Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Mask Up

Most pets stay calm when they see people wearing masks, but these tips can help those who might be a little worried

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Most of our pets are exposed to masks -- scary or otherwise -- at least annually, thanks to the Halloween season. But over the past six months, seeing people in masks has become a daily occurrence for them: on walks, at the veterinary clinic and even at home.

According to interviews with experts, and a completely unscientific survey on social media, animals rarely respond to masks with concern.

Professional dog groomer Julie Ellingson in Sacramento, California, says none of her canine clients bat an eye when she greets them in a mask. They just look for a new place to deliver a kiss, usually targeting her glasses.

Veronica Barker of Tustin, California, wore a mask long before COVID-19 came along in order to protect herself from inhaling dust while grinding the nails of her English springer spaniel, Polly. Barker says Polly is unfazed by the face covering.

That’s probably because animals rely on more than a view of our face when it comes to identification.

“They have other points of reference, such as eye contact, our tone of voice, scent, body language -- and in some cases, familiarity with the person,” says Wailani Sung, DVM, veterinary behavior specialist at San Francisco SPCA. Other cues such as gestures or movement can also contribute to their recognition of a particular person.

Masks muffle voices, and that can be an issue when working with or training dogs, so it’s important to speak clearly. Wearing a mask with a transparent section over the mouth allows other humans -- and very likely dogs -- to read lips and better understand what’s being said.

Some dogs have learned that masks mean good things are about to happen. Shelley Bueche of Austin, Texas, says her dog interprets the donning of a mask as a signal that she’s going to get to go somewhere. “She’s usually right,” Bueche says.

Similarly, Labrador mix Rio and miniature poodle Peach, who both live with Jen Reeder in Denver, get excited and rush toward the door when they see her putting on a mask. That usually means they’re going for a walk, Reeder says.

That’s not to say that every dog reacts to masks with nonchalance. “One of my regular patients growled at me the other day when I was wearing a mask,” says behavior specialist Lisa Radosta, DVM, who practices at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach.

Alastor, a flat-coated retriever, first saw owner Jill Gibbs wearing a mask while they were at a Barn Hunt event. “He wanted to pull it off my face, and almost broke my nose trying,” says Gibbs, of Billings, Montana. “He is better now, but still jumps for it.” Her other flat-coat, Izzy, looks twice before she recognizes Gibbs, and her golden retriever, Henry, avoids her until she pulls the mask down so he can see her whole face.

Mask design may affect a pet’s reaction. Some animals might be taken aback by masks with images of dog or cat faces.

“Hopefully, the dog would recognize the family member behind the mask and quickly habituate, especially if engaged in an enjoyable activity,” says Toronto veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg, DVM, who heads up research for Fear Free Pets. “However, one would also expect and hope that the owner would recognize, remove and replace a mask if the image evoked fear.”

If you have a new pet or one who doesn’t like masks, the following tips can help:

-- Wear a mask around the house to accustom your pet to seeing people in them.

-- Put on the mask while your pet is watching so he knows it’s you.

-- Don’t stare at your pet (whether or not you’re wearing a mask).

-- If a mask with a particular image causes fear in your pet, remove and replace it.

-- Offer favorite treats or toys while wearing a mask so your pet develops a pleasant association with it.

Q&A

Parrots need

more than seed

Q: What should I feed my new baby parrot? Her veterinarian recommends a pelleted food, but I heard seeds were better.

A: The idea that birds need only seeds for a complete and balanced diet is one of those myths that keeps hanging on. Seeds are high in fat and don’t provide the nutrition that birds need. Feeding only seeds is like giving your kids a diet of hamburgers, hot dogs, and mac and cheese every day. Birds who eat only seeds are prone to obesity and other health conditions caused by poor diet.

Pellets are a mixture of grains, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and provide appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals. Different types of pellets are made for different species and sizes of birds. But not even pellets offer a complete meal for every bird. Many species have unique nutritional requirements.

Adding fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, pasta and various types of protein -- including lean poultry or cooked eggs -- is important for giving your bird a well-rounded diet. Birds enjoy fun foods that they have to work at: think corn on the cob, a slice of watermelon, the core of a bell pepper, sprouts, or a nut in the shell. Your bird-savvy veterinarian can advise you about the proper percentage of pellets and fresh foods for your bird’s species, but in general, pellets should make up about 80 percent of your bird’s diet.

When are seeds OK? I’m not saying you can never give seeds to your bird; in very small amounts, they are a great reward when you are teaching her something new, or when she has just done something you like. Just remember that they should be a special treat, not a large percentage of her intake. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Airport deploys

virus-sniffing dogs

-- Travelers arriving in Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport will now be greeted -- at a distance, of course -- by coronavirus-sniffing dogs, who will check to see if they are infectious. The dogs, trained to recognize the virus that causes COVID-19, are located at specially built sniffing stations. Passengers swipe their skin with small pieces of gauze, then put the samples in a beaker and pass it to a dog handler on the opposite side of the booth. The dog sniffs the beaker and indicates any samples that may belong to an infectious person. Results for the free, voluntary tests are available within 10 seconds, and the entire process takes less than a minute. Dogs and passengers don’t come in contact with each other, which helps to protect the dogs from potential infection.

-- Teens in Hungary who participated in a program that involved working with horses two days a week had fewer emotional and behavioral problems, and better “prosocial behavior” -- actions that benefit other people or society as a whole -- than students in the control group, who did not work with horses, according to a report in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health. Researchers’ analysis found that equine-related activities were a significant factor in development of the positive traits. Working with horses requires students to understand equine communication and behavior. The relationship-building skills they learn translate to developing trust, acceptance and understanding with humans as well.

-- Burmese cats, with their unique brown coats, were known as copper cats in Southeast Asia. Smart, funny and playful, they enjoy interacting with people and have a loyal, loving temperament. Burmese aren’t as talkative as their Siamese cousins, but they will carry on a conversation with you in their raspy voices. The medium-sized cats have eyes ranging in color from yellow to gold and a short, glossy, solid-colored coat. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.