Report

Why a New CDC Ban Could Separate U.S. Diplomats Abroad From Their Dogs

The ban on importing dogs from more than 100 countries is leaving U.S. government personnel posted abroad in limbo.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks to his dog, Ben, at a State Department event.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calms his dog, Ben, while being introduced during a "Take Your Child to Work Day" event at the State Department in Washington on April 28, 2016. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

A sweeping new U.S. health rule banning the import of dogs from more than 100 countries has left U.S. diplomats, aid workers, and military families abroad in the lurch, scrambling to find ways to avoid having to give up their family pets when they return home.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July issued a directive temporarily barring dogs from 113 countries deemed as high-risk for canine rabies from entering the United States after a dog in Pennsylvania, originally from Azerbaijan, tested positive for a highly transmissible variant of canine rabies in early June. The CDC’s ban was an abrupt move that U.S. diplomats and other officials told Foreign Policy was made without consulting other agencies or analyzing the impact it would have on U.S. military members and personnel currently serving in posts abroad.

With the right tests and paperwork, dogs from these countries can be imported to the United States. But obtaining the proper paperwork and tests can be difficult, or next to impossible, for U.S. personnel serving in lower-income and developing countries. Now the CDC, the State Department, and other agencies are scrambling behind the scenes to find ways to help diplomats, military service members, and other U.S. officials abroad bring their pets home while also balancing public health priorities.

A sweeping new U.S. health rule banning the import of dogs from more than 100 countries has left U.S. diplomats, aid workers, and military families abroad in the lurch, scrambling to find ways to avoid having to give up their family pets when they return home.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July issued a directive temporarily barring dogs from 113 countries deemed as high-risk for canine rabies from entering the United States after a dog in Pennsylvania, originally from Azerbaijan, tested positive for a highly transmissible variant of canine rabies in early June. The CDC’s ban was an abrupt move that U.S. diplomats and other officials told Foreign Policy was made without consulting other agencies or analyzing the impact it would have on U.S. military members and personnel currently serving in posts abroad.

With the right tests and paperwork, dogs from these countries can be imported to the United States. But obtaining the proper paperwork and tests can be difficult, or next to impossible, for U.S. personnel serving in lower-income and developing countries. Now the CDC, the State Department, and other agencies are scrambling behind the scenes to find ways to help diplomats, military service members, and other U.S. officials abroad bring their pets home while also balancing public health priorities.

For U.S. foreign service officers, the ban came amid the so-called “summer transfer season,” when a significant portion of the thousands of U.S. diplomats around the world transition to new posts in foreign countries or in the United States.

Almost overnight, several current and former U.S. diplomats said, private Facebook groups and other message boards for U.S. diplomats were flooded with desperate requests for temporary dog sitters or long-term boarding options as officials faced the prospect of their family dogs being barred from entering the United States if they tried returning home with them. In that case, officials were told that their dogs would be deported to their countries of origin, but it still isn’t clear who would take the dogs upon deportation.

The CDC is allowing the import of dogs from high-risk countries that have undergone rabies tests with advance permits under the new rules. The problem is that the access to labs that test for rabies aren’t as numerous in countries outside of Europe and North America. Many of the high-risk countries do not have labs at all. Even when testing is available, it can take months. Several officials said they were told that it could take between three to six months to receive their dogs’ test results, however, putting them in limbo as they plan their next assignments that are one or two months away.

The CDC and State Department are trying to find ways to make it easier for diplomats to travel with their dogs under the new rules, officials said, including expanding the number of approved potential labs around the world that test for rabies, the number of U.S. airports through which they can arrive with dogs, and pushing back the start dates of new assignments for diplomats trying to find ways to keep their dogs with them.

“Thanks to the efforts of our colleagues at State and other agencies, the situation is somewhat less difficult for our members who are returning to the U.S. with pet dogs this summer,” said Eric Rubin, a senior U.S. diplomat who currently heads the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union that represents foreign service officers. “However, the requirement for testing at a small number of approved labs worldwide, the lack of express shipping options for lab samples in many of the affected countries, and difficulty of securing plane reservations even when CDC approval has been obtained have made this a painful, anxiety-provoking, and stressful transfer season for many of our colleagues.”

One official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he decided to leave his dog with other family members at home before he departs on an upcoming two-year assignment abroad.

He called the decision to leave the dog in the United States for two years “heartbreaking” but didn’t see a safer option. “We can’t reasonably expect to get him home if we needed to. There’s just not a guarantee anymore … and we just don’t want to risk that,” the official said.

It’s unclear how many diplomats and other officials and military personnel are impacted by the new CDC rules. Rubin said he estimates that 40 percent of his foreign service colleagues overseas have dogs, based on recent AFSA surveys. There are roughly 15,600 people serving in the U.S. foreign service. Including the military, USAID, and other agencies that send employees to posts abroad, the number of total U.S. government employees impacted by this decision could be much higher.

“They need to be reassured, clearly and authoritatively, that they’re not going to have to abandon their dog at post or have their dog deported when they return home,” said Susan Johnson, a retired senior foreign service officer and current president of the Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training.

Even if they obtain the proper paperwork, officials said it is increasingly difficult to transport their pooches to new assignments abroad. They said commercial airlines worldwide are increasingly refusing to transport pets, leaving few options to safely transport a dog without complex—and costly—logistical planning.

“There’s already big hurdles,” said Shelbie Legg, a U.S. foreign service officer based in South Africa. Legg is in the process of adopting a specially trained medical alert dog for her daughter, who has diabetes, and says having a dog is a major morale boost for her family and source of stability for her children as they uproot their lives and move to new countries every few years. She said she is concerned about the prospect of abruptly changing rules for traveling with dogs when her next assignment comes.

“I had to think a lot about whether we wanted to bring a pet into the family. It gets more complicated and more complicated every year for my colleagues who have pets,” Legg said.

From a public health standpoint, the CDC ban appears to be the least bad option available despite the hurdles it presents to dog owners, according to some experts. Reto Zanoni, who monitored the Pennsylvania case and is the head of diagnostic services at the Swiss Rabies Center in Bern, said “vaccination alone is too vulnerable a guarantee” against the disease, previously eradicated in the United States. This is due to the potential for vaccines in less developed foreign countries to be faulty, fraudulent, or administered too late.

Spokespeople for various U.S. government agencies said they were working to help government personnel as much as possible while still balancing public health requirements. “We have worked diligently to identify a temporary course of action that will simultaneously reduce the risk of importing a rabid dog, protect the health and safety of animals during and after travel, and allow [U.S. government] personnel who are serving our country overseas to import their dogs into the United States,” a CDC spokesperson said.

A State Department spokesperson said the department “understands that this issue continues to be a source of concern and stress for the workforce, and the Department’s senior leadership continues to advocate with the CDC to improve the import permit process for our workforce.”

All the diplomatic and USAID officials who spoke to Foreign Policy acknowledged the public health concerns but hoped the government could work out a long-term solution for federal government employees so they would not be forced to give up their family pets.

“We want to do the best for America. We signed up for these jobs because we want to serve,” the USAID official said. “I don’t think people realize when you move overseas to posts, you move your whole household, your whole family. It’s a whole family commitment,” he added. “These hurdles just make it harder to keep that commitment to all members of your family, even the four-legged ones.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.