Yet another unexpected side effect of the COVID-19 crisis may be on the rise: Here’s what you need to do to protect your pet.

dog-ate-face-mask-tips-what-to-do: dog and face mask
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It’s all fun and games until someone swallows a mask. That was the first thought that ran through Chicagoan Nikki Nardick’s mind when she realized a white cotton face mask her grandmother had monogrammed was missing—and her five-month-old fox red lab Marvin was on the scene, licking his lips.

She was used to Marvin’s mischievous antics—he is still a puppy, after all—but the discovery that he might have actually eaten the mask brought on a new level of anxiety. “I instantly went into panicked mom mode and called our vet,” Nardick says.

In the age of COVID-19, keeping face masks away from dogs is just one more thing pet owners have to worry about.

“A new and unthought-of issue has arisen when our loyal canine friends have found our masks and decided [they are] a treat and not protective gear,” says Brandon Sinn, DVM, director of veterinary services for PuppySpot. He notes that while responsible dog owners are used to having to keep harmful items (such as avocados and alcohol) away from their pets, many have not yet adapted to the new mask routine. “A puppy can quickly snag a mask in the time it takes to turn around,” Dr. Sinn says.

Sarah Wooten, DVM, veterinary spokesperson for Pumpkin Pet Insurance, says that while she hasn’t personally seen a dog patient yet who’s swallowed a mask, the likelihood of a dog doing this is high.

“I’ve seen many cases where dogs swallow a rock, socks, or toys,” Dr. Wooten says. “To a curious pup, a mask may seem like a tasty treat that smells like their favorite human, which can be very enticing to them.”

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Signs your dog may have eaten a mask

So what should you do if you suspect, as Nardick did, that a missing mask may have been consumed by your pup? First, know that any size or breed of dog is capable of ingesting foreign objects—but that younger dogs are at higher risk since they’re naturally more curious, Dr. Wooten says.

If you don’t witness your dog swallowing a mask, it can be hard to tell whether they’ve actually eaten one.

“It is easier than we realize for a dog to [eat a mask],” says Kerri Nelson, DVM, a veterinarian with Veterinary Emergency Group of Denver and expert with pet wellness brand Finn. “He might think he’s just chewing on it, then accidentally gulps it down.”

Signs that may indicate your dog has unwittingly eaten a facial covering include lethargy; nausea; lip licking; vomiting; a hard, swollen, or sensitive abdomen; diarrhea; loss of appetite; or being more irritable than usual, Dr. Wooten says. And as silly as it sounds, if your dog has been in an area where you’re certain you left a mask and cannot find it, that’s a strong indicator your dog may have ingested it.

What to do if you suspect your dog has eaten a mask

First, call your vet and let them know. They’ll ask about the size of your dog, the material of the mask, and the timeline to help you make a plan, says Angie Krause, a holistic veterinarian who works with pet food brand I and love and you. They may ask you to watch and wait to see if your dog develops symptoms of an intestinal obstruction—such as nausea, vomiting and not eating—or recommend bringing your dog in to retrieve the mask via endoscopy.

Some vets may ask you to bring your dog in so they can induce emesis (vomiting) right away or ask you to do so at home. If the dog throws the mask back up, there will be no further issues, Dr. Nelson says. The best chance of this happening is if you take your dog to the vet within a couple hours of ingestion. Beyond that, the mask may have already moved into the small intestine, meaning vomiting it back up is no longer a possibility—at least most of the time, as it can vary dog to dog.

In Marvin’s case, his vet recommended he digest the mask, so they loaded him up with fluids and fiber to speed up the process. Afterward, he acted normal and happy—but after 48 hours, the mask still hadn’t appeared.

“It was assuring and alarming at the same time,” Nardick says, who began to doubt whether he’d eaten the mask at all. She kept in close contact with her vet and carefully monitored her pup’s bowel movements until, two days later, Marvin suddenly threw up the mask and went about his day.

He was fortunate the mask was a simple cotton one. If a dog ingests a mask with metal pieces, that’s cause for greater concern, says Natalie Marks, DVM, medical director at VCA Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago and a spokesperson for Royal Canin.

While vets will be able to see metal much easier than cotton on an X-ray to determine whether a dog has in fact swallowed a mask, metal can cause abrasions, ulcerations, and even perforation in the digestive tract. In very serious cases, where a mask has been ingested days prior and is obstructing your dog’s intestines or has a metal piece perforating tissue, “we can have a life-threatening situation that requires surgery and intensive hospitalization,” Dr. Marks says.

How to prevent your dog from eating a mask

Keep masks in a safe place, up high and out of reach of all pets, Dr. Nelson says —and make sure your kids do so, as well. If you’re making your own masks at home, be sure to do this in a separate room where pets do not go; cats have a predilection for swallowing string, so they can also be at risk for eating parts of a cloth mask in the making.

The old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure holds true. The two trips Nardick made to the vet with Marvin cost her $320—all over a $5 cotton mask. Now, Nardick says they’re much more careful about where they leave masks and are creating a designated mask station high on a table.

Staying vigilant outside the home is also important, though. “I’m worried about all the masks [left behind] on the street when I walk him,” she says.