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.


I am pleased to share that Governor Gavin Newsom just issued an update to his shelter-in-place order, clarifying that animal care facilities – including animal shelters – are categorized as essential services. Until now, the public has been confused about how to engage with vital animal services in their communities. Each animal shelter – and there are over 300 brick and mortar shelters in California – has been left to interpret the order. Today’s clarification will remove uncertainty and help shelters operate in accordance with Governor Newsom’s mandate, which will save animal lives while prioritizing the health and safety of shelter employees and the public.

We are excited that we can continue our lifesaving work as we conform to our current reality. Over that past few weeks we have seen a significant increase in requests to adopt and foster animals with the SF SPCA, as well as with our shelter partners across the state. Today’s directive helps us understand how we can move forward with activities like fostering and adoptions. Doing so will help keep families in positive spirits as they cope with social distancing guidelines. Today’s directive also lays down the framework for continuing to end animal homelessness.

The Governor’s announcement today is great news for shelters, families, and the animals we have dedicated our lives to saving. We are proud to have assisted with the development of this language and joined other animal welfare leaders to elevate the need to state officials. Our very own Brandy Kuentzel, Chief Counsel and leader of our Shelter Policy and Legal Services (Shelter PALS) Department and her team are currently working with under-resourced shelters across the state to deploy lifesaving legal support and adjust both local and state laws to create good outcomes for animals.

This Coronavirus outbreak is a marathon not a sprint, and today we just won a lap for animals in California. Please consider donating to the SF SPCA today to continue to move the ball forward.

Jennifer Scarlett, DVM

UPDATE: Thank you! So many of you have reached out asking how you can help. Your compassion shows no limits.

Right now, monetary donations are most needed, as they allow us to quickly meet the most urgent needs. Your support will save animals now and after this crisis. You can donate online today.

If you would like to donate pet food or other essentials, please visit our In-Kind Donations page for more information. Due to the public health order, please don’t bring items to our locations.

We’ve found enough foster homes for now! The situation is fluid and we may need more before the shutdown ends. We will reach out if we do, so please look out for our emails.

Please know all of the cats and dogs are safe and sound in foster homes or our shelter.

We will be in touch with you as the situation progresses. Take care of yourself and those you love.

(Original message)

Dear Friends of the San Francisco SPCA,

What a community! You have made all of our life-saving work possible, and we cannot continue to save lives without you. Right now, as we respond to the COVID-19 shelter in place directive and understand how to best move ahead, we want to assure you that we are doing everything we can to keep our staff healthy so we can be here if your beloved pet needs medical care. In addition to staying up-to-date with CDC and American Veterinary Medical Association protocols, we have instituted creative staff schedules to facilitate social distancing.

Our Adoptions team is creating new ways to make sure that animals can find forever homes in the midst of this situation. We continue to be creative in helping our partners in San Francisco and throughout the state as we all try to continue to save injured and homeless animals.

While we have discontinued Animal Assisted Therapy visits at this time, we have received an outpouring of volunteer and public support for our Foster program. Thank you! Our gratitude to you is unwavering and we are confident that we can provide care for all of the homeless animals in our shelter thanks to your generosity. If you live within 45 minutes of the SF SPCA, please visit our Foster page to learn about future opportunities to volunteer. The shelter team is placing animals in foster homes so they receive love, attention, and exercise during the shelter in place directive.

Our Mission hospital remains open to provide the highest quality veterinary care to your pets. If you are sick and your animal needs medical care, please do not come directly to our hospital. Instead, call us at (415) 554-3030 and we will make arrangements to provide care. We have ramped up telemedicine appointments for non-urgent conditions, general questions, and medication refills. We also offer a curated set of pet parent items through our SF SPCA online store to support your needs.

We have been providing life-saving care to animals and support for their guardians since 1868 and through the many challenges and emergencies that seem to occur more frequently these days. As a non-profit organization, our efforts are funded by the generous support of you, our community. Your support means the world to us and the animals in our care. Please consider donating to our mission during this difficult time.

Jennifer Scarlett, DVM

You and your pet do not need to worry. At this time, there is no conclusive evidence that pets are susceptible to COVID-19 or able to transfer the virus to people. This is the best news! There is no known risk that we can get or give the COVID-19 virus to our beloved animals.

The simplest way to ensure this is to wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. 

Remember to include pets in your disaster plan. Think about who might be able to help care for your pets if you’re unable. The SF SPCA’s Sido Program helps plan for your pets’ futures and can give you peace of mind during this time.

As always, we are here for you and your pets.  We remain open to the public for veterinary care and emergencies, with a heightened commitment to cleaning public areas. Our Adoptions Center is closed until the shelter-in-place order has been lifted, but our team is creating new ways for us to connect homeless animals with forever families.

Please see our up-to-date FAQ here, which details our currently available services. 

For updated information, we recommend visiting the CDC website and World Organisation for Animal Health.

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