As a nation of animal lovers, many of us are happy to provide a rescue dog with a second chance of a loving home. But are we causing more harm than we’re preventing by importing rescued dogs? Vet Sian investigates…

We have a population of rescue dogs in the UK but increasing numbers are being imported from Europe. In 2019, 19,487 dogs were imported from Romania alone (1). An online study of 3080 owners who had adopted abroad was published in 2020 (2). This study investigated the reasons for importing dogs from abroad. In this article, we will look at the reasons, risks and good practice of international adoption. 

Why adopt internationally?

Most international adopters (59%) were attracted to a particular dog on social media. Individual dogs are often advertised by rescues that work abroad. The study showed that 70% of dogs were imported for a specific adopter. 

The second most common reason was the perception that foreign rescues had suffered more and were more likely to euthanased. This was stated as the motivation for 39% of the owners. UK rescues often advertise a no-kill policy, the dogs are seen as safe. However, 10% of the stray population of the UK are euthanased annually (3) and many live for long periods in kennels. 

The rest of the respondents expressed two main reasons :

  • More choice – rescue puppies are rare in the UK, some breeds are over-represented in UK rescue. For example, there are lots of bull breeds. 
  • Rejection by UK rescue agencies – many organisations have stringent, blanket policies that exclude people who work outside the home or have children. This precludes many potential adoptions. 

What are the disease risks? 

Importing dogs can result in importing diseases that are not present or endemic (regularly found) in the UK. Many rescue dogs are imported through the EU Pet Travel Scheme (PETS). This scheme is designed for pets travelling with the owner. The only requirements are rabies vaccination, a three week wait before travel and tapeworm treatment. The scheme does not require testing for any other diseases. Many international rescues test for endemic diseases but disease prevalence changes constantly. For example, Leishmania was found in a dog that travelled to the Canary Islands, despite the disease not being endemic there (4). A minority of rescues and other importers do not test at all. 

Legal aspects to importing

Travelling an animal to a new home is classified as commercial travel in UK regulation. So, rescue dogs should be imported under the Balai Directive (EU Regulation 92/65/ECC). This scheme requires more stringent testing, veterinary examination 48 hours before travel and registration of the importer. However, 89% of the imported dogs in the 2020 study were imported via the PETS scheme and 300,000 dogs enter the UK under this scheme every year. 

Major zoonotic infections

In the online study (2) only 74% of adopters were aware of different canine diseases in other European countries. Prevention of rabies and the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis are covered by both schemes. These are zoonotic, meaning that they can spread from animals to humans. However, the incubation period for rabies can be longer than three weeks, so if a dog is carrying rabies it could develop and spread the disease in the UK. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) recommend a 12 week period before travel. This change is likely to happen because of Brexit legislation. 

Tick-borne diseases

The requirement for tick prevention was removed from the PETS scheme ten years ago. The UK Tick Surveillance Scheme identifies ticks in the UK. The scheme found the two tick species responsible for transmitting Babesia and Ehrlichia have entered the country on imported dogs (5). Climate change may also have an impact on the parasite populations and the diseases they carry. 

Babesiosis can cause severe, often fatal anaemia. Babesia has been diagnosed in travelled and imported dogs in the UK. In 2016, the first UK infections in untravelled dogs were reported in Essex (6)

Ehrlichia is a zoonotic disease (humans can be affected). It can cause weight loss, weakness, bleeding and joint pain in the dog. There may be no sign of disease when a dog is imported. There is a report of a dog showing disease 3 years after being imported into the UK (7).

A further tick borne disease, Hepatozoon canis is zoonotic. Three imported dogs were found to be infected in 2018(8).


Leishmania is a multi-organ disease carried by a sandfly, this sandfly does not occur in the UK. This disease is fatal if untreated. Treatment is difficult in the UK, as there is no licensed drug effective for active infection. The disease can lie dormant for years. The first case of an untravelled dog infected in the UK was reported in 2019 (9). The infected dog lived with an imported dog with chronic Leishmania infection. Cases of dog to dog transmission have also been reported in Germany, Finland and New Caledonia(10,11,12) .

In the online study of international adopters, 14.8% of the dogs were positive for Leishmania infantum before they entered the UK. The BVA state that it is unwise for people on immunosuppressive drugs to live in close contact with a dog infected with Leishmania. 

There are also reports of imported dogs with parasitic infections that are not present in the UK. These include the Tongueworm Linguata serrata (image below), the Eyeworm Thelazia callipaeda (13) and Dirofilaria species (14).

Caption: “A tongueworm sneezed out of the nose of a rescued Romanian street dog. Image courtesy of Hugh Duffin MRCVS”


This bacterium has been eradicated in the UK but identified in imported dogs. It is a zoonotic disease that causes miscarriages in humans.

