As people adapt to the new (temporary) normal of social distancing, and try to take measures to protect our highest risk populations (especially the elderly), a lot of interesting questions come up. One recent question was about dog walking programs. In some areas, people are looking at offering dog walking services to seniors to help them stay away from others.  These could be very useful, providing exercise for the dogs and another check-in point for seniors who are trying to stay away from the general population.

The questions I’ve been getting pertain to the risks such services could also pose, and how to mitigate said risks. Overall these are pretty low risk programs and the precautionary measures are pretty straightforward.  There are two key points to consider:

Risk of infection to the owner during “hand-off” of the dog.
  • This is low risk (assuming neither party has any clinical signs of illness), and keeping 2 metres apart during when the dog is picked up and dropped off would make that risk negligible (i.e. stay hands off during the hand-off).

Potential contamination of the outside of the dog (e.g. fur).

  • If the dog’s coat were to be contaminated with the virus, even if the dog isn’t infected it can still act as a fomite, just like a doorknob or any other hand contact surface.
  • This would be a concern if the owner or walker was infected and shedding the virus. Making sure neither has signs of COVID-19 would be a good first step. It’s not a guarantee but if both are healthy, the risk that one is shedding the virus would be low.
  • Focusing on good hand hygiene (as much as possible before and after touching the dog) would help too, in case either one is unknowingly shedding the virus but not sick.
  • Personal protective equipment (e.g. masks, gloves) is probably of limited use in this scenario, and also a waste of what has become a very limited resource. Masks and gloves don’t do much in a lower risk situation like this, particularly since people tend to use them improperly. Even when used correctly, surgical masks mainly help prevent people from spreading the virus over short distances when they breathe or talk. They’re of limited benefit when you have a quick interaction at a reasonable distance between people who are apparently healthy. Masks are now also in short supply, so we want to save them for the situations when they’re really needed/can be of benefit.

Overall, programs like this could be very useful on a few levels and can be done very safely with a bit of common sense.