Importation of the Rabies Virus

Written by Brandon Alvarez and McArthur Mock

Importation of various animals has been a widespread practice throughout ancient and modern times. Although animals have been traded along many borders, this traffic in livestock did not come without its problems. Many imported animals carried diseases, none more serious than rabies. Rabies was a widespread epidemic in some areas of the world in the 19th century, and showed its presence in many areas around the United Kingdom. Due to the importation of large numbers of dogs into the UK, rabies became a serious problem in cities like London. Only when laws were  passed regulating the importation of dogs did the problem seem to lessen, although it did not entirely cease.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, dogs were a popular commodity among those who had pest control problems, as well as those who valued hunting around the United Kingdom (City of London 1967). Large numbers of dogs were imported from various areas of the world such as Asia and other European countries (City of London 1969). The large influx of dogs led to many being let loose in the streets, thus creating a widespread problem of stray dogs, and more specifically, rabid stray dogs. Until 1928 there were no strict regulations on animals imported into the United Kingdom even though legislation was in place (City of London 1972). Dogs carrying rabies were easily imported and allowed onto the streets of London, as well as other cities and towns around the United Kingdom such as Hampstead, as well as Hammersmith (Hammersmith 1924). These towns, as well as London, reported numerous cases of rabid dogs roaming the streets, attacking anyone who was unlucky enough to cross their path (City of London 1972). The importations of rabid dogs led to a rabies epidemic that would eventually lead to new legislation being passed (City of London 1969).

London was not the only city impacted by the rabies virus. Countries such as Russia and France also suffered rabies epidemics due to the illegal importation of infected dogs  (Baer 1991, 10). Rabies was a particular concern for poorer communities in London, as well as other burroughs around the United Kingdom (Velten 2013, 14-17). The invention of the rabies vaccine by Pasteur was relatively new at the time, and had not had time to effectively combat this concern before it was too late (Haas, 1998).

rabies dog
A rabid dog roaming the streets of London in the late stages of rabies. Credit: Wellcome Library, United Kingdom.

In 1928, the first of many laws targeted importation of dogs into the country. The act was called the Importation of Dogs and Cats Act of 1928, and it listed criteria that needed to be met for dogs to be allowed into the country (City of London 1967). Dogs were required to have vaccination paperwork, and were put through a series of tests to determine their current state of health (City of London 1967). Since the invention of the rabies vaccination, due to the works of Louis Pasteur, it was required of every animal that entered the country (Théodoridès, 1998). The invention of the rabies vaccine by Louis Pasteur, along with the new restrictions on the importation of cats and dogs with the Act of 1928, led to a sharp decrease in rabies cases in the United Kingdom (Haas, 1998). Many other countries, such as France, Spain, and Italy, adopted formal legislation in order to combat rising rabies cases due to importations (Haas, 1998).  The legislation proved to work for subsequent decades until reports of rabies started to rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Importers of dogs would fake paperwork, and refused to show inspectors the dogs in question. Proof of paperwork, as well as bribery was enough to let the virus run rampant within the country once more (City of London 1967).

Many more buroughs reported increases in rabies cases among dogs as well as humans. The city of Westminster reported the highest number of rabies cases in the mid-1960s in relation to importation fraud (City of Westminster 1963). Other buroughs such as Hendon reported the largest number of rabies cases reported to date (Hendon 1963). The burough of Barnet also reported an increased number of reports of rabies among dogs that affected numerous crops around the area (Barnet 1969). This was not the first time Barnet had faced hardship with this virus. During the first rabies outbreak during the early 20th century, many citizens became infected with the virus and a quarantine of the city was imposed (Barnet 1911). All records seem to point the epicenter of this ordeal to an importation order received in the City of London (City of London 1969). Another burough that was effected was Enfield, which begged for support from Parliament to send medical supplies due to the low quantities they had to combat those infected with the virus (Enfield 1967).

Due to the reemergence of the rabies virus in the mid 1960s, new legislation became necessary. The Importation of Dogs and Cats (Amendment) Order  of 1969, as well as 1970 revamped the previous law instituted in 1928 (City of London 1969). Importers were still required to show necessary paperwork in regards to a rabies vaccination, as well as the dog itself needing to go through a series of tests to prove that the rabies virus, was in fact, non existent (City of London 1969). If any of these stipulations were to be denied, the dogs in question would then be slaughtered (City of London 1970). This legislative amendment to the original act of 1928 provided the strict stipulation of slaughter if the animal had not conformed to all the necessary requirements, which did lead to a sharp decrease in rabies in the following years (City of London 1970).

