Rescuing dogs from abroad

The number of dogs being rescued and rehomed from overseas has increased dramatically in recent years. This increase in popularity has occurred for various reasons, some people are drawn to a particular animal seen on social media whilst others adopt as they perceive that stray pets abroad suffer more and have a higher chance of being euthanised. Others have been denied adoption by UK rescue centres and find their only option is to look for a pet from abroad.

As a nation of animal lovers, we would all agree that adopting a pet to give it a better life is a truly admirable thing to do. However, it is important to understand that adopting a pet from overseas does come with some additional risks and responsibilities.  It is extremely important for owners to fully understand what these risks are and how they can help preserve the disease-free status of the UK to maintain the future welfare of our pets.

The main concerns regarding pets adopted from overseas are IMPORTED DISEASES and BEHAVIOUR.


Increased temperatures across the continent have led to a changing distribution of some of the “exotic” diseases and the way they are spread, including the ticks and mosquitoes that can spread them   This coupled with the increased movement of animals in recent years has resulted in an increase in the occurrence of several exotic diseases that have not previously been seen in the UK pet population. 

These diseases pose a risk not only to your pet and any other animals in your household but also to the wider UK pet population as a whole and, more alarmingly, your family and the human population. These diseases can have devastating consequences and as such, we have taken the decision to implement a protocol to ensure all our imported patients are tested for the following diseases, not only to help protect our team (who are most at risk while handling blood samples and reproductive organs during neutering surgery), but also to help reduce the chance of these diseases becoming established in the UK: 

  • Canine Brucellosis 

This is a bacteria which can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. It can produce a range of symptoms, including lethargy, fever, swollen lymph nodes and reproductive problems. This is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans. There is no treatment for brucellosis and there is no vaccine currently available for dogs. In 2022 the UK saw the first case of Brucellosis transmission from an imported pet to an owner which not only resulted in the severe ill health of the owner but also the euthanasia of the imported pet along with the other dogs in the household

  • Leishmania 

This is a parasite that is transmitted to dogs by the bite of infected sand flies, found in many parts of Europe. It can produce a range of symptoms, including skin lesions, weight loss, lethargy and kidney failure. It left untreated it can be fatal. To prevent leishmaniasis in your dog and protect the UK dog population, we advise using insect repellents abroad, keeping inside during peak sand fly activity and using mosquito nets or screen on windows and doors. We regularly see patients imported with Leishmania and there have been confirmed cases of transmission between dogs in the UK

  • Babesia

This is a parasite that is transmitted to dogs by the bite of infected ticks, found in many parts of Europe. It can produce a range of symptoms, including fever, lethargy, anaemia, jaundice, loss of appetite, and in severe cases blood clots, organ failure and death. To prevent babesiosis it is important to use preventative tick medication and remove ticks promptly if found. In 2015/16 we had an outbreak of in Essex and sadly some dogs lost their lives.

  • Ehrlichia 

This is a bacteria that is transmitted to dogs by the bite of infected ticks, found in many parts of Europe. It can produce a range of symptoms, including fever, lethargy, anaemia, joint pain and neurological symptoms, in severe cases dogs may develop bleeding disorders and also death. As mentioned above, in order to prevent this tick-borne disease, preventative tick medication should be used and removal of ticks promptly if found.

  • Heartworm/Dirofilaria

This is caused by a parasitic worm called Dirofiliria transmitted to dogs through the bite of infected mosquitos and is prevalent in many parts of the world and Europe. It can produce a range of symptoms, including coughing, fatigue and weight loss, in severe cases it can develop into heart failure, breathing problems and death. To prevent heartworm, it is important to use preventative medication to kill the larvae before they mature, reducing the risk of infection, but also minimising exposure to mosquitos, by using screens on windows and doors, and keeping inside during peak mosquito activity. At the clinic we’ve witnessed first-hand the heart-breaking consequences of pets being imported with heartworm.

  • Anaplasma 

This is a bacteria transmitted to dogs through the bite on an infected tick, found in many parts of Europe. It can produce a range of symptoms, including fever, lethargy, joint pain and loss of appetite. It severe cases it can lead to organ failure and death. To prevent anaplasmosis preventative tick medication should be used and remove any ticks promptly if found.

Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement for pets to be tested for these diseases prior to importation and most rescue centres lack the funds to routinely run them. In addition, many of the diseases can take up to 6 months after infection to show positive on tests, so a negative test taken at the time of export does not guarantee a pet is completely disease free. Finally we must also bear in mind that many imported pets can harbour potentially life-threatening diseases yet show no outward clinical signs, we call these “Trojan pets” and they pose the risk of passing on their infections to other dogs and people and establishing these diseases in the UK. 

All imported dogs should be screened for exotic diseases before, or shortly after importation and again 6–12 months later. This testing is expensive and, if found to be positive, may require a lifetime of testing and treatment with no guarantee of recovery.

Since implementing our new protocol a few months ago we have already identified an imported pet with heartworm. Beautiful Ava (pictured) already has evidence of adult heart worms living in her heart but was symptom free and her owner was shocked to discover their beloved pet had a potentially life-threatening infection.  The treatment for this particular condition is expensive, can have serious complications and is a lengthy process, lasting nearly a year. Thankfully we have been able to start Ava on treatment promptly and she is doing well. Most owners are completely unaware of these diseases and what’s involved in their management/treatment.  Our hope is that by sharing this article we can help raise awareness on the importance of having an imported pes tested for these diseases and making prospective adopters aware of the potential heartbreak and financial impact these diseases can bring with them.


Another concern to consider when rescuing a dog from abroad is the behavioural risks. Many imported dogs have an unknown history, they could be street dogs or perhaps they had been abandoned. Many have never been socialised, lived in a home or been around children. It is understandable that travelling to another country and having such a dramatic change in environment and lifestyle can be traumatic for dogs. Some of these dogs find it hard to adapt to a newly domesticated life and often end up anxious or scared. An imported rescue dog isn’t always the best choice for as busy household or those with young children.

If dogs haven’t experienced a lot of handling or received affection in the past, they may not enjoy it once adopted. Some dogs will be frightened and adopt avoidance behaviours such as growling, snapping or biting. It can take a lot of time to adjust to living indoors and new owners need to be accepting of some challenging behaviours. A qualified animal behaviourist will be able to help with this transition, but the process will involve a lot of time and flexibility.

Top tips for rescuing a dog from abroad:

  1. Consider adopting from the UK first, wherever possible.
  2. Carefully consider the time, expense and possible disease implications before adopting a dog from abroad.
  3. Consider routes, other than adoption, to help the welfare of foreign rescue dogs. You could help support a foreign charity in order to help improve the conditions and welfare of native dogs long term.
  4. If you do choose to adopt then please ensure you thoroughly research the rehoming organisation to ensure it is legal. Charities should be registered and able to give you their charity number.
  5. Check with the organisation to ensure the dog has been vaccinated against rabies and has all the legal documents required to travel into the UK. They will also need a tapeworm treatment prior to importation.
  6. Request that dogs are also fully vaccinated for UK based diseases and had a parasite treatment for fleas, ticks and worms. Although this is not a legal requirement is highly recommended to reduce the risk of importing diseases.
  7. Request that dogs are tested for diseases such as brucellosis and leishmania before travel to the UK. 
  8. Enquire if the organisation will allow a meet and greet before committing to adoption. It is impossible to know a dog’s personality or how well a dog will fit in with your family from a picture or video alone.
  9. Ask if the organisation will consider a trial period before rehoming becomes official, like fostering. This allows you to test the waters and get to know your dog before fully committing. Also ensure that the organisation will be willing to take the dog back if the match doesn’t work out.
  10. Expect that your dog may take a long time to adapt to home living, some behaviour problems are to be expected. Consider enlisting the help of a qualified pet behaviourist at the first sign of problems to ensure you get the best advice.
  11. Regularly remind your vet at appointments that your dog is imported. This will help them to consider exotic diseases and also ensure that blood samples and similar are marked accordingly to ensure the safety of lab technicians.

In summary, with the right knowledge and support, importing a pet can be incredibly rewarding. We are here to provide help and guidance, please do reach out to us if you have any questions or concerns.

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