CVMA-ACMV

Phobias in Dogs

October 23, 2012

In human medicine, pathologic fears and phobias are not uncommon. Spiders, snakes, and enclosed spaces are examples of common sources of human phobias. 

Dogs experience a whole spectrum of fear and anxiety that at the lower end of the scale of expression are normal adaptive behaviours, and at the abnormal end of the scale are maladaptive extremes of these same behaviours. Fear responses include hiding, submissive body posture such as ears back and down, eyes focus downward and away, aggression (if cornered), panting, shaking, rolling over and urination, defecation, and the classic sign of running away with the tail between the legs. Other signs of system disturbances may include diarrhea, sometimes with mucus or blood, vomiting, self-trauma, loss of appetite, and weight loss if there is a source of chronic or long-term fear or anxiety.

Anxious dogs express anticipatory fear of the future. Separation anxiety is a common form of this problem. When an owner leaves for work, the dog exhibits distress out of proportion to the chain of events leading up to owner absence. Right after the owner leaves the premises, the dog may undertake barking, soiling, chewing, digging or whining. This is an abnormal behaviour but not a phobia.

A phobia is a much more profound state of fear where a dog may become immobile, panicky, or exhibit extremes of behaviour such as jumping through windowpanes. Loud sudden noises such as gunshots, thunder, and firecracker displays are the most common phobias in canines. Other triggers may just reflect an association with a severely aversive experience. A phobia to darkness for example, may have its origins with a bad experience that occurred during darkness.

Phobias may begin at any age, though young adult dogs are most commonly afflicted with anxiety and phobia disorders. Primary behaviour disorders must be distinguished from disease states that also cause behavioural changes. Your veterinarian can help you understand the anxiety or phobia affecting your dog, and may refer you to a behaviour specialist for further assessment and in some cases, treatment. Treatment can generally be carried out using medication to control the abnormal behaviour and through the application of behaviour modification techniques that help the dog normalize the fear responses. The earlier the treatment begins, the more likely a successful outcome.