Authored by Dr. Theresa DePorter
It is natural to avoid situations that may be dangerous. Fears may range from a normal startle response to a sudden noise to an extreme phobia that interferes with a pet’s ability to function normally. Severity and duration of the pet’s fearful response should be proportional to the stimuli and the animal should in some way recover normally with minimal intervention, and become accustomed to the stimulus. This is called habituation and is a normal way of coping with changes in the environments in which we live. For example, if you move into a new home by a train track, you (and your pet) may be startled the first few times you hear the train rumbling past your home. After a few weeks, you may not even notice when the train goes by! Failure to habituate to a frequently occurring, benign stimulus would be detrimental and the pet would respond in a “fight or flight” response physiologic stress response.
So what causes a dog to cat to be afraid? Pets may develop fears in response to many different, unique and specific stimuli such as: noises, people, animals, cars, vacuums, or locations (i.e. veterinary hospitals). Genetics and the natural ability to cope with stressful situations, learn and overcome fearful influences are related to breed, brain chemistry and early learning during the socialization period. Sudden noises such as thunder, smoke alarms, or fireworks can cause fear. Even people may do surprising things; if people are yelling, falling, or running, this may cause fear, especially if the animal has been familiar with people who speak quietly and move peacefully. Even more mysterious to humans, animals have a keen sense of smell and may perceive scents in the environment that we cannot. Children may act or move unpredictably. Dogs may develop fears of people, such as women, children, or delivery persons.
Animals do indeed have good memories and their brains may actually function similarly to humans in more ways than they differ. The portion of the brain called the amygdala is believed to influence expression of fear; the amygdala may be involved in memory recall and in initiation of physiologic responses to fear such as increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, diminished pain response and the release of hormones. All of these physiologic responses allow quick thinking and escape in the event of life threatening situations. Animals learn from past experience and the animal will learn to initiate the “fight or flight” cascade of events earlier and thus avoid fatal mistakes. So it is not in the best interest of survival to wait and see what happens next or be assured that nothing bad actually happened. Preventative response is preferred in order to survive. Each animals response to a fear is an individualized and unique response based on their life’s experiences.
Fears, Anxiety and Phobias Defined
Fears: Fears are characterized by an emotional state in response to a real threat or danger. The response may be emotional or physical (panting, increased heart rate, fleeing or even aggression). Generally the response occurs when the stimulus (the threat or danger) is apparent and often dissipates soon after the threat is no longer evident.
Anxiety: Anxiety is generalized state of apprehension in anticipation of a fear causing stimuli. The response may be initiated by a real threat or danger but anxiety may occur without the threat or if there are other signs associated with the impending event (i.e. the drive to the veterinary clinic). The pet’s anxiety may be reasonable or unreasonable when compared to the relative threat. The response may persist well after the threat is no longer evident. Learning and past experience often contributes to the development of anxieties but some pets have generalized anxiety regarding change in routine or presentation of new stimuli.
Phobia: Phobia is an extreme emotional and physical state of distress in response to a real or anticipated stimulus response. The pet’s actions are so extreme that daily activities such as eating, resting or eliminating may be affected. The pet may be so focused on escape or panic that they an injure themselves or others. Animals who display these severe, persistent and extreme responses would benefit from an assessment and the recommendations of a boarded veterinary behaviorist.
Often fears intensify over time primarily because the pet learns from each experience. Early recognition of fear and early intervention likely provide the best prognosis for a better outcome but does not ensure that the pet will not display some degree of anxiety. Early signs of fear may be difficult to recognize since the signs may be subtle: the dog may merely freeze, look away, walk away or refuse to eat food. The dog may fail to follow an obedience command and be labeled stubborn. Cats will retreat and hide.
Animals may respond in different ways when they are forced to deal with fears: Escape is always a natural and obvious response but sometimes escape isn’t possible. Say there are fireworks’ exploding over the home or a veterinarian is examining a dog’s ear, and escape is just not a reasonable or possible response. Agitated or extremely fearful cats are usually not subtle about their anxiety: cats may puff up, hiss and vocalize threats designed to avoid a physical confrontation. They may engage in a physical confrontation using, or threatening to use, claws or teeth.
