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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 over time.

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 pet to.

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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