No, I’m not talking about a need for Facebook for Dogs. I’m talking about the interaction and contact networks that dogs have, which are important for understanding and mitigating infectious disease risks. Let’s use my dogs as an example.

Dog 1: Ozzie

  • PITA (pain in the…) 1 year old Labrador.
  • Healthy, young, low risk for severe respiratory disease.

Dog 2: Merlin

  • 12 year old Labrador with chronic lymphoid leukemia who’s been on chlorambucil and prednisone for close to 2 years.
  • Otherwise healthy (for an old dog with leukemia), but presumably at higher risk for severe disease should he get a respiratory infection.

Ozzie and Merlin’s normal social network:

Their social network is pretty small. It’s predominantly just the two of them. We live in the country and they have very few random encounters with other dogs. They go for walks around our property and sometimes at the local agreement forest, so there’s always some chance for an encounter with another dog, but that’s a rare occurrence (and direct contact with another dog would be rarer still). Every week or so, Heather takes them for a walk with a friend and her dog, who has a similarly cloistered lifestyle.

They have few contacts with other dogs, the limited contact they have outside the household is a known, regular contact that’s low risk. Their risk of exposure to an infectious disease is pretty low (but never zero).

So the cost:benefit calculation is easy for me here. I don’t see a need to or benefit of disrupting their social network based on the current circulation of canine respiratory pathogens. Their network is small, low risk and the contacts are beneficial (for both the dogs and people). If one of the dogs was sick, I have no doubt any visits would be cancelled.

The “holiday effect” on their social network:

Here’s where things get more complicated. When we visit Heather’s family and the whole gang is there, it’s a bit of a gong show. We have Ozzie and Merlin, plus Maggie (adult Golden Retriever), Otis (adult behemoth of a Bernese Mountain dog) and Charlie (adolescent Labrador). That’s actually less than it could be, because Phoebe doesn’t make the trip… probably her own good as a small dog in the otherwise big dog frenzy). Otis and Charlie are from separate households in the same area of the US.

So, we have five dogs from three cities in two countries. They’re all well cared for and none have high risk lifestyles, but Otis and Charlie add a lot of unknown factors to the mix.

Is this a higher risk situation than our normal one? Yes.

Is it particularly high risk?

  • Probably not. It’s short term contact with a known but geographically distinct group of dogs.
  • We know the health status of the dogs and, as far as I know, none of them have any high risk exposures.
  • If there was rampant canine infectious respiratory disease (especially a new pathogen or severe disease) in the area from where any of these dogs came, I might reconsider getting them all together, but that would be case-by-case, since there are important family benefits of getting together (including the dogs).

Last summer’s social network

We rent a cottage for a couple of weeks every year. This year, we realized that “Ozzie + 24 hours at a cottage = not a lot of relaxation.” So, he went to a local day care for part of the day (a tired Ozzie is a much more enjoyable Ozzie). It was a typical day care, with about 20 dogs tearing around a compound. It was great for him, great for us, but absolutely higher risk for spread of respiratory disease, because it involved a lot of dogs that we know nothing about. It was a good day care and they required kennel cough vaccination, which reduces some of the risk, but doesn’t eliminate it.

So, Ozzie got a Bordetella / parainfluenza / adenovirus vaccine, and a lot of potential exposure. Merlin and the rest of us got a break from Ozzie, and we accepted the added degree of risk.

I didn’t give Merlin a kennel cough vaccine, although I considered it. Since he’s higher risk for severe disease, my threshold to get him vaccinated is lower, and it would have been reasonable to do to protect him in case something broke through Ozzie’s vaccine and he brought it home. This summer, if we’re in the same situation, I’d assess Merlin’s health status and the disease status, and decide whether or not to vaccine him too (I’d probably lean toward vaccinating him now).

The cost:benefit calculation was quite different here:

  • We greatly increased our dogs’ social networks and therefore risk of exposure to infectious diseases. However, my risk assessment deemed it worthwhile, for both the dogs and us.
  • If things were going off the rails from a disease standpoint, Ozzie wouldn’t have gone to the day care, dropping our risk back down to baseline.

There’s no standard formula to assess risk and what’s tolerable. We can’t take “x” number of contacts and “y” situations and come up with a magic number. Well, I guess we can, but it’s not going to be useful. However, sketching out a dog’s social network is useful to visualize the risks that are present and to assess each one.

  • Sometimes, you might say “that contact is not really important, it’s high risk and I can change things to avoid it.
  • Sometimes, you might say, “that’s a risk we have to take.

If you need to send your dog to day care to go to work, send your dog to day care. Just pay attention to where it is.

If you’re going on vacation, you may need to board your dog. If it’s a high risk dog and a high risk area, you may still have no choice, as a boarding kennel might be the best option. However, you might also be able to find a smaller well-run facility, in-home care or a willing friend to take your dog. There are often other options if you know where to look, and no one-size-fits-all solution.