by Dr. Michelle Arnold
Dog Parks: a place for dogs to play with other dogs uninhibited by leashes and rules- sounds like doggie heaven, right? They can also be a doggie nightmare. Follow these tips to make sure your 4-legged family members and their doggie-park friends stay happy and healthy this summer.
Before you take your dog to the park:
If you plan on taking your pet to the dog park, make sure to visit your family veterinarian one to two times per year to make sure your pet is healthy and ready to play. Your veterinarian can help protect your pet from diseases that can easily be picked up from play-dates with other dogs. He/she can vaccinate your pet for common viruses, such as kennel cough (bordetella bronchiseptica), and can run a fecal test (look at a stool sample) to check for internal parasite eggs, such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, and coccidia. It is important to have your pet checked and treated for internal parasites because some of them are zoonotic, meaning people can get them from their pets! Internal parasites are mainly picked up through the fecal-oral route (dogs eating other dogs stool).
Your veterinarian can also provide flea and heartworm prevention. This is important because other pets at the park may have fleas, and fleas can easily jump from one pet to another, or from the environment to your pet. Heartworms are passed through mosquitos, so it is important to protect your pet year round with heartworm prevention. As a bonus, heartworm prevention medications generally treat for internal parasites as well. Regular visits to your family veterinarian are also important to detect diseases that are not affiliated with the dog park, such as heart and kidney disease.
Make sure your pet is friendly with other pets. If you are not sure that your pet plays well with others, set up a few trial runs with pets of your friends and family. When dogs are meeting for the first time, it is best that they meet in a neutral environment so neither pet feels the need to protect their territory. Start off by keeping them on a leash a few feet away from each other before you let them touch noses, and prevent the dogs from pulling on the leashes to get to each other, as this can bring on feelings of anxiousness and lead to a fight. Turning dogs loose to meet each other can also result in a fight, so be aware of how the dogs are reacting to each other.
At the park:
Your dog will be off-leash when meeting other dogs at the park, so be sure to pay attention in order to dissapate any oncoming aggression from either party. If a dog fight does occur, you will most likely get bitten if you try to break up the fight. It is very important to collect information from the other pet owner, such as contact information, their veterinarian, and whether or not their dog has been vaccinated against rabies. All companion animals are required to be vaccinated for rabies.
If you notice any of the other pets coughing or if they seem unwell, it is best to take your dog and leave the park. Even if your pet is vaccinated against certain viruses, it does not mean they can’t get those viruses. Vaccinations help to lessen signs of sickness and shorten the duration of illness; they do not prevent the animal from getting the disease. If your dog uses the bathroom in the park (we’re talking about #2 here, folks), make sure to pick it up. If you’re feeling like a good Samaritan, pick up the other poop piles, too! You never know if other owners have been educated about internal parasite prevention.
During the hot summer months, it is important to provide your pet with plenty of clean, fresh water and shade. Spend enough time at the park to enable your pet to have fun and get some exercise, but make sure to get them back inside to cool off and rest before they get overheated. To prevent heat stroke, the best time of day to take your pet to the park on a hot day would be early morning or late evening; try to avoid the hottest times of the day.
After the park:
Make sure your pet is well rested and cooled down before giving them their next meal to prevent vomiting and stomach bloating. If you saw your pet interacting with a coughing dog, watch him or her for signs of coughing or not feeling well, and call your veterinarian as soon as you see these signs. If you saw your pet eating something they shouldn’t have been eating, call your veterinarian for instructions on how to treat your pet appropriately.
If it was your pet’s first trip to the park, evaluate the playdate. Did your pet seem to enjoy his or herself, or was he/she anxious most of the time? Did he/she interact well with the other pets, or did you have to continually separate your pet from the others? Not all pets will do well in a dog park situation, and only you can decide what is best for your pet. If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your family veterinarian. The dog park should also be a happy and relaxing experience for you, the owner. It is important to have fun and enjoy time with your pets!