Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB
Dogs and cats are visually oriented animals. They communicate through facial expressions and body language when interacting with each other. They pay particular attention to the eyes, ear positions, and tension – or lack of – around the mouth. Dogs and cats had to adapt to living and interacting with people. They had to learn how to read people’s facial expressions and body language since we are missing key elements that are crucial to animal communication, such as moveable ears that are located farther on top of our heads and an expressive tail.
With the new COVID-19 recommendation for people to wear face masks, scarves, bandanas or other accessories, we are limiting a huge part of how we communicate to animals. More emphasis is placed on the eyes because that is the only part of the face they can see. This may lead to a breakdown in communication.
Direct eye contact in the animal world is perceived as a threat. When a person meets a dog or cat for the first time and all the dog or cat can see are the two eyes staring at them, this can be a frightening experience for the animal. There are no other points of reference for the animal to go by. Think about it from our perspective. How do we know that the person we meet likes us or is interested in hearing the things we say? We look at their facial expression and body language.
Our dogs and cats have learned to read our facial expression so well that when we smile and have a relaxed expression, they perceive it as a sign of positive communication. They have learned to associate that when we smile as we interact with them, they tend to get more attention in the form of pets, scratches and maybe treats. They like hearing our voices talking to them in a light upbeat manner. When you stare at them with a stony expression, however, they have learned through previous experience what that may mean. It could mean that you are upset with them or are not happy in general, which may make them more worried or anxious and avoid interacting with us.
Do not be surprised if your dog barks at you or your cat runs away from you when you come home with your face covered. Their immediate reaction is “a stranger is in our home”. It may take a few minutes for them to study your body language and hear your voice to realize it is you. My dogs stared at me and moved away, one of them even barked at me when they saw me enter the house wearing a mask for the first time last year. I did not want to share my cold with everyone on BART and forgot to take the mask off when I stepped into my house. Due to their reaction, I did not go right up to them. I stood a few feet away and talked to them. When they heard my voice, they immediately came to greet me.
Imagine when a dog or cat does not have the frame of reference and all they can read are two eyes staring at them. Since the rest of the face is covered up, they cannot determine the intent of the person. They cannot see that you are smiling under your mask and you are happy to see them. They are working with a handicap at this time, they can only go by their impression of your eye contact.
If you meet an animal you don’t know while wearing face mask, please take the time to move slowly, speak quietly, and do not maintain direct eye contact. Try to be less threatening and do not continuously stare and stand over them. Blink your eyes several times and look away a few times to show that you are not a threat. Then, reach out slowly to pet under the chin. Give animals extra space and time to get to know you. We need to show with our body language our intentions and that we mean them no harm.