Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: August 26, 2023

Vicky Liu cried with happiness when she reunited with her two fluffy Pomeranian dogs, Princess and Boombah, at the gate of the quarantine centre in Melbourne.

“I’m very happy, it’s just a huge relief that this whole process is finally over,” Ms Liu said.

The 31-year-old English teacher from China was among the first group of dog owners to bring their pets into Australia under a strict dog and cat import policy, that came into effect in March.

“The new measures came at a very short notice and caught us off guard. All the preparations we did in China became invalid,” she said.

Under the policy, dogs and cats from unapproved countries — including China — have to quarantine for roughly six months in a third country that is considered low risk for rabies before entering Australia.

The animals then need to do up to 30 days of further quarantine in Australia.

To meet those requirements, Ms Liu, her husband, and the two dogs moved from China’s south-western province of Sichuan to South Korea for six months, before arriving in Melbourne for the final quarantine period.

“We can’t bear separating from our dogs for six months, and we never thought of putting them in a boarding facility,” Ms Liu said.

“We went to South Korea under tourist visas, which means we cannot rent there. So we lived in Airbnbs.

Rabies risk prompts new policy

Since 2013, the rabies biosecurity risk for importing dogs and cats has increased and prompted Australia’s stricter import policy, according to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).

“Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system and can be fatal for both animals and humans,” a department spokesperson said.

“More than 60,000 people die of rabies around the world each year. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that remains free of rabies.”

Under previous rules, dogs and cats departing from unapproved countries had to wait 180 days in their home country after completing medical tests, then could transit through approved countries and onto Australia.

There is no list of unapproved countries. Unapproved countries are those which are not listed in three “groups” of approved countries, which are described as “rabies-free” or “rabies absent” by the department.

Many countries not on those three lists appear to be mostly in Asia and Africa, where rabies remains a significant public health risk. 

“Countries are approved to export dogs and cats to Australia based on an assessment of the animal health status and the official controls,” a department spokesperson said.

Under the new policy, dog and cat owners living in approved countries need to wait 180 days in their home country after completing medical tests, and need to adhere to a list of other rules including quarantining in Australia and applying for a permit.

“Rabies has been spreading eastwards across the Indonesian archipelago at a steady rate for the last 25 years,” said Katie Hampson, professor of disease ecology and public health from the University of Glasgow.

“Without protective measures [like quarantine] in place, any introductions [of the virus] have a high chance of spreading further, especially in populations of free-roaming dogs and unvaccinated dogs in the northernmost parts of the country.”

The 180 days quarantine period maximises the chance of detecting animals that might be harbouring the infection, Professor Hampson added.

“Only a very small percentage of dogs that are infected with rabies will have an incubation period that exceeds 180 days,” she said.

Overseas quarantine raises pet welfare concerns

For many dog owners like Chantelle Anderson, spending the six months quarantine with their furry friends is not a realistic option, instead they send their animals to boarding services.

The 30-year-old model who worked in Shanghai said her nine-year-old Shih tzu Gigi became a “very, very different dog” when she finally arrived in Perth, after six months quarantine boarding in a country in South-East Asia.

“When we got Gigi back, Gigi was basically blind and she couldn’t hear anything either. Every couple of weeks she got blood in her stomach.”

Ms Anderson said Gigi did not have many of these issues before the trip, although she had some pre-existing sight problems.

“I think it was the stress … I could see she was not taken care of in quarantine.

“And if I’m being honest, if I knew what I know now and how bad it was for her to travel, I would never, ever have taken Gigi back to Australia.

Being in a strange environment without their owner’s care can be risky for some pets.

Dr Lauren Hemsworth, senior lecturer of animal welfare at the University of Melbourne, said research showed new environments and separations between pets and their owners can be stressful and impact an animal’s wellbeing.

“That unfamiliarity certainly can have implications such as changes in behaviours and physiology,” Dr Hemsworth said.

Quarantine length can blow out

For many travelling dogs and cats, it’s also likely they could be stranded in third country quarantine beyond the six months, due to limited quarantine spaces in Australia and policies of their transitioning countries.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the waiting period to enter the Post-Entry Quarantine facility is currently 18 weeks for dogs, and 14 weeks for cats.

Amber Ding is making a plan to move with her dog to Australia from Shanghai and was surprised there was only one quarantine centre in Australia.

Even though she wanted to come to Australia for work as soon as possible, Ms Ding is looking at about another year before she can land in her new home with her three-year-old Shiba Inu, Xiaoba.

She plans to keep Xiaoba company in Japan for the six months of quarantine, and has contacted a language school in Kyoto to arrange a student visa so she can study the language while she is there.

Aside from Australia’s import rules, Ms Ding also has to adhere to Japan’s dog import policies.

That includes getting her dog vaccinated for rabies in China then waiting for 180 days before she can travel to Japan.

Ms Ding said she believed that compared to Japan, Australia’s dog import policy was more stringent but also less well explained to the public.

“Australia published the rules on their websites, but it contains a lot of jargon and only in English,” she said.

“It’s not very easy to understand and follow the rules.

The ABC contacted the DAFF for a response to Ms Ding’s comments but did not receive a reply before publication.

Ms Ding said when she made her plan to move to Australia, she didn’t expect it to be so difficult to bring her pet.

But she said it hadn’t changed her decision.

“It won’t affect me choosing Australia as my destination [of migration], I hate winter.

“But I do know other pet owners chose Canada over Australia because of the quarantine requirement.”

Ms Liu also pointed out while her dogs had undergone the required veterinary preparations such as a rabies vaccine, titer test and blood tests in China, the new Australian rules also required her to repeat those tests in South Korea.

Princess and Boombah are now happily roaming around their new home, but Ms Liu said it had been a “long journey”. 

“We did our best to accompany the dogs throughout the journey … but it’s a big sacrifice.”