Hawaii Quarantines Incoming Horses for Rabies

You're moving to paradise, and even the horse 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 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.

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 horse is exercised if the owner does not do so, as well as clean the stall.

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. “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. Quarantinng a horse for 30 days can cost over $500 and is due to go higher. A 120-day stay can cost over $1,000.

“There are people leaving their horses 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.