An animal activist sits inside a van with dogs he bought at a market in Yulin city in southern China's Guangxi province in June 2016. Photo by Wu Hong/EPA
EVANSVILLE, Ind., Nov. 25 (UPI) -- A growing number of livestock veterinarians are raising concerns that dogs rescued from Chinese meat markets could bring African swine fever virus to the United States.
Rescue groups regularly save dogs from slaughter in China and transport them to this country to be adopted as pets. But because such dogs are considered food animals in China, they often are kept in close quarters with other livestock.
That means they can easily come in contact with pigs infected with the disease, which is rampant in China.
"These dogs are rescued from meat markets," said Lisa Becton, director of swine health information and research at the National Pork Board. "And, unfortunately, at these markets there are a lot of other species, like pigs, chickens and cows. There is a risk that the animal, the crate or the bedding could become contaminated."
Once that happens, there is little to stop the dog from then silently carrying the virus to the United States.
Current law requires only that a dog appear in good health, be at least 6 months old, certified rabies-free and vaccinated against several key diseases to enter the country. There are no quarantine restrictions that would allow time for any lingering African swine fever virus in the animal's fur or feces to die.
"A gap exists in federal regulation," said Mike Neault, director of livestock operations for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Veterinary Division. "It's not covered as well as it should be."
Neault witnessed this happen firsthand in North Carolina this summer.
In July, a local television station ran a story announcing that a rescue group was bringing several beagles, saved from a Chinese meat market, to the Raleigh area.
The dogs were flown from Beijing to Atlanta and then driven to North Carolina.
Fearing for their state's $2 billion hog industry, Neault and his colleagues immediately tried to reach the rescue group. By the time they did, the dogs had arrived at a Raleigh veterinary clinic, walked around the facility and interacted with a number of people.
State officials ordered that the dogs be quarantined and took their crates and bedding -- which had come with them from China -- and had them sterilized and destroyed.
"There's a lack of understanding that these animals could affect the health of livestock," Neault said.
The African swine fever virus is "extremely hardy," said Harry Snelson, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians. "It can survive for a long time in the environment in general."
It also is devastating to hog populations.
The disease has no vaccine or treatment and it is usually fatal to pigs. It poses no risks to humans.
An estimated 175 million pigs have died in China since the disease was first reported there in August 2018. That's 40 percent of the nation's pigs.
Since 2018, the disease has spread to more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, and the World Organisation for Animal Health warns that a quarter of the world's pigs might die from the virus.
The United States has spent millions trying to keep it out of the country.
"If it gets a foothold here, we'd have a huge issue controlling an outbreak," Neault said.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol increased security at international airports to stop people bringing pork from infected countries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has started testing pigs for the virus. It has also worked with industry groups to complete simulations of how the country would react should an American pig fall ill.
Because the virus is so hardy, there is concern that people could carry it on their clothes or shoes. The USDA recommends that humans have their shoes and clothes cleaned before entering hog barns or interacting with pigs.
"We hadn't really thought about rescue groups," Snelson said. "I don't think that was on anybody's mind."
Livestock veterinarians, alongside industry groups, are working with USDA to add new import restrictions on dogs from infected countries, he added.
"I get what [rescue groups] are trying to do by bringing dogs out of China," Neault said. "We just need them to be aware of the risks."