Whether you’re walking a friend’s or family member’s dog, employed as a dog walker, or starting or running your own dog walking business, there are disease and injury risks that should be addressed and measures that can be taken to prevent problems.
Make sure you are covered for your own injuries and liabilities – for that we recommend you consult legal counsel and insurance experts. Just like humans, our furry companions can develop health problems that need immediate emergency care. Your legal counsel and insurance experts can help you ensure that your agreement with owners addresses what’s to be done when a pet in your care needs emergency veterinary care.
Have your client’s preferred veterinarian’s name and contact information readily available, in case there is an emergency and you cannot contact the dog’s owner. The best time to speak to your clients about their preferences during an emergency situation is when you first reach an agreement to walk and care for their dogs; this avoids trying to determine their preferences in the middle of an emergency when stress and emotions are high. Schedule time to regularly discuss your client’s preferences so you’re informed if they have changed.
Educate yourself about basic first aid procedures. Neither you nor your clients should expect you to provide veterinary-level care to the dogs in your charge, but basic first aid knowledge and experience are valuable tools and can help save a pet’s life in a crisis situation. Consider learning CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) for pets.
It’s also critical that you take precautions to prevent injuries as well as the potential spread of disease from dog to dog, dog to person, or even from person to dog – and that’s where we can help.
Any physical activity, even one as simple as walking, carries risk of injury. Limit your walks to safe areas by avoiding the following: surfaces that could injure dogs’ paws (for example: very hot surfaces or those with broken glass or other hazards); areas with very uneven ground or holes that could cause falls or trap feet; ice, particularly when it’s covering water; areas known to have free-roaming, unrestrained dogs; and areas with heavy wildlife activity.
Make sure that any dogs being walked together are compatible to reduce the risk of fight-related injuries to the dogs or to yourself if you try to intervene. Avoid contact with unfamiliar dogs, especially free-roaming dogs, because these dogs could be carrying a disease or may attack or otherwise injure the dogs you’re walking. For information about breaking up dog fights, listen to our podcast. Some dog walkers carry pepper spray as a last resort to ward off dogs that are behaving aggressively, but keep in mind that pepper spray can be spread by wind to unintended targets (such as other non-aggressive dogs or yourself), and use caution. The best ways to avoid dog fights are to walk only compatible dogs together and to avoid contact with unrestrained and unfamiliar dogs or dogs that you know have shown aggression toward people or other dogs.
Make sure that the dog’s collar or harness fits the dog properly to prevent injury or escape. Some dogs have airway, neck, or other conditions which necessitate the use of a harness instead of a collar.
If a dog is showing any signs of injury (e.g. limping, swelling, localized heat and/or pain), don’t walk the dog and contact the owner immediately. You may still need to take the dog outside to relieve itself, but keep walking to a minimum unless you are otherwise instructed. If the owner is aware of the injury, follow their instruction as to where and how the dog should be exercised. Ideally, injured dogs should be exercised only according to instructions by a veterinarian. If a dog becomes injured, begins to limp during a walking session, or develops other signs of concern (e.g., staggering or stumbling; reluctance or inability to walk; wide-=based stance; color change to gums, tongue, or skin; disorientation; breathing problems,), cut the walk short and notify the dog’s owner so s/he can have their pet evaluated by a veterinarian.
A dog’s tolerance to heat and cold varies based on their size, body composition, hair coat, health and other factors. Brachycephalic (short-nosed) and overweight dogs seem to have a tougher time in hot weather and may require more frequent rests, shorter walks, or a change in walk schedule to avoid the hottest hours of the day. In general, if you’re warm, the dog is likely much warmer. If a dog seems unexpectedly anxious or weak, seems less responsive to commands than usual, pants harder, drools more, or has a change of gum color, the pet may be suffering from heat stress, which could quickly progress (with or without other signs such as staggering, seizures, vomiting, or diarrhea) to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and even death without immediate veterinary care.
If there is any doubt that the weather is too cold or too hot to walk, consult the dog’s owner. Ideally, ask the owner to provide instructions for walking their dog(s) in certain temperature ranges, including the distance and duration of the walk or even the time of the walk (to avoid the hottest part of the day during warm weather or to avoid the coldest times of the day during cold weather).
Dogs vary widely in their tolerance to cool and cold temperatures. Smaller breeds, breeds with thin or very short hair coats, very young and very old dogs are more likely to be negatively affected by cold weather – some may even get frostbite. If a dog shows signs that he/she is cold (shivering, weakness, and reduced mental alertness), consider talking to the dog’s owner about a coat for the dog to keep it warm during cold-weather walks. If a dog shows signs of more severe hypothermia (muscle stiffness, shallow and slow breathing, collapse), seek immediate veterinary care.
