Fear and anxiety are the underlying factors for many of the behaviour problems seen in practice. Many pets with recurrent medical problems, such as vomiting, diarrhoea or skin problems, may also have anxiety as the underlying issue. The problem is, an anxious or fearful pet is more likely to bite.
Fear and anxiety are often normal responses essential for survival. They result in a common stress response enabling the animal to prepare and respond to a threat. However, they are not the same.
Fear is the direct emotional response to a threatening situation. It is an innate, self-protective mechanism that enables an animal to react rapidly, such as a wild animal fleeing from the sound or sight of an approaching predator. This is known as the flight or fight response. There is also a freeze response (if I stay still you won't see me) and a fiddle response, where the dog may yawn or lick its lips (displacement behaviours) when faced with a fear-evoking stimulus. You often see this when the dog goes to the vet!
Fear is often connected to pain or a traumatic event. A dog that has been swiped at by the cat may develop a fear of cats.
Anxiety is slightly different; it is the prediction of doom. The animal anticipates a future danger or misfortune, which may be real or imagined. The dog now won’t come inside because it may get attacked by the cat (whether it is present or not), however, there may not always appear to be an obvious cause.
The fear response usually happens quickly and is over when the threat has gone, while anxiety is a more chronic state of non-specific apprehension.
Some level of anxiety is normal as it helps us be prepared in unfamiliar situations, but when an animal can’t cope with even small changes in any new or unfamiliar situations, the state of anxiety persists and interferes with its normal functioning.
It becomes over-vigilant and significant physical changes occur, such as an increased heart rate and blood pressure. The animal may not be able to settle and suffers gastrointestinal upsets. When the anxiety becomes abnormal or inappropriate, the animal is considered to have an anxiety disorder.
Panic attacks can occur in animals suffering from anxiety. They usually come without warning and although the fear is generally irrational, the perceived danger to the animal is very real.
Signs of Anxiety
The signs of anxiety are subtle and often missed by people. Signs of anxiety in dogs may include:
- licking lips
- looking away or down
- moving slowly or away from you
- ears to the side
- refusing to eat
- moving around continuously
- being vigilant or 'on guard'
- barking continuously
- aggression (growling or biting)
- destroying furniture
- urinating in the wrong place.
A phobia is an irrational, intense, persistent fear of a certain object, situation, place or even person. The fear (or panic) response is out of proportion to the stimulus and the response does not decrease with time. Phobias can develop from a single, horrific experience or from continued exposure to the fearful stimulus.
Common phobias in animals involve noises (thunder, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, traffic) and places (vet clinic, parks, cars, garden).
A dog with a fear or phobia of storms may become anxious as a storm approaches, but may proceed to a full blown panic attack as the thunderstorm arrives. Dogs that are affected cause significant damage to themselves and their owner's property when consumed by their panic disorder.
Separation Anxiety in dogs could also be referred to as a Separation Phobia because it is an anxiety that severely disrupts everyday life and is associated with the specific situation where the dogs' owners leave each morning and are then absent for several hours.
The tendency to develop phobias is often inherited and may develop no matter how we handle the pet. Anxiety and fears may also develop into phobias if the pet is repeatedly exposed to very intense or fearful events.
The best time to deal with fearful or anxious behaviour in your pet is as soon as possible. Your veterinarian can help you manage your pet's environment, implement a behaviour modification plan and possibly prescribe medication. This can often prevent the pet's fear from developing into a severe phobia.