The pilot project unveiled by ministers will charge owners up to pounds 200 to vaccinate their pets as a rabies-free alternative to the current six- month quarantine period. The move to end Britain's 100-year-old quarantine laws, which could begin as early as next January, was welcomed by most campaigners as a step forward.
However, the spectre of long delays was raised when it emerged that only one laboratory in the UK was ready to take the blood tests central to the scheme. Although there are estimated to be 350,000 Britons who want to travel overseas with their pets, the laboratory approved by the Government can currently process samples from no more than 30,000 animals a year. Richard Cawthorne, the Assistant Chief Veterinary Officer, said it would be a "commercial decision" for other laboratories to take part in the scheme and he hoped the number would increase.
In a statement issued yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food admitted: "At the moment, blood testing capacity is extremely limited. There may be a long wait for a blood test. It may be better to delay vaccination in these circumstances.
"Pet owners may find they cannot bring in pets under the pilot scheme because they cannot get them blood tested in time. It is anticipated these problems will ease with time if lab capacity increases, but they are inevitable in transition to new arrangements."
The RSPCA and other lobby groups also attacked "Draconian" plans to force pet owners to get their cats and dogs de-ticked and wormed between 24 and 48 hours before returning to the UK. If the pets are considered by the airlines, ferry company or Eurotunnel to have ticks or worms, they will be turned back and will have to remain abroad until cleared.
This new requirement, which does not currently apply to quarantined dogs and is unrelated to fending off rabies, has been introduced by ministry vets believed to be opposed to the whole idea of relaxing the quarantine laws.
Passports for Pets, the lobby group that has led the calls for change, warned that the new restriction was impractical.
"This 48-hour window is like a French farce. Holidaymakers will be on holiday having to ... persuade a local vet on their last two days of the holiday to check their animal," said Mary Fretwell, the group's leader. "It's going to be a nightmare. I don't honestly see how such a Draconian move could possibly work. We don't have these checks at the moment, so why introduce them now?"
Baroness Hayman, the Agriculture minister who launched the pilot yesterday, said thescheme was the beginning of the end of the outdated quarantine laws that had caused so much distress to pets and people alike. "I'm delighted we are modernising the quarantine system. The new arrangements will keep Britain fully protected against rabies while letting pet owners take their dog or cat abroad," she said.
Only countries in Western Europe will be allowed to take part in the project, but guide dogs will be able to travel by air to Australia and New Zealand.
Alex Ross, of the RSPCA, welcomed the overall move to a vaccination system, which had been scientifically proved in other countries, but said he was concerned that the new "ticks and bugs" check would inconvenience travellers.
Microchip inserted under skin of dog or cat as proof of identity
Pet vaccinated against rabies
Blood test 30 days after vaccination to check pet is protected
48 hours before return to UK, check by vet to ensure animal is free of ticks and tapeworms
tAnnual booster inoculations
Western European countries only eligible
Operates solely through Heathrow airport, Channel Tunnel and Dover and Portsmouth ferries
Cost about pounds 200 per pet for total packageReuse content