The problem…

It is often difficult to establish the veterinary history of an imported dog. There is also a danger that if these dogs are rehomed their travel history can be lost, and diseases missed. The BVA have recommended compulsory testing and restriction on movement of dogs from areas of endemic disease not present in the UK, but this is not a legal requirement.


Rescue dogs often have an unknown history, they may be street dogs or abandoned dogs. These dogs may have never been in a home or around children.

Many rescue organisations prepare potential adopters for this possibility and advise consulting a trainer or behaviourist if problems arise. 67.5% of respondents in the online study (2) sought professional help after adoption. That said, there is currently no evidence that imported dogs have a higher prevalence of behavioural problems than UK rescue dogs. 


Studies have shown that previously free-roaming dogs can be stressed by travelling (15). Imported dogs can travel for long periods to reach their new homes. Romanian rescues travelling to the UK through the channel tunnel can be travelling for 36-96 hours (1)

The bottom line?

Many owners have successfully adopted dogs from abroad. As research has shown that there is a risk of new diseases emerging in the UK, certain measures could make this safer for human and animal health.

Consult a vet about potential health risks prior to adopting a dog. They can advise on testing for relevant diseases. This will also give your vet a chance to become familiar with the possible disease risk. Ask the rescue to provide confirmation of negative results. Obtain a full veterinary history wherever possible. 

Choose a rescue with post adoption support and an undertaking to transport the dog in the most welfare friendly way. 

Alternatively, consider the UK rescue organisations. Recent research may encourage UK organisations to advertise dogs and change their rehoming policies. The RSPCA advise adopting from a UK organisation where possible. 

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References and further reading:

  1. Buckley LA. Imported rescue dogs: lack of research impedes evidence-based advice to ensure the welfare of individual dogs (2020) Vet Record 186 (8)
  2. Norman C, Stavisky J and Westgarth C. Importing rescue dogs into the UK: reasons, methods and welfare considerations (2020) Vet Record Vol 186 (8)
  3. Stavisky J, Brennan ML, Downes M et al. Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK : results of a 2010 census. (2012) BMC Vet Res. 8 (163)
  4. Dandrieux JRS, Sacchini F, Harms G, Globokar M, Balzer HJ and Pantchev N. Canine Leishmania infantum infection: an imported case in UK after staying in the Canary Islands.(2018) Parsitology Research Vol 117: 331-334
  5. Hansford KM, Pietzsch ME, Cull B, Gillingham EL and Medlock JM. Potential risk posed by the importation of ticks into the UK on animals : records from the Tick Surveillance Scheme. (2018) Vet Rec 182 (4)
  6. Sanchez-Vizcaino F, Wardeh M, Heavns B, Singleton DA, Tulloch JSP, McGinley L, NewmanJ, Noble PJ, Day MJ, Jones PH and Radford AD. Canine babesiosis and tick activity monitored using companion animal electronic health records in the UK . (2016) Vet Rec 179 (14):358
  7. Gould DJ, Murphy K, Rudorf H and Crispin SM. Canine monocytic ehrlichiosis presenting as acute blindness 36 months after importation into the UK. (2008) JSAP 
  8. Attipa C, Maguire D, Solano-Gallego L, Szladovits B, Barker EN, Farr A, Baneth G and Tasker S. Hepatozoon canis in three imported dogs: a new tickborne disease reaching the UK. (2018) Vet Record 183 (716)
  9. Mckenna, M, Attipa C, Tasker S and Augusto M. Leishmaniosis in a dog with no travel history outside of the UK. (2019) Vet Rec 184:14
  10. Naucke, TH, Amelung, S, and Lorentz, S (2016), First report of transmission of canine leishmaniosis through bite wounds from a naturally infected dog in Germany, Parasit Vectors 9: 256
  11. Karkomo V, Kaistinene A, Nareaho A, Dillard K, Vainio-Siukola K, Vidgren G, Tuoresmaki N and MArjukka A. The first report of autochthonous non-vector-borne transmission of canine leishmaniosis in the Nordic countries (2014) Parasitic vectors. 10;56(1):84
  12. Daval N, Marchal C, Guillaumot L, Hue T, Ravel, Keck N, and Kasbar M. First report of autochthonous non-vectorial canine leishmaniasis in New Caledonia, south-western Pacific: implications for new control measures and recommendations on importation of dogs. (2016) Parasitic Vectors 9:108
  13. Graham-Brown J, Gilmore P, Colella V, Moss, L, Dixon C, Andrews M, Arbied P, Barber J, Timofte D, McGarry J, Otranto D and Williams D. Three cases of imported eyeworm infection in dogs: a new threat for the UK. (2017) Vet Record 181 (13) :346 
  14. Wright I. Case report: Dirofilaria repens in a canine castrate incision. (2017). Companion animal parasitology Vol 22 (6)
  15. Radisavljevic K, Vucinic M, Becskei ZS et al. Comparison of stress level indicators in blood of free-roaming dogs after transportation and housing in a new environment. (2015) J Applied Animal Res 45:52-5