The dog park is open again. Should you use it?

As cities and province begin to ease COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, off-leash dog parks are being reopened. But is it safe to go back?

Evidence unclear whether dogs can transmit virus to other animals — or back to humans

As lockdown restrictions are lifted across the country, off-leash dog parks are also being reopened. Vets say you can use them safely, but with precautions. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)

For those who have been living under lockdown the past nine weeks or so, the isolation has, in some cases, included the family dog. 

Many provinces and cities closed off-leash dog parks in March to lessen the risk of overcrowding by the dogs' humans and to encourage physical distancing. 

But over the past two weeks, as restrictions on businesses and public spaces have begun easing, off-leash areas have reopened too — including in Vancouver and other parts of B.C., Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Halifax. Ontario, including Toronto, reopened off-leash parks on Tuesday. 

That's a good thing, says Dr. Scott Weese, a veterinary microbiologist at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont., in terms of people getting out and dogs getting exercise again, while still maintaining physical distancing measures.

But Weese says the reopening should come with some precautions.

"We can't just go back to normal. There's going to be a new normal for quite a while," he said. 

A man looks at his phone while wearing a protective mask with his dog at English Bay in Vancouver on April 9. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

There is little definitive information to date about dogs possibly passing COVID-19 to humans, or vice versa. The journal Nature recently published the early findings of one research team which suggested there is evidence of human-to-animal transmission of the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but that it is unclear whether an infected dog can infect another dog or give it back to a human. 

Dr. Rebecca Archer, a clinical instructor of small animal medicine at the University of Calgary, is on a task force that's reviewing the available research on COVID-19 and pets.

"What we know right now is that we have zero, absolutely zero, cases of any dogs ever giving coronavirus, COVID-19, to a person," she said. There is also no evidence of dogs giving COVID-19 to each other. 

"The only evidence we have is of people who have transferred their COVID-19 to their dog," Archer said. 

Those cases involved two dogs in Hong Kong, both of which tested positive for the coronavirus after being in contact with their infected owners. 

Transmission by fur? 

What's not clear either is whether a dog's fur or hair can carry the virus from one human to another. 

"That potential exists in the theoretical realm," said Archer.

Researchers have determined that the coronavirus can persist on surfaces for days. There has been no documented case of a human catching it by touching a dog previously handled by an infected person. But, said Archer, "Is it possible? Yes."

Which is part of the reason Weese has, for the past two months, been recommending people physically distance their dogs, too. 

"If I wouldn't go up and shake someone's hand or give them a hug, do I want them interacting with my dog and then me doing that to my dog?" He says it would be no different from a handshake.

The dog park at Allan Gardens, which has a space for small dogs and another for large dogs. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control also recommends people consider their pets like any other member of their household, advising them not to let their pets interact with people or animals from outside

But for Canadians who live in areas where lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease, you can safely take your dog to the park again. The experts advise to just choose your time wisely.

"I would be very careful to ensure that there either aren't other people there," said Dr. Jason Stull, assistant professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown. "Or, if there are, there's very few." 

And most important — don't let other people touch your dog. 

"We're trying to keep animals out of the equation," said Weese. 

High-touch surfaces

Another reason municipalities closed parks was to help people avoid contact with high-touch surfaces. The gate on the dog park — opened and closed dozens of times every day — is a high-touch surface.

The city of Regina recognized that. And when it reopened its two, year-round dog parks last week, it warned people that the gates would be left open at all times.

"This is being done to adhere to the public health orders as the gates are considered high touch points," city spokesperson Janine Daradich said at the time. 

People and their two dogs navigate the double gate entry at a dog park. Gates are considered a high-touch surface. (Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images)

In Toronto, where the rate of infection is still relatively high compared to other parts of the country, gates are not being left open. 

Asked if such a move was considered, Toronto's Associate Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vinita Dubey, simply said in an email that "Proper hand hygiene after touching a frequently touched surface is an important way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from surfaces."

Hoses and water faucets at the park would also be considered high-touch surfaces to avoid. But sharing common items does not appear to be as much of an issue for dogs.

"Shared toys, water bowls, things like that would be a lower risk than having contact with a person," said Weese. "But we can't say no risk at this point."

Sharing hoses or toys among dogs is less of a risk to them. The greater risk is to their humans. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

And if you live in an area which still has a high rate of COVID-19 infection, your chances of catching it by going to the dog park is going to be higher than for someone living in an area with a low or zero rate of transmission. 

Other risks to consider

When it comes to letting your dog play with other dogs at the park, the consensus among the vets when it comes to coronavirus transmission is that it's probably not an issue.

But Stull says, there is another important factor to consider: Most veterinarians have been prevented from providing preventative care to their clients during the lockdown. 

As a result, dogs have missed annual exams, and may be behind in several areas of disease prevention  — including vaccination, deworming, or flea and tick prevention.

"And if we are taking our pets to places where we're going to have contact with other dogs... then we put them at risk for infectious diseases," Stull said, some of which are a concern for dogs — but also for people. 

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