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Fear, Anxiety and Phobias in Our Pets

What are the differences?

27.5.2022

From an evolutionary point of view fear and anxiety are life saving for animals. They help animals to avoid threats and prepare the body for possible meaningful reactions, known as fight or flight.

What can cause fear, anxiety and phobia in pets?

Each individual pet can have different reactions to stimuli. This depends on the character, socialisation (lack of early socialisation), experiences (mostly bad / negative) and genetic factors (fearfulness and anxiety is heritable). Most common triggers are people, sounds, objects, and the environment.

Fear

is mostly described as a reaction of consciousness to a danger or threat that actually exist. In other words, fear is an immediate alarm reaction to an actual danger of a life-threatening situation (e.g., a mouse is fearful at the sight of a snake).

Anxiety

can be defined as a feeling that expresses itself in situations perceived as threatening in the form of concern and aversive excitement. It mostly refers to “future dangers” (e.g., a dog expects to be left alone at home).

Phobias

are extreme fear responses. The sight or sound of something can cause phobic reactions. The reaction to the stimulus is often out of proportion to the  perceived danger and is exaggerated. A well-known phobia in dogs is noise-phobia, the extreme or irrational fear of thunder which is at no point a danger for the dog.

Common fears and anxieties in cats are:

  • Unfamiliar people or animals
  • Unfamiliar objects / smells
  • Loud noises / sudden movements
  • Wide open spaces
  • Travelling in the car
  • The vets

Common fears and phobias in dogs are:

  • Unfamiliar people or animals
  • Fear of being alone (separation anxiety)
  • The vets
  • Travelling in the car
  • Specific objects (vacuum cleaners / stairs)
  • Loud / distressing noises (thunder, fireworks)

How do pets show fear, anxiety and phobia?

Pets respond to fear, anxiety or phobia in a variety of different ways. Typical physiological reactions are an increased heart rate, trembling, increased respiratory rates and sweating (sweat paw prints). It can also be observed that fearful/anxious pets have a tendency to urinating / defecation and emptying their anal glands.  

Typical behaviour responses include avoiding eye contact, licking the lips, yawning, scratching, and turning away. More obvious signs are hiding, a crouched posture, ears are flattened to the head, eyes are wide open, the tail is tucked under the body (dogs). Generally, it is easier to detect fear in dogs than in cats, but both can suffer from fear and anxiety.

Pets reaction to being afraid

Depending on the individual animal and its past experiences, the first reaction most pets will show is to try to avoid the situation. If avoidance is not possible it will attempt to escape from the situation (fleeing and hiding). If the animal is unable to  leave the situation, it might show defensive-aggressive behaviour, such as making itself look bigger, growling etc. In extreme situations the pet freezes, meaning that it literally can’t move, it is paralysed.

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