Nature: Pet passports may replace rabies laws

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Britain's tough anti-rabies laws could be replaced by passports for pets, immunisation and micro-chips by the end of 1998. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says that Lord Rothermere and Chris Patten will be pleased.

Animal welfare groups led by the RSPCA yesterday warmly welcomed the first step towards replacing Britain's six-month quarantine requirements for pets with an updated system of "pet passports" backed up by compulsory vaccination against rabies.

The Government Green Paper published yesterday said the new checks could be in place in late 1998, if action is agreed. There was heavy briefing that no decision had been reached, but ministers are expected to opt for legislation requiring pets to be vaccinated against rabies, the use of micro-chip implants to identify the animals, blood tests and certificates to prove they are clear of the deadly viral disease.

It could enable travellers heading for European Union countries such as France and Italy to take their pets with them on holiday for the first time. The cost of the new checks would be borne by pet owners, but it could prove cheaper and less stressful for pets and their owners than holding the animals in quarantine kennels for six months, which can cost up to pounds 1,200 per pet.

Announcing the consultation paper, Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, told the Labour Party conference in Brighton that no changes would be introduced unless they were as effective in combating rabies as the present system.

"It is time to take a fresh look at our quarantine laws," said Dr Cunningham, a dog lover himself. "But any new system must be at least as effective in protecting the British people as the system we have had in place for most of this century."