The temperature and condition of the walk path is important too. Hot sidewalks, roads, and other surfaces can burn a dog’s footpads, and walking in the grass may be the best option on really hot days. Icy paths can be a slip hazard and broken edges of ice can be sharp enough to cut dogs’ feet. In addition, if a walking path is cold enough, the dog’s feet could become frostbitten. During frigid or icy conditions, dog booties may need to be utilized, or walk routes or durations may need to be altered.
Always be careful when walking a dog to avoid situations that could pose a risk of that dog biting a person. If you are unfamiliar with a dog you’re walking and you don’t know how it will act toward people, politely decline when you are asked by someone if they can pet the dog. If the dog has a history of aggression toward people or other dogs, it should be walked separately and kept away from situations where it may bite. A muzzle may be necessary, but should be used only with consent by the dog’s owner and should be properly fitted. If you feel the dog presents a threat to you or other people/animals, perhaps it’s best to decline the business.
All dogs should be properly immunized against rabies, which can be transmitted to other animals and people through saliva and bites.
Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be spread from animals to people. Examples include brucellosis (caused by the Brucella bacteria); E. coli infection (caused by the E. coli bacteria); leptospirosis (caused by Leptospira bacteria); ringworm (caused by certain fungi); salmonellosis (caused by the Salmonella bacteria); and toxocariasis (caused by the roundworm Toxocara).
Even though dogs and humans share certain pathogens and parasites, all dogs need to urinate and defecate (pass stool) – preferably outside and not in the owner’s home. Who should and should not walk an infected dog, where to walk, as well as what level of personal protective equipment to use needs to be based on the advice of the dog’s veterinarian. Depending on the infection, some sick pets that are well enough to be at home should only be walked by their owner or a designated care taker. Others may not require such limitations.
Good personal hygiene and a few easy preventive steps between caring for different dogs, before eating, and at the end of the day, can help protect you from unexpected gifts from pets. A few things that you can do to protect yourself include:
- Wash your hands frequently, such as:
- before eating, drinking, or smoking
- after handling the dog’s bedding, dishes, or toys
- after disposing of the dog’s excrement
- between caring for different dogs
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or use an ethanol-based hand sanitizer. Use soap and water if your hands are visibly soiled (e.g., dirt, feces, etc.); otherwise, the use of hand sanitizer products is appropriate.
- Don’t let dogs give you kisses on your face, especially not on or around the mouth, nose, or eyes. If you get a tongue lashing despite your efforts, wash your face.
- Don’t eat, drink, or smoke while you’re walking dogs.
- When you get home, change and wash your clothes, change your shoes, and wash your hands.
If you are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system such as from medications, illness, pregnancy, or other conditions) a discussion with your physician and veterinarian is warranted to identify your unique risks and benefits of walking dogs.
If you have questions or concerns about walking a sick pet, you need to voice them and seek answers so that you can determine whether you will continue to walk the dog.
Reverse zoonotic diseases
Reverse zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be spread from people to animals. Examples include infection with the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria and some strains of influenza (such as the 2009 H1N1 influenza strain). In the case of MRSA, the infection can go back and forth between the person and the pet, perpetuating the infection. If you have an active infection of either of these illnesses or tuberculosis, continuing to walk dogs could risk the health of the animals and their owners; thus, discontinuing the service is advisable.
Diseases passed from dog to dog
If a dog is showing any signs of illness (e.g., diarrhea, vomiting, depression, staggering or unsteadiness, breathing problems), don’t walk the dog and contact the owner immediately. If a dog doesn’t seem to want to walk, or a dog that is normally excited about walks is reluctant to walk, it may be a sign of a problem and you should contact that dog’s owner.
Avoid free-roaming or unrestrained, unfamiliar dogs because they may present the risk of disease exposure or a dog fight. What seems to be harmless contact between two dogs could still spread an infectious disease and pose a risk to your clients’ dogs. If you encounter unfamiliar dogs, even leashed and restrained, the best course of action is to politely decline contact between the dogs.
Distemper, parvovirus, kennel cough, rabies, adenovirus, coronavirus and canine influenza are just a few of the diseases that can be spread from dog to dog. All dogs should be properly immunized against distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus and rabies because these viruses are easily spread and potentially deadly. A dog owner might also choose to have their dog vaccinated for Bordetella, leptospirosis, canine influenza, and some other diseases if the dog is determined to be at risk of exposure to the diseases; the risks and benefits of vaccination for these diseases should be discussed with the dog’s veterinarian.
