For the past three years, 11-year-old Gideon Kidd has dedicated much of his free time to a charming hobby: petting dogs.
He has petted more than 1,170 of them, and it's made him fairly famous. On his Twitter account, I've Pet That Dog, Gideon posts photos of himself with each dog he meets and details about the animal's life and likes. He has 367,000 followers.
But Gideon stopped petting dogs last week. His Cedar Falls, Iowa, school closed because of the new coronavirus, and now he's practicing social distancing - including from dogs. These days, he's posting photos of himself holding photos of dogs his fans submit, noting in the captions that he'd "love to pet" them.
"The experts and doctors have said, 'Stay home, stay low, don't go out that much,'" Gideon said by phone Tuesday. "So me and my mom decided that we should not go up to people, because I don't want to make me sick or others sick."
Gideon's decision was made out of concern for humans, not fear that covid-19 could be transmitted between boy and dog. But it is reflective of a conundrum now facing dog parkgoers, dog walkers and dog-loving people everywhere amid all the sanitizing, shutting down and shutting in to slow the spread of covid-19: Can I still pet other people's dogs?
"We're getting questions from our members, some hysterical, about whether people can be exposed to the coronavirus by petting a dog or cat," said David Emanuel, a board member of the dog advocacy group SFDOG in San Francisco, where a citywide shelter-in-place order allows dog-walking.
As with so much related to the coronavirus, there's no simple answer, though experts say there is no reason to keep your paws off your own dog if you have no symptoms of sickness.
Things are a bit less clear when it comes to others' dogs. One dog in Hong Kong tested "weak positive" for the virus that causes covid-19, in a case city officials said was a likely case of human-to-dog transmission. But the dog showed no symptoms, and researchers say that single case is not strong evidence that dogs can catch the virus. There is no indication dogs - or any other pet - can transmit it to humans through droplets, according to the World Health Organization.
A separate question is whether a dog's fur or skin could be contaminated by the virus if, for example, its infected owner sneezed on it. After all, a study reported that the virus can live under laboratory conditions for three days on plastic and steel and one day on cardboard. Might it also reside happily on the lush coat of a St. Bernard?
Given the unknowns about the disease, experts do recommend that people infected with covid-19 stay away from pets, as they should from people. So the most conservative approach would be to refrain from touching others' dogs, because its owner could be asymptomatic.
But based on available evidence, there's little reason to avoid petting, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. (If practicing social distancing, you'd want to make sure the owner is on the other end of a leash at least six feet long.)
"We're not overly concerned about people contracting covid-19 through contact with dogs and cats," said Gail Golab, the AVMA's chief veterinary officer.
Environmental contamination via surfaces appears to be a secondary route of transmission, and "the virus survives best on smooth surfaces, such as countertops and doorknobs," Golab said. "Porous materials, such as pet fur, tend to absorb and trap pathogens, making it harder to contract them through touch."
Because other diseases are known to spread between people and animals, the association recommends that people always wash their hands before and after dog-petting.
Emanuel said SFDOG is now advising members to avoid petting as part of dog "park petiquette," and that those who can't resist wash up afterward.
Someone recently attached a hand sanitizer dispenser next to a bench at his local dog park, Emanuel said, and last weekend he met a woman who said she'd ordered a "Do Not Pet" vest for her Bernadoodle puppy. For his part, Emanuel is still petting other dogs and letting others do the same to his golden retriever, Buster.
"Anyone who wants to come up and pet him can," Emanuel said. "He's a great goodwill ambassador, and I think people need a little stress relief."
In Iowa, Gideon is focusing his pets on his dog and two cats. He's also sifting through the thousands of dog photos followers have sent in recent days and conducting interviews with their owners by email. He calls his current method "virtual petting."
"I do miss getting to pet the dogs and meet the dogs," he said. "But at least I still have the pictures, and I can hear about the dogs."