There’s a Travel Ban on Dogs From More Than 100 Countries, and You Can Blame COVID-19

Marine Sgt. John Weldon deployed to Syria in May when an adorable, dying puppy arrived at his base.

The infantryman searched the Internet to find a recipe for homemade puppy formula. He was able to save the baby, who was only slightly larger than the hands of the person who had dropped it off. The infantryman nursed the baby every 2 to 3 hours using condensed milk and egg yolk mixed with water, yogurt and water. He also used a medical breathing tube, a syringe, and an electric needle.

Weldon sat and watched the pup he called Sully opening his eyes. He also saw his new baby teeth grow in. And his puppy nose changed from speckled pink to black. They had already formed a bond by July when the U.S. declared that dogs from 112 nations, including Syria would no longer be allowed to enter the country.
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Weldon fled Syria in August earlier than anticipated to assist U.S. troops with their withdrawal from Afghanistan. This ruined any plans to take Sully home. “My hands were tied,” says Weldon, 30, who’s now back in California, still waiting to be reunited with his dog.

Like so many of life’s disruptions in the past 20 months, the pandemic is at the center of the predicament facing Weldon and countless other humans and animals. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the ban was implemented in 2020 when the U.S. experienced shelter shortages and a rise in U.S. pet adoptions.

Sully the dog as a newborn puppy (left) and at a few months of age.
Courtesy SPCA InternationalSully as a puppy and after a while.

The nation’s firstFederal health officials state that the widespread ban on dogs traveling is intended to protect people and their pets against canine rabies. There is no treatment for it. But it has stranded tens of thousands of dogs, including some who’ve bonded with service members abroad, as well as others taken in by rescue groups.

According to the CDC, between 60,000 and 100,000 dogs are brought into the United States each year by high-risk rabies countries. Due to the pandemic, major airlines are ceasing to carry dogs on cargo flights.

Despite drastically reduced flights into the U.S. in 2020 due to COVID-19—and the reduction in animals being transported on flights—the CDC turned away nearly 460 dogs in 2020 compared to about 300 in 2019. Most of the dogs came from high-risk countries for dog rabies such as Russia, Ukraine, and Colombia.

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That’s a bigger deal than most people might think. According to Dr. Emily Pieracci (a CDC veterinary epidemiologist who specializes on rabies), dog rabies is a deadly disease that kills approximately one person per nine minutes in the world. Nearly half of those victims are under 15-year olds. According to Pieracci, 98% of all rabies-related human deaths are caused by dog rabies. It is spread through bites and scratches from infected host animals. It’s less feared in the U.S., where it’s been eliminated since 2007, but it was not an easy feat to get rid of the disease. Experts in veterinary medicine warn that one dog with the disease could reverse decades of progress and create a series of public health threats.

“The canine strain would change things completely,” says Dr. José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Although bat rabies can be found in some U.S. wildlife reserves, the spread of dog rabies could prove more dangerous and deadly to people. We live with dogs and are very close to them. This means that an infectious disease could spread quickly from one home to another in cities, potentially affecting all warm-blooded mammals, even humans. “It could be a domino effect,” Arce says, “and it could just go wild.”

Monk with rescue dog
Jessica Yang—AFP/Getty ImagesZhi Xiang (a Buddhist monk who assists in caring for and finding homes for stray animal in China) carries a dog destined towards the U.S.A at the Shanghai airport on May 26, 2021. It is now more difficult to bring dogs into the United States under new CDC regulations.

Even though Hollywood is a popular placeThere are many stories of pets becoming rabid killer dogs. However, extreme aggression isn’t the most common sign of dog rabies. It can also be accompanied by hyper-friendliness and lethargy. This makes it harder to spot the illness. Rabid dogs often become quieter and have a different bark. “People assume that a rabid dog is Cujo,” Pieracci says, referring to the novel and film about a killer Saint Bernard. “That is not the case.” Most animals develop symptoms within 30 days, but some don’t show signs for three months to a year, adding to the challenge, Pieracci says.

Infected domestic and wild animals in the United States by a single, rabid coyote that had entered Texas from Mexico in 1988. This caused two deaths. After the disease spread 160 miles northward, there were now more than 530 confirmed cases of the disease. The disease claimed the lives of all three, along with one boy aged 14 and one woman age 55. The outbreak was controlled with millions of dollars in two decades.

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According to Pieracci at least 42 states now require rabies vaccinations for their pet dogs. 38 states also mandate that cats be vaccinated. However, anti-vax sentiments have permeated pet society long before COVID. Some pet owners falsely believe vaccinations are dangerous, while others feel the shots are unnecessary because their small dogs or cats don’t venture outside. “While we would like to say that more pets are now vaccinated against rabies,” Pieracci says, “we don’t know for sure.”

<strong>“While we would like to say that more pets are now vaccinated against rabies, we don’t know for sure.”</strong>The health authorities raised concerns when hundreds arrived on American soil in 2020 with falsified records of rabies vaccinations from high-risk countries. Pieracci states that many of these imported puppies were between six and eight weeks old. This is too young for them to get rabies vaccinations. However, their paperwork showed that they had been fully vaccinated and were older.

