Points to Consider Regarding Importing Rescue Dogs

By Lisa Tenzin-Dolma


Adopting or fostering a dog within your home country is a fairly straightforward process. If the dog is in a rescue shelter in your area you can visit several times if you wish to, and you'll have the opportunity to introduce your family and any resident dog to make sure of compatibility before bringing your adopted dog home. A member of the rescue will visit your home to check that it's suitable for the dog, and will talk you through your dog's personality and needs and encourage you to ask questions. If there are problems you'll have support, either in person or over the phone.

Adopting a dog from abroad is a very different process, and it can be helpful to be aware of this before making the final arrangements to have a dog transported across the continent.

The importation of dogs from abroad, especially Romania and Bulgaria, has become very common (the figures for dogs going through Customs are estimated at well over 7,000 dogs imported this year), and taking in a needy dog with a difficult past can be hugely rewarding. The points I'm outlining in this article are not intended to put you off fostering or adopting a dog from abroad - plenty of people have found their canine soul-mates through doing this - but it can be useful to look closely at what's involved before making a final decision.

Stray and street dogs in Europe and Eastern Europe lead such terrible lives that even the strongest person can be reduced to tears while looking at the distressing photographs that circulate the social networking sites. The situation for dogs in Romania is particularly dire since the tragic death of four year old Ionut Anghel, who was attacked by stray dogs in a Bucharest city park on September 2nd this year.

Because of this, on September 25th the Romanian government passed a law sanctioning the killing of all stray and street dogs. Unclaimed dogs in shelters are killed after two weeks. Of the estimated 64,000 dogs in the streets of Bucharest alone, thousands have already been beaten to death, poisoned, hung or stabbed in an orgy of mass murder. Graphic photographs bear shocking testimony to the horrors that are taking place daily. Who can fail to be appalled and disgusted by such cruelty, and be filled with a desire to help?

A lot of financial support is being sent out from other countries to an ever-growing number of Romanian rescues. Many offers of fostering and adoption are being taken up, and several organizations transport dogs over to eager new carers every week. The Dog Welfare Alliance has funded four Romanian street dogs for rehoming in the UK (Alma, Tara, Nusta and Amara) and I adopted Charlie, my Romanian feral dog, ten months ago after initially fostering him. If you adopt through a registered charity, you'll be given any information that is known about the dog, and you'll have support, should you need it, from someone in your own country.

However, there are some issues around adopting from abroad which concern me, and which potential fosterers and adopters should be made aware of before bringing dogs from abroad into their homes.

The first issue is the shelters. Some of these are run by widely recognised groups or charities, but many are run by individuals who are funded entirely through appeals for public donations on social networks. If you've fallen in love with a sad-eyed dog who is not with a recognized charity, it's important to thoroughly check the rescue out before making an adoption or foster offer.

Many of the rescues are totally dedicated to the dogs in their care and will move heaven and earth to ensure their dogs are looked after to the best of their ability. But not all rescues have the welfare of their dogs at heart. Some are akin to profiteering holding pens where the dogs are crammed together without adequate food, water or medical care.

When you foster or adopt a dog from abroad, there is no opportunity to meet the dog before taking him or her home, so you will need to feel confident that the dog will fit into your situation. Usually this does work well, especially when the dog has been assessed to see his or her reaction to adults, children, unknown dogs and cats, but not all shelters are able or willing to carry out assessments. Because of this, some very inappropriate matches have been made between unsuitable dogs and unsuspecting new adopters who are unprepared for the challenges of taking in a dog who is unsocialized with humans. It's wise to find out as much as possible before making a commitment. This is especially important if you have children.

Does the rescue have a website, phone number, email address or public address? As many of these are run through Facebook pages, it can be difficult to identify who and where they are. Are their accounts and rehoming systems transparent? Are the dogs shown to be kept in conditions conducive to their health and wellbeing? Is there a support and back-up system in place for new carers, in case they experience problems with the new dog? Is there plenty of positive feedback from other fosterers or adopters whose dogs have been homed through that rescue? Do they have a reputable veterinary surgeon caring for their dogs? If the answer to most of these questions is "No", then be very cautious about proceeding.

The second issue is vaccinations. All dogs travelling abroad must have the rabies vaccination as well as shots to protect them from parvovirus, distemper, leptospirosis and infectious canine hepatitis. Some vets will also administer the kennel cough vaccine. Dogs have to wait at least 21 days after their rabies shot before travelling abroad - in the past they had to be titre tested to ensure the vaccines were effective before they were allowed to travel, but nowadays this is not considered necessary.

It's been brought to my attention that some vets and rescues have put vaccination stickers on some dogs' pet passports without administering the vaccines. I've also had direct experience of this, when I discovered that a dog who was about to be transported hadn't been vaccinated against rabies - although her transport chiplist and pet passport bore vaccination stickers. I cancelled the transport immediately. This is extremely dangerous, especially regarding the rabies vaccine.

