The presence of face masks in our everyday lives took some getting used to for many of us humans, but what about our pets? Because cats and dogs rely on body language and facial cues to communicate with and understand their guardians and the world around them, can a partially-hidden face create problems for them?
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Dogs and cats likely face different difficulties when engaging with a masked person, but getting all of our pets used to the sight of masks may enhance our relationships with them during such uncertain times.
Dogs and human body language
Second only to their superior sense of smell, exhibiting and understanding body language is crucial for a dog looking to express herself and her boundaries to others, as well as to understand what those around her want and need. While wild dogs share these cues among their fellow pack members, domesticated dogs look to their guardians and the people around them to understand what's being communicated.
Preventative Vet lists our body positioning and the pace of our hand movements among ways in which a dog reads our bodies in an effort to feel out a situation. Additionally, eye contact and our facial expressions are also studied and interpreted by our canine friends. "Like humans, dogs are highly social, group-living species, and facial expressions are a fundamental way in which emotional information is communicated," Dr. Naomi Harvey, zoologist and specialist in companion animal behavior at Dogs Trust, tells Cuteness. "Much as we do, dogs tend to look at our eyes, but they do gain information about our emotions from the rest of our facial expressions that helps them to distinguish happy faces from angry, fearful, or sad ones. This helps them to judge who is safe to approach and who might be a threat when they meet strangers, as well as to navigate their relationship with their owners and human family."
So, with (ideally) everyone wearing masks that cover up nearly half of their faces in public faces, are dogs able to understand the important social cues they've come to rely on so heavily? "Dogs could struggle somewhat as they do seem to garner quite a lot of information from our facial expressions," Dr. Harvey explains. "Certain individuals might also react fearfully to people in masks, in a similar way to how some dogs react fearfully when people wear hats or helmets."
Getting dogs comfortable with masks
Because the presence of masks isn't likely to disappear anytime in the very near future, making the effort to acclimate your dog to people in masks will be well worth the time, especially if your canine friend reacts fearfully toward them. "It's definitely a good idea to introduce your dog to people wearing masks and help them see masks as a normal thing they don't need to be afraid of," Dr. Harvey suggests. According to Dogs Trust, the best way to get your dog accustomed to masks is to reward him with a high value treat each time he sees you in one and doesn't react negatively. Practice speaking in your mask so that he becomes used to hearing your voice without seeing your mouth, and try wearing your mask around the home to normalize the sight of a partially-hidden face. "Getting dogs used to people wearing masks may also be helpful for the next time they need to go to the vet!" Dr. Harvey adds.
Do cats read our faces?
While some dogs may be beside themselves attempting to navigate the world now hidden by masks, cats are...well, honestly, cats probably haven't even noticed anything has changed, save for the fact that their people may be home more than usual. "Given that cats only seem to show a weak ability at recognizing human facial expressions, mask wearing might not impact them as much as it could dogs," Dr. Harvey explains. "I'd expect them to rely more on our voice tone, eyes and body language. Cats are a bit different than dogs as their ancestors were not a highly social group-living species, and as such they have fewer mechanisms for communication than dogs or humans do."
"Cats have very subtle facial expressions, which people can detect with training and experience but they're not obvious to us. There isn't as much research on cat behavior as there is on dogs, so we don't know how much they may use human facial expressions."
All of this is not to say, however, that cats don't pay any attention to us, particularly the people they interact with on a daily basis. "Cats recognize familiar people from strangers, and specifically recognize their owners voices, but we're not sure how much they use our facial expressions," Dr. Harvey says. "Again, they do tend to look into our eyes, and they do look at their owners for information when facing an uncertain situation and respond to their owners emotional cues when given verbally and facially."
One 2015 study refers to this behavior as social referencing, and concluded that 79% of cats determined their behavior based on facial and vocal cues delivered to them by their guardians. "However, when given only facial information via images of their owners or strangers expressing happiness or anger, cats have shown only a weak ability to distinguish human facial expressions, according to a 2015 study, and mainly only when displayed by their owners," Dr. Harvey adds.
So, your cat may have an easier time determining your wants than the wants of a friend visiting your home, for example. However, according to the research, she likely wouldn't have listened to your friend anyway, masked or not.
What do pets look for when reading humans?
It seems that some dogs may have some trouble adjusting to humans wearing masks, while most cats pay them no mind. While our facial expressions play an essential part in communicating with our pets (mostly our dogs), there are other things that our pets rely on more heavily to recognize us and understand what we want from them. "Vocal cues from our voices and body language are likely to be important for both cats and dogs for reading human emotions, and there is evidence that dogs can also get information on human emotions from how we smell!" says Dr. Harvey. Studies have shown that dogs can actually smell things like fear and happiness in our sweat, and may react accordingly. Our faces send important messages to our pets, but our companions have other, highly sophisticated methods to help them read between the lines.
Dogs and cats face different difficulties when it comes to masked people, with dogs relying more heavily on our facial expressions for information about our moods. We don't know how much cats, who are less studied than dogs, rely on our facial expressions for information. In either case, your pet still recognizes you when you're wearing a mask—they just may have a little more trouble understanding your mood.
It's a good idea to get your pet comfortable with people wearing masks. The best way to do this is to normalize it by wearing one around your pet, and rewarding them with treats and praise when they have neutral reactions to it.