Could dog owners be more prone to COVID-19 than others? We looked at the research to find out.

By Austin Cannon
November 19, 2020
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Credit: Halfpoint / Getty

New research that tracks how and why the coronavirus spreads between people shows a link to a higher rate of COVID-19 positivity to people who walked their dogs. The study, which was conducted in Spain during the country’s lockdown period this spring, is published in the latest issue of Environmental Research.

Specifically, researchers found that of the 407 people who walked their pets during the lockdown, 28 (6.9 percent) of them reported contracting the novel coronavirus or that they suspect they had the virus (but didn’t know for sure). It’s a higher positive rate than people who didn’t have a pet or didn’t walk their pet (4.2 percent). 

The researchers even go as far to claim that walking your dog “increases the risk of contagion of COVID-19 by 78 percent.” That’s pretty high!

If those stats have you rethinking your daily dog walks in favor of hopping on the treadmill, not so fast. Before you resort to being indoors with Fido for all hours of the day, let’s talk about the limitations of this study and how you can still (safely) walk your dog outside. 

Limitations of the Study

The online survey reached more than 2,000 people, but the authors admit that it doesn’t represent the Spanish population as a whole, overrepresenting women and underrepresenting the elderly. The COVID-19 cases are also self-reported. 

But here’s the deal. Nowhere in the study do the 28 dog walkers who (probably) contracted the virus prove that they contracted it when they walked their dog. Could they have? Sure. Could they have also caught it from the grocery store or from an ill-advised hang with a friend? Yup. So let’s acknowledge that they could be both people who caught the virus while walking their dogs and people who caught the virus and also happen to walk their dogs. (Basically, correlation doesn’t equal causation.)  

Smartly, the authors asked about only the limited allowable activities during Spain’s lockdown, but that’s still a relatively long list, which includes trips to get food and some essential jobs. 

Remember, every time you leave your home you are technically putting yourself at higher risk to catch the virus. But there are several ways to mitigate the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

How to Walk Your Dog Safely During a Pandemic

The numbers from the study might be scary—but it is possible for you to still walk your dog safely. After all, your pups need exercise to live their healthiest lives. Halting all activity is a bad idea for both humans and pets, so it's important to follow a few simple rules to help you walk your dog during the pandemic. 

  • Wear a mask. Health experts advise wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth as an effective way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. According to the Mayo Clinic, “face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus.” You can even find matching face masks to twin with your dog's bandana, if you'd like to make a fashion statement while staying safe.
  • Walk your dogs alone. The CDC advises staying at least 6 feet from other dog walkers, but why even risk it? Just go by yourself. (Exception: Someone from your household, like your spouse, sibling, or kiddos who live with you, can come along.) 
  • Stay away from populated areas. This is pretty easy if you live in the suburbs or a small town, but maybe not so simple in the city. To stay safe, try and find a less-trafficked route to take for your pup's potty breaks. 
  • Avoid the dog park. While they likely can’t transmit the virus, pets can contract coronavirus. Plus, there’s no telling whether the other humans at the park have been social distancing or aren’t experiencing symptoms, and even if you plan to stick to yourself, there's always the chance you'll need to get close to another person to grab your pup when it's time to leave or to toss the ball his way.
  • Wash your hands when you get home. This goes without saying, but you should wash your hands every time you arrive home after being out and about. Also...poop bags. Need we say more?

If you're still not sold on a walk, there are a few other ways to make sure your pup gets his exercise even when you’re stuck inside—even doga (dog yoga!) that you can do safely at home through a virtual class. Do what’s best for both you and your dog to stay happy and healthy during this time.