From the beginning of July, commercial traders can bring dogs and cats into the UK from other European Union states without putting them in quarantine. The rule change is likely to lead to a large increase in imports and exports of animals for laboratory experiments.
Commercial traders have been allowed to import other species that can be infected, including apes, rabbits, hares and ferrets, since the beginning of this year.
The strict quarantine regulations for all pets remain. But even these may alter in the next few years under pressure from the European Commission, which is seeking to harmonise regulations throughout the EU. One suggestion is a pet's passport - certificates guaranteeing that an animal has been vaccinated and is rabies-free.
Imported dogs have been subject to strict anti-rabies controls since 1897, and the six-month quarantine period was introduced in 1901. The Channel tunnel has measures for ensuring animals cannot pass through, including fox traps, perimeter fences with animal-proof mesh buried below ground and electrified barriers at each end of the tunnel.
The Ministry of Agriculture emphasises that all the unquarantined animal imports would be subject to tightly controlled conditions. Dogs and cats must be identified and accompanied by vaccination and health certificates, and are subject to a blood test to prove effective vaccinations. By law, they must also 'have been kept on the holding of origin since birth and free from any contact with wild animals'.
A ministry spokesman said: 'We won't compromise our rabies-free status - if there's any doubt we won't let the animals in.'
But the conditions are causing concern among veterinary bodies following diseases that have appeared in imported livestock during the past year, such as warble fly in cattle and equine viral arteritis in horses. The UK has followed a policy of prevention or eradication rather than vaccination, and diseases such as warble fly had been wiped out.
Paul De Vile, vice-president of the British Veterinary Association and chairman of its rabies working party, said all imported dogs and cats should have a foolproof method of identification, such as a microchip implanted just beneath the skin.
Keeping an animal free from any contact with wild animals would have to be the responsibility of the Continental breeder and this certification will be signed by him or her. Veterinary inspectors in the UK would have to rely on a trader's honesty not only as to the animal's upbringing but its journey and potential stops en route to the UK.
Belgium, Germany and France have been running oral vaccination programmes against rabies using bait set out for foxes, and believe it may be possible to eradicate the disease from wildlife by the end of the century.
The latest French figures declare only eight known cases of rabies reported in foxes, one in stone martens and none in other wild animals.
Movement of animals from former Eastern Bloc countries into the European Union is thought to be one of the greatest rabies threats to western Europe. Apart from the natural movement of wild animals across borders, France and Germany act as a funnel for hauliers from countries such as Poland carrying live horses and cattle destined for European, Egyptian and Libyan slaughterhouses.Reuse content