Dogs may be more subtle and often they just freeze; sometimes they orient toward the fear causing stimuli, ready to respond if needed, and other times they look away in appeasement hoping the threatening species will get the message to diminish the threat. Some animals may become aggressive; this is a defensive response designed to give more emphasis to the communication intended to drive away the person, dog or animal resulting in the fear.
This may be more likely to occur when a dog is on a leash since retreat is not possible and display of appeasement communication may be limited. Some animals learn aggression is successful at thwarting a potential attack, even if the attack was only perceived and would never have occurred. Other animals learn to see refuge in a safe secure location, which could be in the home, outside the home, under a bed or in a crate. Cats prefer to avoid confrontation and are perfectly skilled escaping, fleeing and recovering in their own time. Profound feline fears are associated with longer periods of retreat.
Helping the Pet with Fears, Phobias and Anxieties
Forcing cats or dogs to ‘face their fears’ often results in increased fear and stress rather than alleviating the underlying unpleasant emotional response. Punishment also never alleviates anxiety and often pets may be punished in efforts to get them to stop doing undesirable behaviors. If the dog is afraid and retreats to the back of the couch in an effort to escape, punishment for getting on the couch will not alleviate the fear. Providing better, safer retreats is important for both dogs and cats. Some cats like elevated retreats, such as shelves or furniture, while other cats prefer low, covered caverns that seem like safe havens. Animals assess a situation based on their past experiences and their prediction of likely outcomes motivates their behavioral responses. If thunderstorm noises terrified a cat ad the frightening noises became muffled when the cat went under the bed, then the cat may seek refuge in this location again. If a dog was going outside just as the lightning struck the neighbor’s house, he may not be willing to venture out in the rain again; he may even choose to eliminate in the home rather than go out in the rain.
Should we reassure or ignore a pet that is fearful? While much concern is given to the unintentional rewarding of attention seeking behaviors, it appears this question is actually quite complicated. Many animals become comfortable and relax in response to fear-evoking stimuli naturally; that is, they habituate. So, when most dogs face a relatively mild stimuli that startles them momentarily, the dog will observe, investigate and recover spontaneously. For these emotionally stable dogs, the human response may not be important or relevant in the dog’s response. Many pets may be calmed by comforting. Other dogs, especially more sensitive, reactive or attached dogs, will take cures from their owners and if they are calm, it calms them. If the humans display hysteria or confusion the animal assumes there is justification for this dramatic response. So, the fear or anxiety response displayed by their favored human may either contribute to the development of a fearful memory or aid this adjustment process. When the dog is exposed to a severe fear evoking stimuli, it is not simply enough to ignore the dog’s attention-seeking response and hope the dog will adjust naturally and learn that attention seeking behaviors are not helpful.
For the dog with a severe fear or phobia, a learned response has already become a pattern. Learning may even occur following a single event if the stimulus was terribly frightening at the first exposure. These dogs do not readily habituate naturally once the sever fear or phobia is established. These severely affected pets do not just get better on their own. So, should we reassure or ignore a pet that is fearful? The simplest answer may be to ignore mild responses to mild anxiety-evoking events if you can observe the pet closely to see if they can recover spontaneously-this is natural and appropriate. But for the pet that is severely fearful-help gently guide this dog into a calmer response and coping strategy. Avoid adding to the emotional drama. Strategies for calming a phobic pet may include helping them to find a safe place to hide, or using a leash and maybe a head halter to reduce pacing or even settling on a dog bed and massaging gently and calmly. The severely phobic dogs need a complete program and these strategies merely get them through the fearful experience; contact your veterinarian to discuss use of medications and behavior modification strategies.
