FEARS, PHOBIAS AND ANXIETIES
What is fear?
Fear is a physiological, behavioral and emotional reaction to stimuli
that an animal encounters. The physiological reaction results in an increase
in heart rate, increased respiratory rate (panting), sweating, trembling,
pacing and possibly urination and defecation. Behaviorally an animal will
exhibit changes in body posture and activity when afraid. The animal may
engage in an avoidance response such as fleeing or hiding. It may assume
body postures that are protective such as lowering of the body and head,
placing the ears closer to the head, widening eyes, and tucking in the
tail under the body.
If the animal perceives a threat, the response can also include elements of
defensive aggression. Whether an animal fights or flees when fearful or defensive
depends on its genetic predisposition and the environment that it is in (see
below). The emotional reaction in animals can be difficult to gauge because
animals are nonverbal. However, by observation of body postures and facial expressions
it is possible to conclude whether or not an animal is afraid.
Is fear a normal or abnormal response in animals?
In many situations it is "acceptable, understandable and perfectly normal"
for an animal to be afraid. However, there are times when animals exhibit fear
which is maladaptive or dangerous for humans. When animals are frightened they
may become aggressive (fight), run away (flight), stay still (freeze), or display
appeasement behaviours. Which response a pet exhibits depends on the pet's personality
and emotional development, the type of stimulus, previous experience with the
stimulus, whether it is on its own property (where it is more likely to fight),
whether it is in the presence of offspring or family members (where it is more
likely to fight), or whether it is cornered or restrained and unable to escape
(where it is more likely to fight).
What is a phobia?
This is an intense response to a situation that the animal perceives as fear-inducing.
The response is out of proportion to the stimulus and is maladaptive. Phobias
relate to a specific stimulus or group of stimuli and common examples are phobias
involving noises and places. Phobic responses consist of physiological, behavioral
and emotional responses similar to fear, but they are extremely exaggerated.
The response does not attenuate with time.
What is anxiety?
The human definition of anxiety is a diffuse feeling of impending danger or
threat. It appears that animals can exhibit this diffuse type of anxiety, often
manifested as generalized anxious behavior in either specific situations (the
veterinary hospital or unfamiliar locations) or in a nonspecific way (in response
to alterations in the normal routine or environment). Anxiety is manifested
by some of the same physiological signs as fear, but also may be displayed as
displacement or redirected behaviours, destructive behaviours, or excessive
vocalization. Any of these behavioral responses may become stereotypic or compulsive
What types of stimuli might trigger fears, phobias or anxieties?
The triggers for these behaviours are many and varied. Animals may be frightened
of people, other animals, places or things. They may show an anxious response
in nonspecific situations or a phobic response in one particular situation such
as toward a thunderstorm.
What causes fearful, phobic or anxious responses?
Sometimes fear is the result of an early experience that was unpleasant
or perceived by the animal as unpleasant. If the fearful response was
successful at chasing away the stimulus, or if the pet escaped from the
stimulus as a result of its response, the animal's behavior is rewarded.
Owners that try to calm their pet by providing treats or affection may
be rewarding the fearful behavior It should be noted that punishment,
in close association with exposure to a stimulus may further increase
fear and anxiety toward that stimulus.
It is not only unpleasant experiences that can result in the development of
maladaptive fearful responses. Any stimuli (people, places, sights, sounds,
etc.) that a dog or cat has not been exposed to during its sensitive period
of development, which is up to 12 to 14 weeks in dogs and 7 weeks in cats, may
become a fear provoking stimulus. For example, the dog or cat that is exposed
to adults, but not children during development may become fearful when first
exposed to the sights, sounds or smells of young children. The pet's genetic
make-up also contribute to its potential to develop fears and phobias.
Phobic responses can occur as the result of just one exposure to a particularly
intense stimulus or they can gradually increase over time as the result of continued
exposure. In cases of pathological anxiety and fear, neurotransmitter (brain
chemical) function and levels may be altered and contribute to the overall behavior
The consequences that follow the phobic response (rewards, escape, punishment)
and the learning that takes place as a result may also aggravate the response.
Is it possible to prevent fears, phobias and anxieties?
A good program of socialization and exposure to many new and novel things while
an animal is young is essential to facilitate normal emotional development and
thereby help in the prevention of fears and phobias. However, in the phenomenon
of "one trial" learning, an event is so traumatic that only one exposure
can create fears, phobias or anxieties.
Owner responses when their pet experiences a new situation that could potentially
be frightening are important. Happy cheerful tones, and relaxed body postures
of owners can help pets to experience new things without displaying fear. Calm
reassurances may also be beneficial provided that the pet is not acting in a
fearful manner at the time of interaction. Knowing your pet and its individual
temperament will also determine what situations you can and should expose your
Each time your pet is exposed to an anxiety, fear or phobia inducing situation
and experiences a non-adaptive response, the problem is likely to worsen. Finding
a way to control, relax, or distract your pet in the presence of the stimulus
is necessary to correct the problem and to teach your pet that there is nothing
to be feared.
||An owner who is calm and in control reduces the fear and anxiety associated
with new stimuli and situations. For most cases of fear, appropriate behavior
modification techniques involve exposing the pet to mild levels of the stimuli
and rewarding it for non-fearful behavior Consequences that reinforce the
fear (inadvertent rewards or retreat of the stimulus) or aggravate the fear
(punishment) must be identified and removed. Drug therapy may be a useful
adjunct to behavior therapy techniques when dealing with anxiety, fears
and phobias and where the responses are pathological pharmacological intervention
may be necessary.
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