As veterinary clinics around the country consider opening back up to letting owners in the building in the coming months, the next step will likely be the requirement of the owner to wear a mask or face covering during the visit. Of course, this will vary based on your state, region, local VMA’s, and the individual practices, but seems to be a trend. From my experience as both a house call veterinarian and a clinic vet, there are two kinds of responses that pets have to face masks.
Cats don’t care. But really, do cats look at us much anyway? The cat appointments we have done with all parties wearing masks go no differently than any other appointment. Guess this just proves that cats don’t really care about us… until it’s time for food.
Dogs, however, apparently look at us more, and seem a little perplexed by the face masks. So if your dog is nervous about going to vet anyway, seeing you in a face mask for the first time probably won’t be helpful. It would be a good idea to have your dog get used to people in masks, so it’s one less scary thing during the vet visit. (And if you have the rare cat that seems offended, then consider conditioning your cat to you wearing a face mask the same way.).
Like with conditioning a pet to accept anything, the key is positive reinforcement. We want our pets to learn that when they see a person wearing a face covering, good things happen! The easiest way to accomplish this is to find a super special treat that your pet doesn’t normally get. Like cut up bits of hot dog. Or cheese. Other hot items are tuna (dogs and cats), peanuts, or tiny bits of bacon. Whatever you choose, make sure the size is small – less than a pea. The key here is we’re giving many treats frequently, and we don’t want this to add up to a decent amount of food.
Conditioning your pet starts with choosing a good time when they are in a good mood, probably just hanging out. Don’t do it directly after eating a meal, since they won’t be hungry and the treats won’t be as exciting.
Basically, have your mask in your hand and give the treat. Let them realize that you have cool treats BEFORE applying your mask. After a couple treats (make them sit or shake or do something they know if possible) then apply your mask and IMMEDIATELY give a treat, this time without giving a command to do something -this one’s a freebie.
After the initial treat, promptly give a second treat. After two, give your pet a second or two to process how silly you look. If they seem bothered at all, give another treat and quickly take off the mask. Try sitting on the floor on their level. If you change positions (sitting to standing) immediately give another treat, since you are a different-looking person when you change! And if your dog seems anxious, you’ve gone too far. Take off the mask and try again the next day, making a mental note of when he got freaked so you stop well before that point! And if these means the mask is on you for 2 seconds, that’s what you do.
Start with just 3-5 treats, then quickly removing the mask. Mask comes off, treats stop. Next time try it again – start with a couple treats (after giving a basic command) so they know you’re cool. Then apply your mask and promptly give a treat with no command. Talk to them so they get used to your voice in a mask. Work up to giving commands wearing a mask. And when our mask comes off, those treats are gone.
The goal is for your dog (or cat) to associate the really special treat with you wearing a mask. Bring those treats with you to the vet. Have the veterinary staff give your dog those treats too.
Hopefully this helps your pet see you wearing a mask and think good things are coming! It might make your next veterinary visit better for everyone!