The topic of wearing masks during the COVID-19 crisis has been controversial. The latest message is that, to limit the spread of the virus, we should all wear masks if we are likely to be indoors within 1 - 2 metres of other people for any prolonged length of time.
And we should do this not to protect ourselves directly, but to stop us from infecting others if we are carrying the virus. This is especially important if we happen to be asymptomatic carriers i.e. if we don't realise that we have been infected with the virus and that we may be inadvertently transmitting it to those around us.
The use of masks should reduce the overall spread of the virus through our society, and hence, if we wear a mask, we will protect ourselves in a roundabout, "big picture", way.
In some countries (like Spain) it is now compulsory to wear masks in public, and in some walks of life (e.g. for air travel and even for all public transport) it's also likely to become compulsory. So for more and more people, it's becoming normal to wear a reusable mask, which may be washed/boiled every night.
The best type of mask has a three-layer fabric construction, with a pocket to insert a filter (such as coffee-filter paper, or even just kitchen roll). There are many variants on this, and perhaps the main thing is just to wear covering over your mouth and nose, rather than worrying too much about the precise type of covering.
In my own vet clinic, we've already been wearing masks for much of our day, and this has been a learning process. As vets, we are used to wearing masks during operations (to stop bacteria from our breath contaminating operation sites) but this is only for a short period: the longest operations only last a couple of hours.
When you wear a mask for your entire working day, it becomes much more of a restriction. It can be difficult to speak to people with ease, and if you exert yourself at all (e.g. lifting a big dog onto a consulting table), the mask can become uncomfortable, restricting the flow of breath in and out. It's often a relief to take a few moments off to remove the mask, and to be able to breathe normally for a short while.
Some veterinary organisations have used this common-place use of mask-wearing to make an interesting point: the situation we are experiencing should remind us of the permanent restriction of free-breathing that some breeds of dogs and cats suffer due to their flattened faces. The Federation of European Companion Animal Veterinary Associations (FECAVA) recently issued a press release pointing out that extreme versions of so-called "brachycephalic breeds" (such as Bulldogs, Pugs, Persian cats, and others) are forced to suffer the same type of muffled breathing all the time, for every moment of their lives.
I have written about this before, and every time that I do it, I fear that I will be upsetting owners of these animals. Indeed, I have had people coming up to me, asking me why I dislike their pets so much. As I say in response, I do not dislike their pets at all: in fact, it's because I like them so much that I am campaigning about this. The point is that these animals have a particular physical appearance because humans choose this on their behalf. Humans breed dogs deliberately so that they are born this way. There is nothing accidental or natural about it. And while there are positive aspects to this (these breeds have an undeniably "cute" appearance), the negative aspect on the animals' welfare cannot be ignored.
As the veterinary organisations are pointing out, if you can imagine yourself having restricted breathing (as you experience when wearing a mask all day), you need to remember that flat-faced pets feel like this all the time. There is nothing pleasant about this, however adorable the animals may be.
The frustrating aspect of this situation is that it could be very easily solved. A generation of dogs zips by in a decade. If a decision was made that it was no longer acceptable to breed dogs that have difficulty breathing, it would be simple to end the suffering of thousands of animals by ensuring that they were all born with longer, wider airways.
Indeed, in the Netherlands, the government has made it illegal to breed dogs with ultra-short muzzles, effectively prohibiting the breeding of around twenty flat-faced breeds unless they comply with specific measurements and ratios of nose-length and skull-shape. The result of this policy will be that within a decade, all dogs bred in the Netherlands will be able to breathe normally, like humans who are not wearing face masks. This seems like such obvious common sense that it's hard to understand why other countries are not following suit.
After all, it's easy to do. So-called "out-crossing" is one answer: a longer-snouted breed is cross-bred with a flat-faced breed. The result is a dog that looks similar to the pure flat-faced breed, but they have a longer muzzle, with easier breathing. Examples of these dogs include "Jugs" (Jack Russell-Pug crosses), "Puggles" (Beagle-Pug crosses) and many more.
If you don't like the sensation of wearing a mask all day, please pause to reflect how it must feel to be a flat-faced dog, snuffling and snorting as you go about your daily life.