American pets to be given passports

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The Independent Online

Whether the vexed issues of steel tariffs or Camp X-Ray will receive the same high-level attention remains to be seen but one Anglo-American diplomatic sore point, at least, is on the point of being resolved – the plight of intercontinental cats and dogs.

The Government confirmed yesterday it was preparing to remove quarantine restrictions on bringing pets from North America to Britain after years of diplomatic pressure from Washington. Ministers are studying two reports that suggest the "pet passports" scheme for the European Union and rabies-free countries could be safely extended to America and Canada.

The move will be welcomed by the 300,000 Americans, including military personnel, living in Britain. Some diplomats were reportedly turning down postings because of the trauma of separation from pets.

The campaign to change Britain's stringent quarantine laws has attracted several high-profile supporters from pet-loving transatlantic glitterati such as Sting, Elton John, Liz Hurley and David Hockney. Chief among them was Elizabeth Taylor, who considered pulling out of her investiture as a Dame at Buckingham Palace in 2000 when she was told her Maltese terrier could not attend.

Other beneficiaries of a more pet-friendly "special relationship" could include President Bush, who is regularly seen with his Scottish terrier and springer spaniel.

An extension of the travel scheme to North America was expected to be put forward last year but the foot-and-mouth outbreak caused a delay in the plans. Elliot Morley, the animal health minister, is now consulting other government departments on whether it is safe to include America – which still has rabies – in the scheme. A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "This is not something we have taken a firm decision on but we hope we will be able to, eventually, extend the scheme to North America."

More than 40,000 cats and dogs have been allowed into Britain since the introduction two years ago of the Pet Travel Scheme, which now applies to 52 countries. The system allows pets to avoid six months in quarantine by being vaccinated against rabies and having tests to ensure that the inoculation has worked.

Animals are only allowed into the country with documentation and a microchip inserted under the skin to prove that the vaccination has taken place. Follow-up visits to a vet can also be required.

Britain has been under pressure from successive US administrations to extend the quarantine exemption and allow travelling Americans to bring their pets with them. Sources at Defra confirmed that the move, which could be announced as early as June, followed representations from American embassy officials.

One Whitehall official said: "This has been a subject of concern to the Americans for some time, even with everything else going on after September 11. They are pet lovers like us."

As well as rabies, which is still prevalent on the east coast of the United States, any animals entering Britain would need to be free of a number of other parasites, including ringworm and heartworm.