Modern day importation of animals, especially dogs, has led to outbreaks in different countries. Indonesia, for example, had little legislation concerning the importation of various animals possibly carrying disease (Windinyanigsih, 1999).  This led to a widespread panic over rabies in the late 20th century. Many Indonesians feared that any stray dog they saw was rabid, and therefore needed to be put down. The epidemic ended in late 2003, but not without infecting many people, and causing widespread distrust in the government for not giving greater attention to this issue before it became a major epidemic (Windinyanigsih, 1999).  The United States has also been affected by importation of rabid dogs. Although legislation does stand in place, there are some stipulations that accompany the verification of the rabies virus. The dog must be of age to be properly deemed safe for a rabies vaccination, or have proper paperwork deeming them safe and free of the rabies virus (Sinclair, 2014). Approximately 25% of dogs imported into the United States in 2006 were too young to meet any of these criteria, and were thus passed into the country (Sinclair, 2014). Although young, and despite the assumption that puppies were too young to contract the rabies virus, many carried the virus, but showed no outward signs until it was too late. The United States has eliminated domestic rabies, importation of various dogs threatens this standing, but with firmer legislation being passed, such as requiring a certain age among dogs before they can be imported to the United States, ensuring that they have had proof of their vaccination (Mquinston, 2008). Others will be denied access into the country to minimize the rabies risk, and eliminate It from circulation permanently (Sinclair, 2014).

The importation of many rabid dogs into not just the United Kingdom, but other countries as well, led to a sharp increase in the incidence of rabies within those countries. Late 19th- and early 20th-century reports from the Medical Officer of Health reports did not give much concern about the importation of the rabies virus into their country until it was too late and many rabid dogs had been freed into the streets of London as well as other cities in the United Kingdom. Trial and error in legislation that would come to succeed in the mid 20th century lent itself to the suppression of the rabies virus in terms of importation. Legislation was determined to rid the country of such a hideous disease, and rebuild from what it had destroyed in the past decades. The virus had taken its toll on London and  its buroughs.

19th century cartoon of a rabid dog in a London street 1826. Scanned copy from Teri Shors, Understanding Viruses, Sudbury, Mass: Jones & Bartlett Publishers (2008), p. 353.


Written by Anjali Kumari 

Today dogs are treated with the utmost care and affection. Dogs are often referred to as “man’s best friend,” but this was not always the case. In 19th-century London, numerous regulations were passed by Parliament which imposed restrictions on dogs. This series of legislation was executed due to the rapid emergence of canine rabies. A great deal of these regulations were proposed due to the inadequate and limited knowledge of rabies. These orders resulted in the slaughtering and quarantining of dogs suspected to be suffering from rabies.

The Disease of Animals Acts of 1894-1911 were put into place in order to suppress contagious, zoonotic diseases. These orders were implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (London County Council 1920). The mass importation of dogs was considered to be one of the main culprits of the rabies outbreak in London (City of London 1970). The Metropolitan Streets Act of 1867 was strictly enforced by metropolitan police in London. This act authorized law enforcement to seize, detain, and dispose of stray dogs. Over a five-year period (1888-1892), 888 dogs were killed; 220 of them were found to be rabid in post mortem examinations (Kensington 1893). The Muzzling Order and The Dogs Act of 1871 were carried out in cities where rabies was more endemic (Theodorid 1989).  These orders permitted law enforcement to seize unmuzzled dogs. The execution of these orders resulted in 44,743 dogs deaths. These dogs were impounded, valuable dogs were sold, and the rest were put into a lethal chamber (Kensington 1896). The Rabies Act of 1895 was also carried out in the whole City of London. Dog owners were required to muzzle their dogs when in public places. If a dog did not have a collar with the owner’s name and address, it was considered strayed and law enforcement had authority to seize the dog. The Chief Veterinary Officer to the Board of Agriculture made a statement on his view on the prevention of rabies: “the slaughter of all ownerless dogs is of primary importance” (Kensington 1896).  Perhaps the attitudes towards rabies were so negative, due to the limited resources available to treat rabies. Anyone infected with rabies was most likely to be in danger of death. Medical Officers of Health did not possess adequate knowledge of rabies, this prompted harsh laws to contain rabies in the London area.

The treatment of rabies in the early 19th century included the Local Government Board issuing protocols in April 1919. This protocol stated that if a person was bitten by a dog they were suspected to be rabid. In June 1919, the memorandum was revised and stated that when a person was bitten by a dog in an area in which rabies was prominent, the wound must be treated immediately (City of London 1919).  Wounds suspected to be infected with rabies were treated with undiluted carbolic acid, undiluted Iztal, or other available disinfectants. If no disinfectant were available, then the wound was washed and irrigated with water (City of London 1919). The anti-rabies treatment recommended by the Medical Officers of Health included keeping patients under observation to determine if symptoms of rabies were presented in patients. The Pasteur Institute in France was the only institution in Europe where patients bitten by rabid dogs could undergo treatment. In one case, a man’s face was bitten by a rabid dog. The infected bites were treated by administrating injections with anti-rabid matter to the infected area. Theses injection were administered for the three days and twice a day (Kensington 1896). There were limited treatment options for patients seeking treatment for rabies.

