Dog rescue organizations in Canada hope the federal government will have a change of heart over its ban on street dogs from more than 100 countries.
In June, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced that commercial dogs — dogs intended for resale, adoption, fostering, breeding, exhibition and research — at high risk for rabies will be banned from entering Canada starting Wednesday, Sept. 28, regardless of when import permits were issued.
Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system of mammals, including humans, the government's website notes. The CFIA said dog rabies kills 59,000 people every year in countries affected by the ban, including Afghanistan, Ukraine and mainland China.
"It's very disheartening," said Baladi Dog Rescue of Ontario co-founder Lindy Lystar. The London, Ont., group has been working with a rescuer in Cairo and has flown some 30 dogs to the region.
They're a little bit scared, so they do need some extra care and love and training, but they're great dogs. - Lindy Lystar, Baladi Dog Rescue of Ontario co-founder
"We have some very close friends in Egypt that are out there on the street every day and they see the horrors that these dogs have to go through," said Lystar.
"She'll come out of her house and there's 10 or 20 dogs poisoned on the street, and she feels so helpless," she said, referring to just one of the horrible ways street dogs are treated generally.
Most of the regions affected by the ban are in Africa (including Egypt), Central and South America, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense," said Lystar about Canada's ban.
The dogs in Egypt are given vaccinations — including against rabies — their blood is tested for diseases, and they're spayed or neutered before making the trip to Canada, Lystar said, adding there's also a requirement that they be tested to assess a dog's immunity to rabies before they leave Egypt.
"They're a little bit scared, so they do need some extra care and love and training, but they're great dogs," said Lystar who has her own Egyptian dog, a short-haired, pointy-eared blond pet named Louise.
"They're loyal dogs. They're protective. They're so intelligent."
CBC News reached out to the CFIA for comment on the ban.
On Thursday, the agency said in an emailed statement that it had "consulted with public health authorities regarding the human health risk, and it was determined to be significant enough to warrant the implementation of a measure that prevents the introduction into Canada of the rabies caused by canine variant viruses."
"In both July 2021 and in January 2022, the CFIA's laboratory in Ottawa confirmed two cases of dogs imported into Canada that were infected with a canine rabies virus variant (dog rabies)," the email said, noting rabies is over 99 per cent fatal for humans and dogs once they start to show symptoms.
"The importation of even one rabid dog could result in transmission to Canadian humans, pets, and wildlife."
Vet association's past president says ban needed
Canine rabies has become a growing concern in Canada since the U.S. implemented a similar ban last year, prompting some rescue groups to redirect their efforts to send more dogs to Canada, Louis Kwantes, past president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, told The Canadian Press.
"We always knew that the risk was there," Kwantes said. "But when it's actually in your country, that theoretical risk becomes a real and present danger."
While the CFIA's stance may seem severe, Kwantes said he believes it's warranted given the risks that canine rabies and other contagions that are endemic to other countries pose to Canada's human and dog populations.
Two cases of rabies in dogs imported from Iran — one of the banned countries — have been confirmed in Ontario since July 2021, according to the province's Agriculture and Food Ministry.
Both dogs had received rabies vaccines that aren't licensed in Canada before their arrival, Ontario officials said. A total of 49 people who came into contact with the dogs received rabies post-exposure prophylaxis, a type of treatment that is estimated to cost about $2,000 per person.
Kwantes said these cases are illustrative of the danger posed by even a single case of canine rabies making its way into the country. While dogs are routinely vaccinated against rabies, most Canadians are not, he said. Given the close relationship between them, the canine variant is cause for concern, he said.
Many of the banned countries don't have robust veterinary systems, said Kwantes, raising concerns about fraudulent vaccine certificates or inadequate inoculation.
Ways dogs treated 'breaks your heart'
Ahead of the government's ban that begins Wednesday, Fida Kablawi of London, Ont., returned with nine dogs from Egypt after a two-month stay in the capital city.
"I'm an animal lover, and it breaks your heart, and there's so many of them.
"It's sad. It's surprising, shocking sometimes," she said. "There's a lot of poverty. [People] have so many other problems to deal with that to them a suffering dog on the street is not a priority."
Kablawi first visited Cairo in 2020 on a work trip, and was so taken by the city's street dogs that she's returned multiple times to fly dogs back with her. She works with Baladi Dog Rescue and through fundraising, pays for the dogs' medical bills, the paperwork and the flights.
The dogs are only allowed to leave the country once Egypt's Ministry of Agriculture checks them out and signs off on the paperwork, said Kablwai.
"Most of the ones that we pick have had a really rough time — they've been neglected or they've been tied to a roof and chained and starved," she said. "The ones with the tough stories, the ones that we feel need the most love, the ones who have had it the worst, we try to bring over to give them a better life.
"I do believe Canada will change this [the ban] with just maybe some stricter laws when the dogs enter the country," she said.
Rescuers have been calling for better regulations, including quarantining, vet checks and behavioural assessments, to ensure the safety of both the dogs and families who will home them.