As the owner of a puppy myself, I know how much joy people seem to get from petting him. Most are respectful in asking to do so, but some act as if it’s their right to cuddle and play with him as long as they like—as though my dog is exempt from the laws of viral physics. I let them do it (if he’s into it), but I do sometimes feel odd being so vigilant about transmission at all other times, and then bringing my dog into my apartment after a walk on which he’s just been groped by a dozen pairs of unknown hands.
Read: I got a pandemic puppy, and you can too
Dog owners have raised three basic concerns with pandemic petting. First is the possibility that when people get really close to a puppy like Rooster and rub their hands all over his little body, they are seeding his fur with viral droplets. Second is the idea that Rooster himself could get infected and get sick. Third is the worry that dogs could get infected and then asymptomatically spread the virus to clearly vulnerable species such as humans.
These are valid concerns, at least theoretically. But in practice, we luckily haven’t seen dogs getting seriously ill as a result of the virus (a German shepherd named Buddy, who contracted COVID-19 and died in July, also had cancer). Not many animals are being tested for the virus, but in the United States, the virus or antibodies have been found in just a handful of dogs and cats, two minks, one tiger, and one lion. Almost all of them had prior contact with an infected human. If dogs were as susceptible as humans to severe disease from this virus, that would have been evident by now. The same goes with dogs passing the virus to humans. If dogs were major players in the vector business, either via their respiratory secretions or fur, hopefully by now we would have traced clusters to them. We haven’t. Contaminated surfaces are proving to be less important than we initially assumed, and among them, soft surfaces such as fur are usually less likely than hard ones to harbor the virus.
All that said, this virus is still finding ways to surprise us, and it’s not inconceivable that animals exposed to it could show some subtle or long-term effects that haven’t yet revealed themselves. Like everything else in this unfolding pandemic, our understanding of the pathology should be expected to change as we learn more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still cautions against petting: “Because there is a small risk that people with COVID-19 could spread the virus to animals, CDC recommends that pet owners limit their pet’s interaction with people outside their household.” But the agency doesn’t go as far as to say that no one should pet your dog, and actively recommends against any attempt to disinfect your dog as if he were a countertop.
Petting dogs does not seem to be a major public-health concern, but that doesn’t mean concerned individuals are being unreasonable. You’re under no obligation to indulge the dog-loving hordes, and neither is Rooster. I think the approach to striking a respectful, safe balance here should be the same as with many other social behaviors we’re navigating in this moment: Be judicious. As owners, if you want to say no petting at all ever, that’s not outlandish. No one should even begin to object. If declining makes you feel safer and helps you sleep at night, with or without your dog in your bed, that’s important in a very real way.