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Hawaii Quarantines Incoming Dogs for Rabies

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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You're moving to paradise, and even the family dog seems excited. But be warned. When you land in Honolulu, your pet won't be enjoying those swaying palms and crashing waves for at least another month.

Hawaii imposes a 30-day rabies quarantine on dogs and cats, horses and other rabies-prone animals entering the Aloha State to take up permanent residence. And that isolation period could stretch to 120 days if you haven't prepared well in advance by getting the right set of rabies shots for your pet.

Hawaii's 85-year-old quarantine procedure, designed to keep Hawaii rabies free, continues to raise the hackles of pet owners and animal advocates, who say the procedure is a relic of bygone years that isn't necessary now that rabies vaccines are so reliable.

Keeping animals caged and separated from their owners at a time when the pets are experiencing the stress of the family's move is needlessly cruel, said Pamela Burns, who heads the Hawaii Humane Society.

``With the current vaccines available, the need for the quarantine is questionable,'' said Burns, who also sits on the Animal Quarantine Station advisory committee. ``Absolutely, we don't want rabies to be introduced to any of the population, but only in 70 percent of cases where an animal shows rabies it shows it within 120 days.''

Quarantine Used to Be 120 Days

Cutting the quarantine time from 120 days to 30 days, a change the state made three years ago, is a step in the right direction, said Burns, but she noted that families still must start giving their pets shots 120 days before moving to meet the state's specifications.

``How many people are given 120 days notice before their employers transfer them here?'' she said. ``We believe any animal that has been properly vaccinated should be exempt from the quarantine.''

Earlier this year, Gov. Ben Cayetano approved new rules allowing guide dogs for the blind and dogs that assist the handicapped to skip the quarantine if they have proof of rabies vaccination.

The quarantine station in Honolulu provides cages 6 feet by 14 feet for small dogs and 6 feet by 25 feet for large dogs, with a ``run'' inside, long enough to allow the animals to exercise inside, station officials say. All cages are 7 feet high and every pet cage has a bench an owner can sit on.

Owners Can Visit Often

Owners may visit as often as they like and are responsible for grooming their pets, a task that has to be done at the facility. The quarantine center will feed and see that the dog is exercised if the owner does not do so, as well as clean the cage. And, it's forbidden to exercise dogs outside their pens.

Some pets lack for attention more than others. Volunteers like Kathy Panicek try to ease the trauma by visiting pets whose owners have yet to follow them to the islands, even putting their absent owners on the telephone so their pets can hear soothing endearments. ``We provide lots of TLC,'' said Panicek.

For decades it was Hawaii's practice to charge owners only part of the cost of quarantining their animals, with the state picking up the rest of the tab. But last year, a new measure took effect forcing pet owners to shoulder all the cost – a move that's made the fur fly.

Quarantine Fees on the Rise

The fees are also going up. The 30-day quarantine for a dog was $290. It has climbed to $555 and is due to go higher. A 120-day stay now costs $1,080.

``There are people leaving their dogs back on the mainland because they couldn't afford to bring them here,'' said Burns.

Yet Dr. James Foppoli, the state's quarantine director, insisted there's still plenty of reason to keep the quarantine in place. ``Any time you reduce the confinement period, you increase the risk,'' Foppoli said. It takes two weeks just to get the results of a rabies test that's sent to the mainland, he said.

About seven animals a year die in custody; each undergoes an autopsy, and none has been found to carry rabies, said Foppoli.

No Animals Found to Carry Rabies

He noted that, although no domestic animals there have ever been found to be carriers, the mongoose – present on the island and in other tropical climes – has occasionally been a host for the disease.

Asked whether he thought Hawaii could safely do away with its quarantine, Dr. Alex Wandeler, who heads the Center of Expertise for Rabies in Ottawa, said. ``That's a political decision and I'm kind of reluctant to tell you whether it's necessary or not.

``The vaccines are excellent; the way they are stored and applied is not always excellent,'' he continued. ``So you get a fair number of animals here and in the USA that were vaccinated and still contract rabies,'' he said.

Foppoli seemed to agree that tradition and the public's need for a sense of security were just as important as science in persuading residents to keep the quarantine. ``The public in general supports a form of quarantine, and they don't want to relax the quarantine laws,'' said Foppoli. But he also said he's planning another ``risk assessment'' to see if it's wise to shorten the impoundment period even further.

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