Dog-Walking in the Age of Covid-19

Wear a Face Mask, or Not?
By The Bark Editors, July 2020
dog walking with face mask

Question: I’m hoping you can settle a disagreement a friend and I are having about proper etiquette when walking or running with our dogs: Should we be wearing face masks?

Answer: Short answer? Yes. Do the right thing and wear a face mask when out in public. This is not a political position, it’s a public-safety issue, much like wearing seat belts and not smoking indoors in public places.

Sure, in the age of Covid-19, there are many gray areas when it comes to interpreting current health ordinances. Much depends on where we live—on our state, county and local rules. There is, however, a growing body of accepted, science-based evidence about the virus’s transmission and how that intersects with reasonable health precautions and common courtesy. So yes, we believe it’s better to err on the side of caution (and precaution), and recommend that people always wear a mask when out in public—with or without their dogs.

While we can do our best to practice social distancing, we can’t always control or predict when circumstances will bring us face to face with another person. There’s the “let the mask dangle but pull it up when approaching others” method, but it can be difficult to do this quickly while also tending to our dog. Leashes get in the way, poop needs to be picked up, dogs need to be discouraged from snaring a stray “treat.”

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In his recent New York Times op-ed column, “Refusing to Wear a Mask Is Like Driving Drunk,” Nicholas Kristof highlighted the positive impact face masks have had during this pandemic: “An article in Health Affairs found that state mask mandates, which cover about half the population, may have averted more than 230,000 coronavirus infections.” Kristoff also cites the University of Washington computer model that “suggests that 33,000 American lives could be saved from Covid-19 between now and October 1 if more people wore masks.”

As a friend logically puts it, do we unbuckle our seat belts when driving five mph or less? Do seat belts come off when we stop at a red light? No. People concerned about their safety wear a seat belt when they’re in a car. Period. She reasons that we should follow a similar “wear face masks all the time in public” practice. We tend to agree. Saving lives and protecting ourselves and others are things no one should have to think twice about—for no other reason, because who will care for our precious dogs if we become infected and are hospitalized?

Here are a few other health issues that arise in our current dog-walking/running/petting environment:

•Running and biking. Some Covid-19 regulations exempt runners and cyclists from wearing face masks, but lately, we’re seeing increasing numbers of these actively exercising people using them. While it’s understandable that strenuous exercise makes breathing through a face covering more difficult, sharing public spaces requires everyone to follow basic health precautions. We know this virulent virus spreads via both aerosols (talking, breathing) and droplets (coughing, sneezing). Exercise-induced heavy breathing can spread it beyond six-foot social-distancing parameters.

•Petting other people’s dogs, or allowing others to pet our dogs. In theory, a dog’s coat could harbor the coronavirus. If someone who has the virus pets the dog and another person does the same, then touches his/her face, mouth or eyes with their (unwashed) hand, they could transfer the virus to themselves. It’s possible, but extremely unlikely. That said, it’s probably best not to pet other people’s dogs or allow other dogs to interact with our own until further notice. In addition to encroaching into an individual’s safe space, interacting physically with another person’s dog can make social distancing difficult.

•Allowing our dogs to get close to other people. We’ve noticed that more people are hesitant about coming into close proximity of our dogs when we’re out on walks, possibly because in these uncertain times, some may believe that dogs can transmit the coronavirus through contact. While, as mentioned, it’s technically possible for dogs to be carriers, the chances are exceedingly remote. Still, it’s best to be respectful by not allowing our dogs to wander up to other people when we’re out in public. And we don’t take it personally if people ignore or avoid our dogs.

As infection rates surge, there are hopeful signs that the politicization of mask wearing is abating. Prominent figures of all political stripes are endorsing this important public-health practice, recognizing that it’s not about us, it’s about all of us, as a nation. As Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently urged, “Just wear a damn mask.” Our sentiments exactly!