Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
My girlfriend and I got a pandemic puppy. He’s a King Charles cavalier named Rooster, and he’s now six months old. We take him for walks around San Francisco a couple of times a day, and everyone wants to pet him. When he was younger, we let it happen because we wanted him to socialize. But now we’ve stopped allowing it. When people come and try to pet him, we say something like, “Sorry, we’re not doing pets today.” He naps in our bed, and it just seems too unsafe, since he might carry the coronavirus into the house. My girlfriend is good at letting people down easy, but I’m not. The other day at a coffee shop, a very young kid came running up to pet Rooster, and I said no, and she ran back and clutched her mom’s leg. Are we doing the right thing?
I understand your hesitation. For months, we’ve been warned about contaminated surfaces and close interactions as coronavirus vectors. If doorknobs and subway poles are considered high-touch surfaces that should be disinfected regularly, why not the fur of a dog that’s just been petted at length by a stranger? And why should dogs get to go around licking people’s hands? Is it not concerning that the stranger took down his mask just to look the dog in the eyes and tell him he’s a good boy?
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.
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.
At the same time, if icing them out is going to make kids cry, and you don’t know how to explain germ theory to them while they’re sobbing, it may be best to just let them have this one thing. Being a kid right now is already tough. Your dog needs to socialize, and lonely people of all ages in your neighborhood do too. Any slice of normalcy and connection in these odd, isolated days can be extremely valuable. I don’t take it lightly.
For those who wish to pet a dog, the best etiquette is always requesting to pet the dog before doing it—which is what all of us should have been doing even before the pandemic. Don’t wantonly reach out and grope any dog that wanders by. If you feel really moved and in need—and especially if the dog also seems in need of attention—ask the human if you can say hi. And I mean truly ask. Too often, the request is a passing “How are you?” not meant to be answered, said in haste while already reaching for the dog.
Like you, I have difficulty saying no to anyone. I would probably say something like, “You’re welcome to take your chances, but he has terrible fleas.” Then I’d feel bad about lying. The best we can do is be honest about our concerns and respectful of others’.
Each of us is constantly balancing our need for connection with our need for self-preservation. We’re doing so in a very literal way during the pandemic, each time we go to a restaurant, to a park with friends, or out at all. The virus isn’t going away, so continuing to reach out to people is vital. The way to minimize the risk of offense, rejection, or general awkwardness is always good communication. That comes from respect for people’s beliefs and boundaries.
Letting people down easy doesn’t come naturally to many of us. But people probably won’t give up on asking to pet puppies or taking their dog to the park. So frank communication is a skill many of us could use idle pandemic time to perfect. Take each annoying pet request as an opportunity to practice the art of saying no. Draw boundaries around your space and time. Teach Rooster that he owes his affection to no one, and that his respect and attention must be earned.
“Paging Dr. Hamblin” is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.