Although, the Medical Officers of Health published reports educating the public about the cases of rabies, a large number of the reports were primarily reports of the suspicions of rabies in dogs and humans. There were many misreported cases of rabies during the early 19th century. Anyone who was bitten by a dog was automatically classified as having rabies, as well as the dog. Due to these misreported cases, many dogs were wrongly killed for a disease they did not suffer from (City of London 1971). In 1919, four people had been bitten by dogs and were presumed to be suffering from rabies. None of the four cases held definite evidence of rabies (Battersea 1919). In 1933, a dog attacked and bit school children. The dog was killed by a police officer then examined by the Council’s Veterinary Inspector. The post mortem examination determined that the dog was not suffering from rabies. This diagnosis was also confirmed by the government’s laboratory where dead dogs were sent by the Medical Officer of Health. The children that were bitten were kept under observation and it was observed that none of them developed any symptoms of rabies. (Hendon 1933). A Medical Officer of Health stated, “if a case of rabies remained unreported then this disease might once again become established in this country.” Again, this hysteria occurred due to the lack of available treatments and research for rabies (West Ham 1937).

In 1885, Louis Pasteur, a Parisian bacteriologist, developed a vaccine that could prevent rabies prior to reaching its later stages, where it is highly fatal. The vaccine was first administer by Louis Pasteur himself in 1885 when a nine-year-old patient named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Louis Pasteur’s laboratory where he was treated and observed for three weeks, and fortunately left rabies free (Rothman 2015). Although, a vaccine for rabies existed, it wasn’t till March 1970 when the Committee of Enquiry was established to inquire on the precautions and preventative measures that were being taken against rabies in Great Britain. The committee formulated valuable recommendations that managed the rabies outbreak in a more progressive and nonviolent manner. The recommendations included offering vaccinations to individuals who were considered to be at particular risk of rabies due to the potential contact with rabid animals in their place of employment. In 1971, local health authorities made it mandatory for the Department of Health and Social Security to make rabies vaccinations accessible and available to all local authorities that could possibly have dealings with rabid animals (Hillingdon 1971).

The control on the rabies outbreak was placed in the hands of law enforcement, rather than the hands of scientists and medical professionals. Dogs were slaughtered and quarantined as a preventative measure. More research could have been conducted on the pathological origins of rabies in order to uncover a variety of effective treatments. Encouraging research for rabies could have avoided the aggressive approach that was taken to manage the rabies outbreak in London. Furthermore, there is no evidence that demonstrates that killing dogs contributed to the elimination of rabies. The killing of these dogs only contributed to new generations of unvaccinated dogs and people (Clifton 2014).

Importation Primary Sources

  1. Barnet 1969
  2. Barnet 1911
  3. City of London 1969
  4. City of London 1972
  5.  City of London 1970
  6. City of London 1967
  7. City of Westminster 1963
  8. City of London 1969
  9. Enfield 1967
  10. Hammersmith 1924
  11. Hendon 1963

Importation Related Secondary Sources

  1. Mquinston, J. H., T. Wilson, S. Harris, R. M. Bacon, S. Shapiro, and I. Trevino.     “Importation of Dogs into the United States: Risks from Rabies and Other Zoonotic   Diseases.” Zoonoses and Public Health, April 2, 2008. Accessed April 4, 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1863-2378.2008.01117.x/full
  2. C, Windiyaningsih, Wilde H, Meslin FX, Suroso T, and Widarso HS. “Ministry of Health, CDC&EH, Indonesia.” Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet thangphaet. Accessed April 04, 2017. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/15825719.
  3. Sinclair, J. R., F. Washburn, S. Fox, and E. W. Lankau. “Dogs Entering the United States from Rabies-Endemic Countries, 2011–2012.” Zoonoses and Public Health, September 22, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/doi/10.1111/zph.12160/full.
  4. Baer, Geoge M. “The Natural History of Rabies, 2nd Edition.” Google Books. March 26, 1991. Accessed April 06, 2017. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=dw8qW6jcfWUC&oi=fnd&pg=PA10&dq=dog%2Bimportation%2B19th%2Bcentury&ots=CmGN4f3XkH&sig=H04vl_h0S4w55cj758vvxIrja5k#v=onepage&q=dog%20importation%2019th%20century&f=false.
  5. Haas, L. F. “Louis Pasteur (1822-95).” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. March 01, 1998. Accessed April 06, 2017. http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/64/3/330.
  6. Velten, Hannah . Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City. Reaktion Books, 2013. Print.
  7. Théodoridès, J. “Pasteur and rabies: the British connection.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. August 1989. Accessed April 06, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1292256/pdf/jrsocmed00147-0053

Rabies Primary Sources

  1. Kensington 1893
  2. Kensington 1896
  3. City of London 1919
  4. Battersea 1919
  5. London County Council 1920
  6. Hendon 1933
  7. West Ham 1937
  8. City of London 1970
  9. City of London 1971
  10. Hillingdon 1971

Rabies Secondary Sources

  1. Clifton, Merritt . How to eradicate canine rabies: a perspective of historical efforts. August 4, 2014. Accessed April 1, 2017. https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/abm.2011.5.issue-4/1905-7415.0504.075/1905-7415.0504.075.pdf.
  2. J Theodorid, J . “Pasteur and rabies: the British connection.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine . August august 1989. Accessed April 01, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1292256/pdf/jrsocmed00147-0053.pdf.
  3. Rothman, Lily . “History of Vaccines: The First Person Vaccinated for Rabies.” Time. July 6, 2015. Accessed April 01, 2017. http://time.com/3925192/rabies-vaccine-history/.