the first case was confirmed through testing. On its FAQ page, Redemption Paws said NDA reminders are standard for mass emails sent by the rescue, and fosters and adopters were “encouraged to share this information.”

Hodder said that after Redemption Paws’ first distemper outbreak, it required that dogs be vaccinated against distemper prior to leaving Texas, though he doesn’t know how rigorously the policy was adhered to. 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. It said the rescue has strict protocols for quarantine and isolation and pursued “all recommended diagnostic testing and veterinary treatment.”

“For our fosters who experienced distemper, they received near around the clock care and support via phone, Zoom and text,” it 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 sector, which would help educate organizations while also better protecting human and animal health.

Kwantes said he supports rescues that help dogs from overseas. But they can do more to ensure their missions aren’t also causing inadvertent harm at home, he said.

The canine influenza outbreaks in 2017-18 — which were traced back to rescue groups importing from China and South Korea — infected at least 104 dogs across Ontario.

While canine influenza doesn’t infect humans, a 2019 paper co-authored by Weese raised concerns that the virus could mix with other influenza viruses capable of infecting dogs — potentially creating new strains with “broader host range and pandemic potential.”

Weese’s paper also showed how the virus spread from dog to dog, moving through foster networks, boarding facilities, kennels, veterinary clinics, dog daycares and a “canine group activity.”

Weese said canine influenza was eradicated in Canada after these first cases popped up, thanks to rigorous contact tracing and swift interventions. But the virus has gained a foothold in the US, where it continues to spark massive outbreaks.

“Just one dog bringing in one virus, and you can bring a disease into a country that affects thousands of animals,” he said.

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