As rabies had been wiped out in several countries, including the UK, the vaccine is not given in the UK as a matter of course - so unless they have pet passports and have therefore had the rabies shot, our own dogs have no protection against potential infection. In October 2013, two four-month-old puppies who were imported to Holland from Bulgaria were euthanized eight days after they were suspected as being infected with rabies. Subsequent tests showed that although one of the pups had initially tested positive, this was in fact a false positive (you can read about it here). However, there is a risk that other unvaccinated dogs being transported could be infected. If left undiagnosed until it's too late, many other dogs (and people too) could be infected by the virus.

A great deal of trust is put in rescues to ensure that the appropriate vaccinations are given and are logged in pet passports. If you suspect that your dog may not have received all the vaccinations, please ask your vet to do a titre test to check. The peace of mind is well worth the extra expense!

The third issue is health. Street dogs are nearly always malnourished, because there are many dogs and food is scarce; some are terribly emaciated. Many have Demodectic mange and skin infections. Some are injured or seriously unwell. Most have parasites such as worms and fleas, which the shelter should deal with before they are transported abroad, but which will most likely need further treatment on arrival. Rescues in Romania take in as many dogs as possible to save them from certain death on the streets, and it's not unusual for 200 dogs to be kept in one place. Funds for adequate veterinary care for all the dogs are sadly lacking, though some rescues may appeal for financial help with vet fees for specific dogs who are seriously ill or injured.

Ask the rescue about known health issues - but be aware that there may be undiagnosed health problems, too. Be prepared in case there's the possibility of extra expense for medications that may be needed for weeks or even months after your new dog has landed, and arrange pet insurance for your dog as soon as he or she arrives. If you take your dog for a veterinary check before getting pet insurance, and your vet finds a health problem, this could be classed as a pre-existing condition and may not be covered by pet insurance when you do arrange it.

If you have a resident dog who is elderly or has ongoing health issues, it's wise to discuss your plans with your veterinary surgeon before you offer to foster or adopt any dog, especially a dog from abroad. A dog with a weakened immune system can pick up bugs carried by other dogs that a stronger, healthier dog would be able to resist.

The fourth issue is behaviour issues due to past abuse, or to a lack of opportunities for bonding with people. If you adopt or foster through a recognized charity you will receive support should you need it, but if you take in a dog from an independent shelter you'll be on your own and will have to pay for professional advice.

An initial assessment once your dog arrives is unlikely to be accurate because your dog will be exhausted after his or her long journey. He or she may be shut-down mentally and will need to rest a lot during the first few days. Some dogs settle in easily, bond quickly with their new carers, and just need to be taught the basics of socializing, house-training, house manners and walking on-leash. Other dogs find their new environment terrifying after life on the streets or in a field, and need a great deal of patience, help, consideration and compassion while they learn to cope and adjust. They may be destructive at first, because they are unused to living indoors.

Some dogs have had negative experiences with people in the past, so may therefore be extremely shy or timid, or may react with fear-aggression towards you, members of your family, or other dogs in your home. If so, give your dog plenty of space and time, avoid putting on any pressure to interact with you, take a crash course in canine body language so that you can 'read' your dog's intentions and emotions, and seek help from a qualified professional who uses only positive, reward-based methods.

Occasionally it happens that a previously free-ranging dog is unable to adapt to life in a home. I've been contacted by several people who have experienced the heartbreak that this situation brings. This story by my friend Erzebet about her adopted dog, Pebbles, is a very cautionary tale that everyone should read.

And finally, although I don't count this as an issue: the adoption fee. Bringing a dog from Eastern Europe to another country isn't cheap. Transport costs are around £150 per dog, and this is factored into adoption fees. Be prepared to pay £200 to £300 ($319 to $479USD) for your dog - this doesn't cover any medical care received, or food while the dog was in the shelter, and no-one gains from this except you and your adopted dog.

As I said at the beginning of this article, the Dog Welfare Alliance has donated financial support for the transport of four Romanian dogs. Each dog's new home will be thoroughly assessed to ensure that this is the perfect match, so that each dog and carer has a firm foundation on which to build a loving relationship and enjoy life together. Because of the concerns I've outlined here, the DWA is no longer funding transport fees for dogs from abroad - instead, funds will be sent in order to help improve the welfare of dogs in their own countries. One example of this is a donation to Little Angels Rescue in Bulgaria for weatherproof kennels for two dogs who have lived outdoors with no shelter all their lives. You can see photos of these in the gallery, and read about them in the blog under the heading Little Angels to the Rescue. Other rescues have received funding for veterinary care and food.

If you're considering taking in a dog from abroad, please think about the points made above, choose your new companion based on temperament as well as looks, discuss as much as possible with the rescue or homing charity, and be prepared for the initial hard work as well as the rewards. Seek help if you need it. It's worth it if the right match is made.