Dog owners were elated yesterday as the RSPCA said it was in favour of abolishing quarantine for cats and dogs coming in from countries recognised as rabies-free.
Celebrities who have campaigned for the abolition of the 95-year-old British quarantine laws requiring pets to spend six months in quarantine at a cost of up to pounds 2,000 to their owners were delighted by the society's backing.
The charity's campaign for reform follows a survey which found that 86 per cent of the public would accept an alternative to quarantine if it could be properly implemented and proved to keep Britain rabies-free. The NOP survey, commissioned by the RSPCA, also found that 72 per cent of people said they would find a vaccination system an acceptable alternative.
Peter Davies, the RSPCA's director general, said yesterday that a system of vaccination, blood testing and permanent identification for dogs and cats would provide Britain with "an equal, if not greater, protection from rabies as quarantine". He is now urging the Government to commission a full-scale risk assessment of both quarantine and alternative systems and implement the "most humane and effective system" as quickly as possible.
The British Veterinary Association has not yet come out for change, but vets are known to be six to one in favour. In October a group of distinguished vets came out in favour of changing the laws. They included Lord Soulsby (the only vet in the House of Lords), Professor Richard Halliwell, and the writing vet Dr Bruce Fogle.
Jilly Cooper, a member of the pressure group Passports for Pets,said: "It's wonderful, wonderful. Passports for Pets have been beavering away lobbying and suddenly the mighty RSPCA have swung on our side. They are the ones that people listen to, so the fact that they have realised that it's cruel to keep animals in quarantine and it's a pointless exercise is fantastic."
Besides putting an end to the "awful sadness from both sides - for owners and animals", the abolition of the anti-rabies regulations would - on a personal level - herald a string of continental canine adventures for Ms Cooper. Since the age of 14, she has wanted to rescue a mistreated Spanish mongrel. "Every time I went I'd see some dog being beaten up in Spain ...But then the prospect of taking it from one hell to put it in another hell - quarantine - was too much."
If the rules are changed, she will be able to holiday with Hero, a lurcher, and Bessie, a labrador. "They can go to Paris on cheap-day returns," she said. "They can go and buy drink. I'd love to go to my brother's house in France and work out there for two or three months and take the dogs with me. It's stupid things like that."
It is a cause which has united a myriad of high-profile people from David Hockney and Elizabeth Hurley to Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, who, unless the rules are changed, will have to be parted for six months from his Norfolk terriers, Whisky and Soda, when he returns to Britain next summer.
Serena Linley, the proud owner of a bull terrier, recently signed up to Passport for Pets, joining other names such as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Elton John and Mark Birley. Passports for Pets, which was set up in 1994 by Lady Fretwell, wife of the former ambassador to Paris, now has 3,000 paid-up members.
Lord Rothermere, the Associated Newspapers press baron, is a member of Lady Fretwell's Committee of Honour.
His concern for the plight of dogs in quarantine is reflected in the Daily Mail's prominent coverage of the "barbarous", "antiquated" and "cruel" system. Many papers highlighted the story of how Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Stear's retriever, Hunter, died in quarantine from the "effects of stress and environmental deprivation".
Sir Michael wrote an open letter to Mr Davies of the RSPCA, saying: "Young Hunter died alone in his cell. He had served five months and four days of his six-month sentence; he was due to be set free on October 23, just a few days after his second birthday."
Frank Lowe, founder chairman of the advertising agency Lowe Howard Spink, is a staunch supporter of Passports for Pets, providing his advertising expertise free. Mr Lowe has had first-hand experience of the trouble the present laws can cause. After two year in the United States, he wanted to return to England.
But he refused to "subject" his three Pekinese - Chelsea, Madison and Miss Lucy - to quarantine. So he moved to Switzerland, where the rules are more lax, and has lived there ever since.
Nevertheless, Miss Lucy came to a sorry end - an end Mr Lowe blames on Britain's quarantine rules.
"She had a heart problem and died because I couldn't take her to the vet in England," he explained.
"I flew the poor dog to Paris and flew the vet out there too but it was too late. If I'd flown her into England he would have been able to save her life."
The former film star Anne Aubrey shares Mr Lowe's feelings.
Her poodle, Suki, was quarantined last year when the actress returned home to Norfolk after nine years in Spain.
"If I'd known what it was going to be like, I'd never have returned from Spain until Suki's death," she said afterwards.
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