Officials say that a rescue dog from Azerbaijan was flown to Pennsylvania in June with undetected Rabies. It then made contact with at most a dozen people and tested positive before being put down. According to Pieracci, the incident led to the United States’ largest multistate investigation into rabid dogs. Rescue groups brought in a dog with rabies-incubating symptoms for the fourth consecutive time. The CDC states that the dogs developed symptoms within minutes of arriving in the United States, despite having been brought with valid vaccine records. Two days prior to the CDC being alerted about the Azerbaijani rabid animal, the U.S. had announced a travel ban. The restrictions include dogs flying in from rabies-free places, such as the U.K., if they’ve been in a high-risk country within the last six months.

Permits vs. permits

There are exceptions. On an “extremely limited basis,” the CDC says it would issue import permits, allowing some Americans to fly dogs in from high-risk nations. This includes U.S. diplomats, U.S. government workers stationed abroad and people who have temporarily relocated to the United States with American-born pets. Pieracci states that the CDC issued over 6,720 import permits between July and October.

<strong>“I just want to get my dog home.”</strong>It hasn’t been an easy task to get one. Weldon twice was denied a permit despite receiving help from SCPA International. The group, which has assisted more than 1,200 pet soldiers with their reunited in 13 years, has also been a challenge. The group was unable to assist two military personnel since the ban. Another 32 people are still in waiting. On Weldon’s first try, the CDC said Sully was too young. The agency claimed that Weldon hadn’t submitted the correct paperwork on his second attempt. He was denied the request once more. “The application is extremely vague and frustrating,” Weldon says. “I just want to get my dog home.”

So does Sgt. John Kurulgan (Marine Corps Reservist), cared for the puppies when he was deployed to Tbilisi in Georgia earlier this year. He says the five puppies gave joy to troops, improved their morale, and helped boost their mental health, while they were away from home. Kurulgan is 27 years old and has returned to the U.S. He needs them even more now that he’s back home. His fiancee, a reservist from the Army returned to New York City on September 22nd. She was involved in an accident that resulted in her death. The two were newly engaged, and Kurulgan says his bride-to-be had been looking forward to adopting one of the puppies—particularly a mixed-breed terrier named Peggy who was the outcast of her siblings.

“I’m really looking forward to getting Peggy,” Kurulgan says, “because, to be honest, it’s been hard this past month or so. It’s the only silver lining lately.” SPCA International has arranged foster care for Sully and Peggy, while efforts continue to reunite them with Weldon and Kurulgan.

Photo courtesy SPCA InternationalLieutenant John Kurulgan is a Marine Corps Reserveist with Peggy.

For international rescueOperationalities of U.S.-based adoption groups have been stopped. After being delivered from China by No Dogs Left Behind, 112 Chinese dogs arrived in the United States to be adopted. Instead, they’re stuck in sanctuaries and shelters, which are filled to capacity, says Jackie Finnegan, the group’s vice president. About 95% of all rescue dogs had been adopted by U.S. households prior to the ban. “To have those doors slammed shut,” Finnegan says, “it was a huge blow.”Even for people who get the much-sought after clearance, the hurdles don’t stop there.

A one-way $31,000 ticket

Pet-owners with permits that allow them to fly high-risk dogs into the United States can now enter 18 airports. Three airports will become the only approved entry points in January: Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta. Delta and United are the only major airlines that allow pets in their cargo. So figuring out routes for pups to come home after receiving an import permit has been like “trying to nail jello to the wall,” says Dr. Walter Woolf, founder of Air Animal Pet Movers. With another 30 people in the pipeline, Florida’s pet-travel firm has already helped 20 people to get their pets back since the ban was implemented. Woolf states that animal lovers are spending up to 50% more because of the lack of flights and fuel cost spikes, as well as other travel costs related to pandemics.

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The $31,000 cost to return their 5-year-old Black Labrador retriever named Summer, from China where she was living in 2019, paid by a Michigan family. Woolf estimates that the same trip would have been between $12,000 and $15,000 before the pandemic. The only option for air cargo was available and it cost $18,000 to transport the dog. The flight landed in Chicago, the closest approved port of entry to the family’s Detroit home. For the remainder of the journey, they drove for approximately five hours.

While the CDC’s goal is to lift the ban in July 2022, Pieracci says the suspension could likely last longer as the agency works to find a long-term solution that will safely allow dogs from risky countries into the U.S. Federal health officials “don’t know yet” what that might look like, Pieracci says, but identifying one is a high priority. She says that part of the process includes allowing public comment and responding to feedback. This can sometimes take up to a year.

Pet owners are now preparing themselves for lengthy waits. Weldon is worried that Sully might lose his memory. He raised Sully from a dog with a limp and a floppy coat to be able to walk around the Marine Base. He says that the pain of trying to get a permit was worth the effort to bring Sully home for the holidays.

“The unconditional love a dog gives you is unlike any other,” Weldon says. “I won’t ever quit.”


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