It's draconian, cruel and costly. The UK remains the only nation to quarantine animals for six months. Alternative systems work elsewhere; why not here, asks Peter Popham
Why did Sadie have to die? She was an 11-year-old mongrel, the outcome of an unlikely liaison between a German Shepherd and a Spanish chihuahua. But her California-based owners, Eileen and Patrick Thompson, loved her and her son Winston (father unknown). And when they decided, on Patrick's retirement from the American military, to move back to Britain, they resolved that, despite the nightmare of six months' quarantine, Sadie and Winston would have to come too.

To the Thompsons' great distress, Sadie didn't make it through the nightmare. Eileen was careful to choose a quarantine kennel with plenty of space and high standards: she visited one, in north London, where the stink of animal excreta hit her before she got through the front door. "Big dogs, crammed into tiny cages, hurled themselves at me as I walked past. There was one kennel maid doing the work of half a dozen. The dogs were going out of their minds. I got back to the bus stop, and I just cried."

In the end, she plumped for a kennel that the family had used before without a problem. "They let us take in Sadie's favourite toys and blankets, the sort of thing other kennels won't allow."

But, as a London vet points out, "cats and dogs obviously suffer in quarantine, and it doesn't matter how luxurious the surroundings. Lock a cat or dog up for six months, and at the end, it is unwell."

Eileen and Patrick visited the kennel twice a week, but half-way through the period, on 21 June, they got a call to say that Sadie was ill. The next day, she died. The autopsy revealed that she had suffered liver failure. "I truly believe Sadie died from stress," Eileen says.

Every year, 10,000 owners travelling to Britain go through the agony of seeing their pets incarcerated in kennels, all approved by Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, that are at best sterile model prisons and at worst stinking animal concentration camps, where large dogs are penned in small cages and for months on end never see the light of day. It is a pounds 10m-a-year trade. Dozens of pets die in quarantine every year; many more fall ill, or die not long afterwards.

All this suffering is justified by the Government on the grounds of keeping Britain free of rabies, as it has been for more than 70 years. But rabies is not the terror that it was, thanks to improved treatment. More significantly, new and more effective vaccine for rabies, so-called "inactivated vaccine", has been compulsorily in use since 1971, which means that, although in Europe rabies is still found in foxes and some other animals in the wild, domestic animals have long been free of it.

Thanks to these advances, other countries proud of their rabies-free status, such as Sweden, have felt able to drop quarantine in favour of a passport system, whereby pet owners carry identity documents bearing vaccination details, coupled with a microchip implanted in the animal which allows its identity to be verified.

In Britain, not a single scientifically proven case of rabies has occurred in any imported animal since compulsory vaccination of pet and zoo animals was introduced in 1971. When the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture looked at the question two years ago, it found the case for change compelling. The MPs noted that Sweden, rabies-free for even longer than Britain, had just scrapped its quarantine system. They pointed out that rabies in Europe is largely confined to foxes, which even when rabid, do not bite humans - the last human death from rabies in France, for example, occurred in 1928.

"We would never support a change which increased the likelihood of rabies entering the UK," they averred. "A suitable system of controls through vaccination is emphatically not a relaxation of Britain's defences against rabies." In fact, they suggested, it would indirectly bolster the nation's defences against the disease by removing the temptation to smuggle. "The costs of the new procedure, a small fraction of the expense of quarantine," they stated, "would no longer provide an incentive for many to smuggle their animals into this country."

But the Government was unmoved. With the British Veterinary Association, many of whose members own quarantine kennels, the British Medical Association and other medical organisations lining up behind them, they declined to entertain any change in the law. "Anybody recommending changes to the quarantine controls would have to demonstrate that an alternative would offer at least as much protection as the present system," said the Secretary of State, William Waldegrave. Last month, the present Minister of State, Angela Browning, reiterated that position in a written reply.

The Government's rigidity on the issue baffles informed observers. "I can't see a scientific or practical reason for keeping quarantine going," says Allan Hitchins, a London vet with a flourishing practice. "All the arguments for change were strong, and the select committee was unanimously for it, but then they just seem to have hit a brick wall."

As a result, the UK, with Ireland, is the only member of the EU with quarantine regulations, and the only country in the world that still requires pets to be quarantined for six months (Australia has reduced the period to 120 days). The British system, uniquely cruel to pets, is thus a measure either of unique British wisdom and perspicacity, or of something else.

Yet, as groups pressuring for change such as Passports for Pets never tire of saying, the British position looks increasingly anomalous. For one thing, many cats and dogs that have been vaccinated against rabies already enter the UK without having to undergo quarantine. These are not pets owned by individuals, but animals that are commercially traded. The concession was forced on the Government two years ago by the European Commission. Why, if commercially traded cats and dogs present no threat, should individually owned pets continue to present a serious one? It is a Whitehall mystery.

The discovery in June of a rabid bat in Newhaven, which bit two women (both of whom recovered), brought a new element of farce to the developing drama: while Maff's draconian quarantine system puts thousands of disease- free pets through pointless misery, rabies creeps into the country by a completely different route, brought by bats hitching a ride on cross- channel ferries. Briefly, the UK was in the absurd posture of imposing a fearsome quarantine regime (because we are rabies-free), while banning British residents from taking their pets abroad (because we are rabies- free no longer). Fortunately, the strain of rabies carried by bats is different from, and less virulent than that carried by cats and dogs. The crisis only eased because the Ministry, using the loophole that the bat's rabies must have been acquired abroad (the species, Daubenton's Bat, is indigenous to the Continent), persuaded the international authority that Britain's rabies-free status still held good.

What with bats and foxes and the Channel tunnel, the British pet owner may well feel that despite quarantine, rabies is a danger worth guarding against, and that to do so he would like Fido to be vaccinated. But here's the rub: he can't. Unless you plan to take your pet abroad, it is, for reasons that even vets find it hard to get their heads round, forbidden. The Government's experts believe that the presence of vaccinated pets would make it difficult to monitor the spread of any outbreak of rabies. This is because in an outbreak, pets would be tested to see if they were rabid, and vaccinated pets would test positive because of exposure to rabies during vaccination.

So if the worst happened, and a smuggled dog, say, brought the disease in, the great majority of Britain's pets would be defenceless against it. It's the final twist of a saga which threatens to rival BSE as a catalogue of Maff intransigence and perversity.