An illustration photo shows Ziggie the dog wearing a mask put on her face by her owner in Los Angeles, on April 5, 2020. (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why aren’t dogs social distancing?

Dogs spread risk, and owners spread dogs

Dogs and other pets carry coronavirus. The US Food & Drug Administration and the Centres for Disease Control advise owners to “treat pets as you would other human family members – do not let pets interact with people outside the household.” Consequently, American dog walkers give strangers a wide berth.

The British government advises Britons to remember social distancing when dog-walking, but does not include dogs in said distancing. Compared to America, where dogs must be on leads in public, British dog-handling looks careless.

Carelessness is symptomatic of a wider collapse in social responsibility

This is distressing on two grounds. First, Britons are taking unnecessary risks. Risk-taking helps to explain why Britain adopted a severe lockdown, but still ended up with the worst outcomes in Europe. Secondly, carelessness is symptomatic of a wider collapse in social responsibility and manners, which in turn are factors in public health generally, beyond Covid-19.

Before we explore these issues, let’s head off complacency about the evidence. In the lab, SARS-CoV-2 has been confirmed in dogs, catszoo animalsfarm animals, and wild animals. In the field, few cases have been confirmed because few have been tested. Even when affected, the animal’s symptoms hardly differ from influenzas and immune diseases.

The first dog in America to be confirmed with Covid-19 was also the first dog to be confirmed dead with Covid-19 (in July). His case proves how rare the circumstances must be before Covid-19 is discovered in an animal: he was already being treated and tested for cancer.

Dogs were already known to be susceptible to coronaviruses, such as the canine respiratory coronavirus, which was identified in 2003. Experimentally, dogs are not as susceptible as humans to SARS-CoV-2. However, dogs can still transmit what doesn’t affect them. Dogs are our most socially active animals, at a rate of 8 million dog walks per day. Thus, the dog-human interaction is our most likely inter-species interaction. (Livestock appear to be less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.)

Loose dogs are health concerns beyond Covid-19

Theoretically, the dog doesn’t need to be infected to spread a virus: it just needs to wipe the virus on something that you then wipe on your respiratory tract. The evidence for material contamination is clear, although direct dog-human infection cannot be tried for ethical reasons. In the field, public authorities are too busy testing humans to trace dogs. The absence of testing should not be taken as evidence for absence of transmissibility. A minority of humans have been tested, of which a minority have tested positive, but that doesn’t disprove human-to-human transmission. SARS-CoV-2 is more infectious than influenzas, which are considered highly infectious. Coronaviruses exhibit unusually high inter-species transmissibility and hybridization.

Readers should be careful with pop-science headlines such as “Dogs not to blame for Covid.” This refers not to transmissibility but to origins. By “origins,” we’re talking about animals hosting the different forms of coronaviruses that eventually hybridized and mutated into the form that has proven so pathogenic in humans. In the process, the virus picks up host DNA, which helps epidemiologists to estimate the origins. Bats are the dominant origins for SARS-CoV-2. An intermediate, minor theory blamed stray dogs. Dogs do not seem to be in the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but they’re still carriers.

Now, having cleared up the facts of the canine vector, we can return to the human part of the public health problem. In Britain, dogs are routinely loose in public: the countryside, sports grounds, public parks, even town squares and tourist sites. Dogs are rarely recollected before coinciding with a stranger. Children, other pets, crops, horses, and livestock are no longer protected practically in the ways that the Countryside Code prescribes.

In January 2020, a survey found that 86 percent of owners exercise dogs in the countryside, 63 percent let them roam off the lead, half admit that their dogs don’t come back when called, and 24 percent admit that their dogs chase livestock and wildlife. (These are surely under-estimates, given under-admission of vices in surveys.)

Loose dogs are health concerns beyond Covid-19. Loose dogs are more likely to defecate without collection. Dog faeces carries parasites that can permanently damage the eyesight, digestion, and reproduction of both humans and livestock.

