Facing Phobias of Dogs and Cats

By Caroline Golon

ThinkstockDena Roche is afraid of barking dogs. She knows her fear is irrational, but the sound, even in the distance, sends her into a full-blown panic attack.

For pet lovers, it's hard to imagine anyone having such a severe reaction to a dog or cat, but it happens. It's called a specific phobia, and the condition is much more common than many people realize.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), approximately 19 million Americans suffer from a specific phobia, which is an "excessive and unreasonable fear in the presence of a specific object, place or situation." Fear of particular animals like dogs or cats is one of the most common specific phobias.

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Real Fear

People with a dog or cat phobia describe feeling extreme anxiety when they're near the animal or even thinking about the possibility of encountering the animal. Symptoms include feelings of panic, dread and terror, a racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling and an overwhelming urge to flee. People with phobias not only fear a dog or cat harming them, but are equally afraid of the panic response that accompanies an encounter.

People suffering from cat or dog phobias are hypersensitive to things other people wouldn't even notice. "They'll become attuned to the potential jingling of a dog collar that most people would ignore," says Dr. Simon Rego, director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) Training Program at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

"People distort phobic stimuli," Dr. Rego explains. "They might see a cat as a saber tooth tiger with lion-sized paws, for example. And cats are so aloof and independent that they seem unpredictable. Unpredictability is very scary for phobics," he says. "I also hear that cats have 'evil eyes' a lot."

"It's amazing how generalized or specialized a fear can become," adds Dr. Rego. In Roche's case, dogs themselves don't cause a reaction but the barking does. Roche explains that if she's in a place she can leave, her reaction isn't as bad. But if she's at home and hears a barking dog nearby, she has to go inside and stay there. In fact, it's gotten to the point where she won't use her own backyard because she's afraid a dog will bark somewhere in the neighborhood.

How Phobias Develop

Most phobias begin in childhood or adolescence, says Dr. Mike Vasey, Ph.D., a professor in the Ohio State University's Department of Psychology. There are several scenarios that might be the impetus to a phobia. A direct experience or traumatic event, such as a dog bite or even an overly friendly dog jumping up on an unprepared child might lead to a phobia. Sometimes children take cues from their parents. If a mother is afraid of dogs, her son might model his fear on hers. Finally, Dr. Vasey says, sometimes all it takes to trigger a phobia is for a trusted adult to tell a child that dogs or cats are dangerous.

Are certain people predisposed to developing phobias? Yes, says Dr. Rego, because there are genetic and biological influences that make someone more likely to develop a phobia. "It's like a light switch," he explains. "Some may never develop a phobia but could if the right circumstances were presented."

Coping With Phobias

Those with dog or cat phobias go to great lengths to avoid the animal they're afraid of, which can impact their daily routines, relationships, social life, careers, living situations and self esteem. "People with anxiety disorders build a lifestyle of avoidance," says Dr. Rego.

The trouble is, phobias are perpetuated by avoidance. Mostly it's self-initiated avoidance where the person acts in certain ways to help them feel less anxious in the short term. "It's negative reinforcement," Dr. Rego explains. "If you remove something that's aversive, the relief you feel is so rewarding that chances are you'll do it again and again. But, the more you avoid, the more anticipatory anxiety you feel."

For children, the avoidance is often parent-initiated. "People find a way to accommodate the fear so the person suffering doesn't encounter corrective information about the fear," says Dr. Vasey. It's hard for parents to watch their child experience fear, so they may help them avoid it. This is more hurtful than helpful, Dr. Vasey warns. "It's a subtle message to the kid that they don't think the child can handle the anxiety."

Sometimes a patient's avoidance tactics can be life-threatening. Dr. Rego shares the story of a patient who had a phobia of cats. "If she was driving and thought she saw a cat, she'd swerve the car to escape. That was very dangerous to her and others."

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Good News for Treatment

Fortunately, phobias are highly treatable. "It's one of the most straightforward and briefest of treatments," says Dr. Rego. One of the most common methods of treatment is a form of Cognititive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the process of gradually, systematically exposing the person to the feared stimulus without the option of retreating or getting away.

"Because phobias are maintained by avoidance, you never have the chance to discover that your fear is based upon an exaggeration," explains Dr. Vasey. "The solution is to find a way for the person to experience that their beliefs are wrong. That involves encountering the thing you fear and maintaining proximity to it to discover the thing is not as dangerous as you thought."

Dr. Vasey describes the exposure therapy process for someone with a dog phobia as gradual exposure to a variety of different dogs, until the patient feels completely at ease, sometimes even ultimately feeling enthusiasm for dogs. "lt's amazing to watch it happen," says Dr. Vasey.

According to the ADAA, other treatment options include anxiety management, relaxation techniques and medications.

Dr. Vasey and Rego agree that with exposure therapy, a patient can be treated in six to eight sessions. "Even as little as two very long sessions," adds Dr. Rego.

While phobias are relatively easy to treat, it's not typically the reason people initially seek treatment. Rather, they usually initiate therapy for another type of anxiety disorder, like a panic disorder, and through exploration, the trained professional might discover the phobia.

People suffering from a phobia often keep their fears to themselves, keenly aware of how ridiculous their fear seems to others and frustrated by their inability to overcome it. "It really annoys me," says Roche. "I've tried to logic my way through it, but all the logic in the world doesn't fix the phobia."

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