Disease can be spread in a number of ways, including:
- Direct contact between dogs – this can include the simple act of touching noses or sniffing each other
- Contact with the feces (stool) or urine of infected dogs
- Sticks, toys, equipment and objects with which other dogs have interacted
- A person’s hands, clothes or shoes after they’ve had contact with an infected dog
Dogs fed raw meat may carry Salmonella or other pathogens in their feces, and could potentially serve as sources of infection for other dogs that have not been exposed to these organisms. There is also the potential for people to become infected from handling these pets’ food or stool.
To prevent the spread of disease from dog to dog:
- Always collect and safely dispose of the feces of the dogs you are walking using an impermeable bag or scooper to prevent any direct contact.
- Wash your hands frequently, and always after handling one dog before caring for the next. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if they are visibly soiled (e.g., dirt, feces, etc.); otherwise, the use of ethanol-based hand sanitizers is appropriate.
- Avoid mixing or interacting with dogs of unknown or questionable vaccination history. This includes free-roaming or unfamiliar dogs you may encounter on walks.
- If you have clients who feed their dogs a raw meat diet, consider walking those dogs separately from dogs fed non-raw diets.
- If a dog is showing signs of illness, do not walk it without first notifying the owner. If you are instructed to walk the dog, do not walk it with other dogs and do not walk other dogs after handling the sick dog unless you have thoroughly washed your hands and changed your clothes.
- If your own dog is ill, do not walk it with client-owned dogs. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling your dog, and change your clothes and change or disinfect your shoes before handling or walking client-owned dogs. Or find an alternate person to walk client-owned dogs until your dog has a clean bill of health from your veterinarian.
- Don’t share equipment between dogs unless the equipment can be sanitized between uses.
- If a client’s dog is ill with a suspected or confirmed infectious disease, wash your hands thoroughly and change your clothes and shoes before you handle your own dog or other clients’ dogs.
Always make sure that the dogs being walked have identification tags with up-to-date owner information in case they get loose.
Some disease-causing organisms survive in the environment, putting dogs at risk of diseases (e.g. parvoviral infection and leptospirosis), parasitism (e.g. roundworms and Cryptosporidium), and fungal infections (e.g. ringworm and aspergillosis). Appropriate vaccination and deworming can protect dogs from some of these organisms, and good hygiene and common sense can further reduce pets’ health risks.
Food products that have been discarded and are accessible by the pet during its walk pose risks if ingested because they may cause stomach upset or other digestive issues or they may even contain a toxin that could make the dog ill.
Dead rodents, wildlife or birds may present an irresistible temptation for many dogs, but contact with any dead animal should be prevented to avoid the risk of disease or other health problems (such as choking on parts of the animal carcass). If a dog picks up a dead animal before you can take action to prevent it, do your best to get the dog to drop the animal immediately and walk away from it. Often, a distraction with a treat or toy may be sufficient. Some dogs have been taught to drop anything in their mouths when firmly told to do so. The best prevention for this is to remain vigilant about where you are walking, and attempt to identify and avoid hazards before the dog encounters them.
There are also toxins in the environment that pose risks to dogs. Antifreeze and rodenticides are two with which most dog owners and caretakers are somewhat familiar. But, did you know that some plants (e.g. foxglove, cycad palms, yews, and many more), certain algae, and even pennies are toxic to dogs? You don’t need to be a toxicologist to keep the dogs under your care safe from ingesting or contacting toxic substances; instead, knowing what to do and what not to do can make all the difference.
- Make sure that dogs only eat and drink what they are supposed to.
- Don’t let dogs eat garbage or discarded food items.
- Don’t let dogs near puddles of liquid that are yellow-green, fluorescent yellow, or bright pink-red in color, because the liquid may contain antifreeze. Whether lapped from the puddle or licked from their feet, antifreeze has the same effect.Don’t let dogs drink from puddles, particularly those with stagnant water or located in roadways or gutters.
- Keep dogs away from rodent bait containers, loose pellets that may be on the ground, and rodents.
- Don’t let dogs chew on or eat plants that you haven’t verified are safe for them.
- Don’t let dogs drink from, wade in, or swim in bodies of water that have a green scum, look like pea soup, are reddish, or are otherwise abnormally discolored because any of these may indicate a harmful algal bloom.
- If you suspect a dog in your care has been exposed to a toxin, call the owner and a veterinarian immediately.
Dog walking can be a rewarding business and provides many benefits for the dogs. Fortunately, relatively simple precautions can protect you and the dogs from injury and disease.
The AVMA would like to thank the following people for their valuable input into this document: David Blakeman of Field Days Dog Walking, LLC (Chicago, IL); Lisa Dalby-Poth, Austin Pet Love (Austin, TX); John Wray of Green Paws Chicago (Chicago, IL); Tracey Zysk of Wiggles & Jiggles Pet Care (North Andover, MA)