Dogs at 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.”

She suggests planning smaller doggie play dates to help with socialization. “It’s better to take them someplace where you know the other dog is good with puppies,” she says. You can also attend puppy classes where you know the area has been disinfected and “people are skilled at watching for behavior and can help make sure that your puppy doesn’t end up having a bad experience.”

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll want to think twice about bringing a senior dog or a dog with a health issue to the park, too. For an older dog who’s always loved the park, Dr. Flynn suggests going at a quieter, off-peak time. You should also consult your vet to see if your dog is healthy enough to go.

5. Bad Behavior

Dr. Flynn says behavior at the dog park is often an overlooked area of concern. “It’s really the responsibility of all owners to monitor their dog’s behavior and see if their dog is uncomfortable,” she says. “People, while well-intentioned, don’t recognize that their dog is maybe too exuberant, too pushy. All too often I’ve heard of situations where somebody says that their dog is rough with puppies at the dog park or their dog doesn’t like small dogs, but they still take them to the dog park. I think if you are an owner of one of those dogs, it’s better to find other places to get the exercise for your dog that she needs, rather than putting other dogs at risk.”

She explains that bad experiences can have lasting effects, making your dog hard to walk on a leash because she’s become scared of or aggressive with other dogs. Dr. Flynn recommends scoping out the park a few times without your dog to see what the environment is like and observing how closely other owners watch their pets’ behavior. She also says it’s a good idea to keep moving while you’re at the park.

“The gates tend to be an area where people are congregating, so I think if you can, walk right past everybody as fast as possible into a less busy part of the park and then sort of circle back to the busier area once your dog has gotten some of her energy out,” Dr. Flynn says. “They kind of get exposed to the dogs as you’re moving through.”

If you own a small dog, it’s safest to stay in the small dog area, if your park has one. She noted she’d be willing to drive past two other dog parks to reach one that has a small dog area.

Overall, dog parks can be a wonderful social experience for your dog (and you), as long as you take precautions and stay alert.

“Any time that you’re there, if you feel uncomfortable for any reason, whether it’s that your dog is being a little rough or you feel that another dog is being a little rough with your dog, just head out,” Dr. Flynn says. “Just go ahead and leave, maybe try it another day… rather than risking a bad situation or them learning bad skills.”

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