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Few U.S. dog owners would be surprised to hear that federal law prohibits bringing a dog into the United States from countries that are not rabies-free, unless it is fully immunized against the disease. But if you live near a border and travel across borders on a regular basis, it can be easy to forget this rule. And doing so could land you and your puppy in a world of trouble. 

A year ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance clarifying federal regulatory requirements for importing dogs from countries that are not rabies-free. The guidance reinforced that existing federal law requires that all dogs brought into the United States from rabies-positive countries be fully immunized against rabies and accompanied by a valid certificate of vaccination. The guidance also established factors that CDC would consider when evaluating requests to import inadequately immunized dogs under the terms of a dog confinement agreement. These agreements must be requested in advance from CDC by contacting CDCAnimalImports@cdc.gov. Because a rabies vaccine may not be effective when administered to a puppy younger than three months and it takes 30 days for a vaccine to be effective, this essentially means that puppies may not be brought into the United States from Canada or Mexico (and other countries that are not rabies-free) before they are four months old, unless CDC permission is granted in advance.

Now, a year after issuance of the guidelines, large numbers of people continue to show up, without CDC preapproval, at the U.S. borders with puppies under the age of four months, says Dr. Adam Langer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of these individuals just didn’t check the rules in advance. But what’s an even greater concern are the people who are intentionally trying to smuggle puppies into the United States. “We were shocked to hear about advice circulated on the Internet about which highway exits before the border crossings are good places to pull off and hide puppies in the trunk of cars. In addition to being a federal crime, smuggling can result in dogs being seriously injured or killed as a result of being thrown around the trunk on rough roads or suffering heatstroke.”  

Langer noted that federal law requiring valid rabies vaccination certificates applies to both dogs born in the United States as well as those born in other countries that have rabies, including Canada and Mexico. Just because a puppy was born in the United States, and may be allowed into another country without a problem, doesn’t mean it will be allowed back into the United States without a valid rabies vaccination certificate.

“Right now, we handle people who show up at the border without preapproval with dogs that don’t have valid rabies vaccination certificates on a case-by-case basis to determine whether those dogs can come into the United States. This requires a lot of work and phone calls on the part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers as well as CDC staff, and it holds up the line at the border. We’re trying to educate people about the need to get preapproval from CDC, but we’re getting to the point where we will no longer be able to handle people who just show up at the border without preapproval. Loosening up the requirements to allow any unvaccinated dog to enter the United States without CDC approval is not an option. If people wishing to import unvaccinated dogs do not start getting preapproval, CDC will have to start turning the dogs around and sending them back to where they came from,” Langer says.

The best way to avoid problems at the border? If your puppy is in the United States, keep it here until it’s old enough to travel legally. If you’re awaiting arrival of your new pup from another country?  Contact the CDC ahead of time and make sure all your paperwork is in order so you can import it without incident—to you or your pup—when it’s fully immunized and ready for international travel.  For more information about import requirements, including travel with young puppies; visit the CDC’s animal imports website or contact CDCAnimalImports@cdc.gov

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