Loose dogs are kinetic hazards too. Hospital admissions for dog attacks hit a record in 2019, up 26 percent over ten years. On an average day, hospitals admit more than 23 victims. (Children are disproportionate victims of both attacks and parasites.)

The accelerating rate cannot be explained by population growth alone. Declining social responsibility must be a factor. A political driver is the triumph of a perverse progressive-libertarianism that demands rights without responsibilities.

Weak legislation and policing are additional drivers. The relevant Acts of Parliament are practically useless. Once justified as “pragmatic,” their weak definitions, ambiguous codes, and lack of statutory authority were meant to encourage responsible behaviour without heavy-handed law enforcement. However, as personal responsibility declines, law enforcement becomes necessary.

The Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act (1953) criminalizes dogs off lead in the same enclosure as sheep, and separately criminalizes the worrying of livestock. Note that a dog can be off lead around all livestock except sheep, as long as it doesn’t worry them. This makes any negotiation between a farmer and a loose dog owner an unresolvable argument by degree.

In 2019, a farming insurer paid out £1.2 million to owners of sheep attacked by dogs

“Worrying” isn’t well defined, and must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, which practically means the dog is caught in the act with a dead victim. Even then, the relevant authorities (wardens and police) need to co-operate. The farmers I know won’t bother reporting a dog attack, given experience that local authorities don’t care (although some are better than others). According to the most recent count (in 2017), around 15,000 sheep are killed by dogs in a year. Police forces don’t report dog offenses in the same way, if at all, so national counts are under-estimates. In 2019, a farming insurer (NFU Mutual) paid out a record £1.2 million to owners of sheep attacked by dogs.

The Animals Act (1971) makes owners liable for harmful dogs but puts the onus on the aggrieved party to pursue civil action. The same Act allows farmers to destroy dogs worrying livestock, but as a last resort. Otherwise, the farmer faces civil and criminal action.

The Dangerous Dogs Act (1991) is another piece of practically useless legislation. Section 3 criminalizes the owner of a dog “dangerously out of control.” What is “out of control”? Legally, being off lead is insufficient. What is the threshold for “dangerous”? How severely should a dog bite you before the police take you seriously? In practice, the law is unenforceable until too late.

Upon the Covid-19 emergency, the British government asked Britons to “consider putting your dog on a lead to ensure you [the owner] can stay 2 metres away from others.” Yet the norm for loose dogs hasn’t improved.

By contrast, a leashing law, which is normative in American states, is easily enforceable. If your dog is seen in public off lead (except in designated dog parks), you’re breaking the law. It’s that simple (although states such as California are British in their lack of enforcement).

A true dog lover is a responsible owner

Short of an attack, the only other things that the Dangerous Dogs Act criminalizes are breeding, exchange, and ownership of fighting dogs without approval. However, only specialist police officers or wardens can identify fighting dogs. Moreover, you could apply for an exemption to the ban. No dog is positively licensed. Usually, public authorities have no justification to identify the dog until after probable cause to investigate a crime.

In 2007, a court used the Act to order a gang leader to leash and muzzle his dog in public. Less than a year later, he used this dog and another to bring down rivals, before stabbing four of them, of which one died. The judge had no doubt that the dog was dangerous by breeding and by training, but his ruling came too late for the victims.

Ideally, owners should be responsible without bringing the law into it. On the other hand, once norms have collapsed, rules are required to restore them. I say this as a dog lover. I am not hating dogs in criticizing their owners. A true dog lover is a responsible owner. I want other owners to protect me and my dog by keeping their dogs on leads wherever the public coincides.

The government should start by advertising the health risks from dogs, and by including dogs in its advice on social distancing. In the longer term, the government should simplify the law by requiring dogs on leads in public. A lead is observable enough to be reassuring to strangers and enforceable by authorities. Verbal commands, or the egocentric refrain that “my dog’s alright,” are neither reassuring nor enforceable.

Let’s put this rhetorically. During a pandemic, do you want strangers wiping their noses on you and defecating in public areas? Then why do British dogs get to do it?

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