5 Health Risks Lurking at the Dog Park

Dogs at Dog Park
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Keeping your dog up to date on vaccinations helps prevent him from contracting diseases like kennel cough and canine influenza at the dog park.

Your local dog park can offer a barking, tail-wagging good time and great socialization for your dog. But before you and your pet head out for some off-leash fun, consider some of the health concerns that can crop up in dog parks.

To get a sense of what dog owners should be aware of, we talked to Dr. Kristi Flynn of the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Below are some of the top health concerns you should pay attention to.

1. Spread of Infectious Disease

Because so many dogs congregate at dog parks, it’s easy to spread illnesses like kennel cough and canine influenza. The vaccine for kennel cough can offer some protection, but “there are multiple organisms and multiple strains of the organisms, so the vaccines are helpful, but they don’t cover everything,” Dr. Flynn explains. “If they do get kennel cough after being vaccinated, it seems that they have less severe symptoms… but it’s no guarantee that they won’t catch it.”

This year, there’s been an outbreak in the Midwest of a contagious strain of dog flu that’s new to the U.S. While your dog should get the vaccine that helps protect against the American strain of canine influenza (if your veterinarian recommends it), it’s not yet known whether this vaccine offers immunity to the new Asian H3N2 strain that’s involved in the Midwest outbreak. If you live in an area that’s seen a recent outbreak of the dog flu, it may be best to talk to your vet about your dog’s risk for exposure before heading to the dog park or other places where dogs congregate.

It’s a good idea to bring your own collapsible water bowl because illnesses can be transmitted through shared bowls. Though it’s not realistic to think your dog’s not going to run off and lap up water from the shared bowl or play with shared toys, it's still an important precaution.

It’s also crucial to clean up after your dog. “Intestinal parasites can be transmitted if people aren’t really, really diligent about picking up after their dogs,” she says. “If a dog inadvertently steps in another dog’s poop and then licks his paws later,” the dog could catch a parasite that way. But if owners are using heartworm preventive medication most of the time, that will help prevent the spread of some intestinal parasites, like roundworms and hookworms.

2. Threat of Heatstroke

On hot, humid days, watch your dog to make sure she doesn’t overdo it. Dogs have very few sweat glands, so they cool themselves primarily by evaporation off their tongue and mouth — otherwise known as panting — and evaporation off the foot pads. "So if it’s hot and moist, they won’t be able to cool themselves as well,” Dr. Flynn warns. “If they’re really enjoying themselves and really running, sometimes they don’t have the sense to stop.” Always have cool water available and try to find a shaded spot where your dog can rest if she needs to.

3. Catching Fleas and Ticks

Dogs playing together can also pass fleas and ticks. Luckily, there are many good products available to help protect your pet from these parasites. Your options include topical oils, an oral tablet that’s given monthly or newer collars that are generally safe and effective, she says. When you're done at the park, do a tick check so your dog doesn't bring any of the disease-spreading bugs home.

4. Special Concerns for Puppies

They have lots of energy to burn and social skills to learn, but you definitely don’t want to bring your puppy to the dog park until he’s been well vaccinated — and even then, you might decide to hold off.

“It may be way too overwhelming to be a little puppy and have all these big dogs coming up to you,” Dr. Flynn says. “When they’re 6 to 9 months old, that’s when you really want to take them there to get the energy out. But sometimes they just act like rowdy teenagers, and then the other dogs don’t appreciate them.”

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