Pet Corner: Pet fears and phobias

Does your pet have any fears or phobias? Ours sure do.

Some fears are obvious while others may not be recognized by their owners. Certain fear behavior is very common among pets but certainly individuals may react uniquely to a situation. It just depends on the individual and the type of stimulus they are exposed to.

By definition, fear is a behavioral and emotional reaction to a stimulus that an animal is subjected to. Phobias are an intense response to a situation that an animal perceives as fear inducing. I think there is a fine line between fear and phobia, and pets are commonly afraid of certain things.

One of the most common stimuli for pets is anything that produces a loud noise. That is not surprising since many people are also afraid of loud noises. Most everyone can be startled by a loud noise, but some people and pets truly are terrified by loud noises.

Two of our children have an almost instinctive, intense, to the core fear of fireworks. They have been that way since they were just toddlers. The difference between people and pets is that most of the time children will outgrow this type of fear and pets never seem to.

It is a common fear for pets, especially dogs, to be afraid of thunder storms. Our golden retriever Sapphire is terrified of storms and reacts by pacing, shaking, and hiding whenever a storm approaches. Usually we can tell a storm is coming because of her actions long before we can hear any thunder.

Sapphire is also afraid of her own shadow. She has an extremely submissive personality which makes her shyness and timid actions appear like she is afraid of everything. When Sapphire meets someone for the first time. she will slink slowly across the floor with her head down and her tail tucked between her legs. Because of her body language, everyone assumes that she must have been mistreated when she was younger. Sapphire has never even been yelled at much less had a spanking! Not every dog that cowers or withdraws when you approach them has been mistreated.

Sometimes when pets are afraid of a certain situation, they pose a threat to other pets and people. Pets, like people, will exhibit the same fight or flight behavior in response to a fearful situation.

Unfortunately, pets will sometimes become aggressive when frightened. Most of my patients that are aggressive in the clinic are simply afraid and acting normally when they try to bite someone. They are known as fear biters. Fear biters are usually sweet, loving, gentle pets at home but become very aggressive if backed into a corner such as a cage.

Most cats that show extreme aggression in an exam room are not aggressive at all in their normal home surroundings.I can’t count the number of times a cat owner says they have never seen their cat act so badly. Almost all of my patients that act aggressive are simply afraid of the current situation and are acting very normal.

The most common type of fear I have seen in pets is being left alone. Separation anxiety is, without a doubt, the newest and most prevalent kind of fear pets suffer. Pets are no longer just animals that are kept outside and occasionally having human contact. Pets live closer than ever with their owners with many pets even sleeping with their owners.

Many pets are so used to being with their owner they become distressed when left alone. Pets suffering from separation anxiety will physically destroy property or soil the house with feces and urine because they are truly distraught.

Marlo, our Yorkshire terrier, has a much more subtle fear of being left alone. She has a mild form of separation anxiety. Her response to her fear is nuisance barking. Occasionally, Marlo will chew on something but fortunately she is so small that she is not capable of doing much damage. Many pet owners are not so lucky.

The good news is there are behavioral training and medical treatment for each type of fear that pets have. Mild sedatives are very useful in treating pets that are afraid of thunder storms and fireworks. However, separation anxiety usually requires behavioral training in addition to medication to treat successfully.

If your pet seems to act fearful, aggressive, or shows any signs of separation anxiety, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a veterinarian at Clark County Veterinary Clinic.