Some dogs seek refuge with a human companion when they are afraid; some dogs will whine, vocalize or paw at their favorite human. In theory, we should ignore these dogs until they display more appropriate behavior. These dogs are difficult to ignore and ignoring them does not necessarily alleviate their anxiety. Dogs that are very attached to people and have minimal coping skills of their own will be confused when ignored. Consider: Is it reasonable to expect the phobic dog to have an epiphany, a Eureka-type break through, during their moment of greatest anxiety and panic and conclude they should stop demanding attention in order to attain the human comfort they seek? The more severe the anxiety or the attachment, the less likely the animal is going to reach this brilliant conclusion all by themselves. So again, the suggestion to ignore the mildly anxious dog that paws at your leg may successfully reduce the occurrence of the attention seeking behavior but the same strategy will not be beneficial for the severely anxious dog.
Learning During a Fearful Event
During a fight or flight-based response animals respond instinctively and quickly. These are not carefully thought out mental calculations. People may respond similarly and do not learn well in panic situations or fear causing situations. Imagine yourself on a job interview and being asked to memorize a few phrases of a foreign language with which you are unfamiliar. In a stressful situation we can use skills we have practiced and rehearsed to perfection but not necessarily acquire new ones. Many behavior modification strategies include a recommendation to avoid the fear-evoking stimuli. This is not a short cut or excuse. This is no the end of the journey, it is the beginning. Once new coping strategies are learned, then the pet can be gradually exposed to the fear-causing situations. Ideally this occurs at a low intensity level so the fearful fight or flight response is not induced.
When the pet is frequently exposed to the fear causing stimuli and the fearful response occurs, this is called flooding. Some pets may learn by this strategy and may successfully get used to it, thereby alleviating the fearful response. The problem is that many more dogs are further traumatized by the experience. Observe your dog: the slightly anxious dog may be able to adjust, cope and relax but the extremely fearful dog will not. Extremely fearful dogs will instead learn their worst suspicions have been confirmed and that the situation is indeed horrifying!
What about Corrections and Punishment?
Sometimes the anxious behaviors can be quite annoying-barking, pacing, pawing or climbing incessantly. Often this leads people to try to interrupt to stop these problem behaviors. This effort results in a series of attempts to stop a behavior, such as yelling “no,” yanking on a choke collar, startling with a noise or ultrasonic device, or even hitting or shocking a dog. Don’t forget the underlying motivation for the attention seeking behavior was fear, so it is unlikely that any intervention with something negative will reduce anxiety.
Punishment does not alleviate anxiety. If the punishment causes more fear than the initial stimulus, then the dog may actually discontinue the fearful display. So, consider a dog that is afraid of children that begins barking and flailing on the end of the leash when children are visible during walks. If we implement a strategy of firm choke collar corrections, it is possible to make a dog quit flailing around. Maybe a bark activated shock collar would stop the barking. But what about the dog’s underlying anxiety regarding children? This probably made it worse and now the dog no longer engages in a dramatic display so children may be more likely to approach the anxious dog! Corrections or punishment based on strategies may be effective at alleviating a dog’s problem activities but not improve the underlying emotional response.
What about cats? A fearful cat may display agitation, arousal and even aggression. Often people try to punish these puffed up cats, which usually only worsens the anxiety. When people try startling the cat, yelling or even squiring them with water, these tactics may successfully chase the cat away but only justify the cat’s fearful and agitated response in the first place. Punishing a cat only worsens the fear and anxiety. Do cats learn to be anxious by watching people? Some do, but generally dogs are more likely to learn from attention or human display of anxiety then cats since the fearful feline has already made their own assessment, fled the scene and is no longer around to seek attention or observe if the humans are fearful, reassuring or ignoring them.
Pets with anxieties deserve compassion and assistance to alleviate their apprehension. The goal is for the pet to be comfortable, relaxed and at ease when fear evoking stimuli and situations occur. Much can be done to help the worried pet: see articles on thunderstorms, fireworks and separation anxiety for discussion of these common concerns. Discuss the sue of anti-anxiety (anxiolytic) medications with your veterinarian. With compassion and comprehensive behavior therapy, many pets may become socially, emotionally and mentally stable while developing skills to adapt to the unpredictable challenges of living with people.