"Don't Let Your Dog Put His Nose There, You Can't Trace It"

A "radical" view about dogs, COVID-19, and humans using updated information.

Posted May 17, 2020

"My dog misses my touching and hugging her, and I don't know what to do. Can you please offer some advice?" —Simone, via email

Yesterday, as I rode back into Boulder (Colorado) along a bike path, I heard a woman scream, "Don't let your dog put his nose there. You don't know if he's got COVID and you can't trace where he's been." She was referring to a medium-sized butt-sniffing dog, and she wasn't short on words—or mild expletives—for the dog or his human.

I kept riding, but their altercation that slowly faded down to something semi-civil made me think more about dogs, other companion animals, the community at large, and the COVID-19 pandemic. I also receive a good number of emails asking questions such as the ones above, and have discussions about what we know and don't know about dogs, cats, and the spread of this horrific virus. Most of the inquiries deal with questions such as, "Is it okay to touch a strange dog?"; "I love to hug my dog and she loves to be hugged, is this alright?"; or "Is it okay for my dog to play with or sniff other dogs?" 

On March 19, 2020, I posted an essay called "What Pet Owners and Vets Need to Know About COVID-19," and update it when there's more to say. For example, a piece titled "Dutch dog, three cats infected with coronavirus" published on May 16 begins, "A dog and three cats in the Netherlands have been infected with COVID-19, authorities say, the first confirmed cases involving house pets in the country. The dog was believed to have been infected by its owner, Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten said. 'It's important that owners of house pets follow this advice: Patients with COVID-19 should as a precaution avoid contact with their animals,' Schouten said in a letter to parliament. 'Sick animals belonging to people with COVID-19 should be kept inside as much as possible.'"

A "radical" but informed and updated rule of thumb about touching and interacting with your and others' dogs

While I was talking with a few people about this encounter, I said that I avoid touching, playing with—and surely sniffing, for much-needed levity—all dogs right now. Someone said my rule of thumb was really too "radical." 

I thought about it and decided that's what works for me, and given what we know and don't know about COVID-19, it's really not all that radical. In "What Pet Owners and Vets Need to Know About COVID-19," I included dog expert Dr. Michael W. Fox's recommendation that people not pet others' dogs outside and included some advice about how to give your dog and yourself some much-needed exercise by renowned veterinarian Nicholas Dodman.

Pixabay, free download
Source: Pixabay, free download

The reason I decided on my rule of thumb is simple. While I don't currently share my home with a dog, I'm lucky enough to have daily contact with a number of amazing dog beings. Some of them have no contact with other dogs, whereas some enjoy more limited touching, sniffing, and playing with their buddies. A few go to local dog parks where it's totally impossible to control what they do and where their noses go. 

When I ask the humans whose dogs have some, even a little latitude about dog-dog or dog-human contact if they know much about the other dogs or the humans, the typical answers go something like, "I sort of do." or "Yeah, pretty much."

These are fully responsible and competent "dog people," but nonetheless, their dogs' whereabouts and what they've done, especially at dog parks or on multi-use trails, can't reliably be traced. Fortunately, many of the people I know keep their dog on a short leash when they're around other people. One friend simply politely asks people not to approach his dog, who everyone knows is a love muffin. It may be especially difficult to control teenage dogs

I've also been asked the important question, "What about when I get home?" I suggest they keep their face covered and groom their dog outdoors before they go inside, where they should thoroughly wash their hands.

That's really all they can do if they choose to go outside, and I fully understand why they don't want to be stuck inside. I also stress that taking these precautions is a way to protect other people in addition to themselves and possibly their and other dogs, making it a community effort and a win-win for all. The benefits easily outweigh the potential costs. 

Someone also asked me about whether they should foster or rescue a dog given what's going on. I'm all for that, as long as the person has carefully thought through the enormity of this game-changing new responsibility and will be able to give the dog a wonderful home, either for a while or forever, depending on what they signed up for. Once again, there are some precautions that are very easy to put into practice that are good for everyone, dogs and humans alike.

I miss touching dogs who like to be touched, including those I know. And, I also know that I don't want to contract COVID-19, having talked with one victim who's slowly recovering and a good number of front-line health care professionals. I also try to avoid as much as possible being near a dog who's happily spreading their dander. 

There are many other easy ways to have fun with your dog, give them the best life possible under the prevailing conditions and restrictions, and show them you still love them. No matter how challenging and inconvenient it may be, there are workable ways to learn more about your dog as an individual and to maintain the bond you've developed with them. 

While the risk of getting or spreading COVD19 by interacting with dogs and cats seems to be very low, there's a lot we still don't know about companion animals and this deadly virus. It wasn't all that long ago when we were told that youngsters weren't all that vulnerable. 

I realize some people might think I'm a killjoy or party-pooper, but when people ask my take on the current situation my answer is, be as hands-off as possible and try not to inhale dogs' dander. I surely don't have all the answers, but being cautious is a good road to travel right now. While there seems to be no evidence now that dogs or cats can give us the virus, we really don't know if this will prove to be so. In an essay called "Did a mink just give the coronavirus to a human? Here’s what we know" we read, "Domestic dogs, cats, tigers, and lions have also tested positive for the virus, though there is no evidence that those animals have transmitted the disease to humans." I surely hope we come to learn that this is the case.

As we learn more and more about the possibility of tracing the whereabouts of companion animals—where their bodies and noses have strayed—I hope the picture will change and there will be more solid answers. I also fully realize that tracing dogs also is de facto tracing humans, and there surely are looming privacy issues. But, that's another story. 

For now, my simple rule of thumb is a small price to pay for people, their dogs, others' dogs, and other humans—but better safe than sorry. In the end, it'll most likely be the dog who pays the price for humans' irresponsibility, and we must do all we can to protect our canine and other companions and the people with whom we come into contact. 


Bekoff, Marc. Dogs' "Teenage Brains" Evolved for Good Reasons

_____. "I'm a Mess About My Dogs and Coronavirus—How Will They Do?"

_____. Puppy Mills, Pandemics, Disaster Preparedness, and Decency

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019. 

Compitus, Katherine. Can I Catch Covid-19 From My Cat or Dog? (Dr. Compitus concludes, "There is proof that they can get the virus from us but there is nothing to suggest that they can give it to us.  We must protect them as we would protect any loved one from this awful illness."

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