Social distancing advisories issued by public health officials discourage visits to public venues including dog parks. Such recommended safety measures may be necessary to thwart the potential for more casualties from pandemic disease, but nonetheless are a source of great consternation for people and pets.
Dog parks are a wonderful place for dogs to exercise and for humans and dogs to fraternize with each other and their respective conspecifics. Thanks to immunization programs for dogs, these off-leash parks are largely safe venues from a preventive health standpoint. It is uncommon for dogs to contract canine coronavirus (CCoV) at a dog park because so many dogs are already vaccinated.
For nearly 6 decades, coronaviruses have been recognized as common etiological agents of respiratory, enteric and systemic disease in companion animal populations. While canine coronavirus is often mild and self-limiting, it can lead to fatal enteritis. It is important to note that unlike SARS–CoV–2 (etiologic agent of COVID-19), CCoV does not affect people. That said, we continue to learn about the ecology, evolution and pathogenesis (biological mechanisms of disease) of companion animal coronaviruses. This is of benefit to both people and pets because related strains of viruses often share a capacity to evolve similarly through mutations. As viruses evolve, they may change in form and function and ultimately pathogenicity (i.e. ability to infect and cause disease) and virulence (i.e. severity of disease). So, we can reference the characteristics of animals strains when predicting certain features of lesser known human strains. Understanding how animal strains evolve has been invaluable in helping us understand the potential for emerging human strains to cause significant disease.
As a puppy, your dog hopefully received a vaccine (CANINE 1-DAPPV+CV) for coronavirus. Canine coronaviruses have also been known to cause highly contagious and virulent enteric tract diseases in conjunction with other viral pathogens of carnivores. Your veterinarian likely advised you as to when it is safe to take your puppy or subadult dog to a puppy social, dog training classes or dog parks. On the other hand, if you visit a dog park and fail to take precautions, there are potential health hazards to you. Specifically, you could be exposed to the novel human strain for which there is not yet a vaccine.
While you may be able to easily maintain ‘social distance’ from people at a dog park, it is harder to thwart the advances of a friendly dog wanting to be pet. Dogs and people can serve as fomites. A fomite is more often thought of as an inanimate object, which can be contaminated by a pathogen. But people and companion pets can facilitate the transmission of disease, just as insects can serve as mechanical vectors of disease. If someone sneezes on a park bench or on the back of a dog, virus-laden droplets can become a source of indirect contact transmission between people who have come in contact with the fomite.
Although, not a primary or perhaps likely means of transmission, contaminated dog fur can aide in the transmission of viral pathogens. Be cautious about petting other dogs and, at very least, wash your hands!!! Stay home in the meantime and when you resume visits to the dog park, please practice smart hygiene.