Dealing With Pet Fears
November 17, 2011
Your cute puppy is usually a
wonderful little bundle of joy. However, when lightning flashes and
thunder strikes, she transforms into a terrified bundle of fear and
bolts straight to your lap knocking down your grandmother's
favorite china along the way. Before wondering if your pet is
unusual, wait a minute; you are not alone.
"Pets can be fearful of all types of
things," says Dr. Mark Stickney, Clinical Associate Professor,
Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical
Sciences (CVM). He gives a variety of examples: thunderstorms,
fireworks, cars, hats, and even children. Separation anxiety when
you leave home can be destructive and potentially cost thousands of
dollars, he remarks.
So why do pets get scared? All
animals have evolved to recognize threats, Stickney says. The fear
physiology in animals is similar to that in humans with the heart
rate, blood pressure, and body temperature rising when frightened,
Dogs, which are bred as pack animals,
want to be with their owners when afraid. Cats, being more
solitary, hide when scared and may be less destructive because they
are smaller. Thus each animal responds differently. But the
greatest available body of information on pet fears is on
An important factor in such animal
behavior is the critical socialization period - a time between 8 to
12 weeks (2 to 3 months) of age for both kittens and puppies.
During this period, a young animal should get its first series of
vaccinations… and then be taken everywhere and be exposed to all
kinds of people, things, and sounds, Stickney
"If you plan to have the animal
accompany you while horseback riding, take it to a place where it
can see and smell horses. If you plan to take the animal along
during hunting, take it to the field where it can see and hear
Another important practice is crate
training - a place for the pet to feel safe when you leave the
house - right from the first day the puppy comes
"It's sort of like your favorite
chair in the house," Stickney says, "The crate should always be a
safe place, always a happy place." The pet should never be put in
these crates to be punished or for any negative
Stickney also recommends puppy
daycare - a place where puppies spend an hour playing together. It
includes obedience training, helps them socialize, and makes them
more observant to social cues. In this way, they learn to notice
things they may not otherwise pay attention to.
One way to overcome fear is to expose
pets to the feared objects and reward them when they are brave. For
example, you can expose your puppy to a small scary noise but keep
it close by, pet it and give it a treat as a positive
reinforcement. Slowly, you can keep increasing the threshold of the
noise. Thus, even if we do not change the fear, we can at least
desensitize the pet to such cues.
Some dogs experience separation
anxiety and freak out when they hear keys being picked up.
One way to desensitize them is to frequently pick up keys and then
sit back at home or leave the house for a minute and then come
back. Animals will slowly recognize to ignore these cues, Stickney
A recent market trend is
tight-fitting pet jackets. These help with modifying behavior in
"The idea is that animals feel safe
and secure when they are compressed, just like babies when they are
swaddled," Stickney says.
For more severe fears, specialized
veterinary behaviorists prescribe a combination of behavioral
modification and pharmacological treatments. For example,
veterinarians sometimes prescribe sedatives for animals that tend
to be terrified during long travel periods.
Stickney emphasizes that the
pharmacologic therapy only serves to help the behavior
modification. "There is no such thing as a single solution to fix
the problem," he remarks.
So while leaving the pet alone first
for a long time, you can leave the puppy in its crate (maybe with a
jacket) with its favorite toys and some old T-shirts, Stickney
advises. "The puppy will feel a whole lot better and will probably
sleep through most of it," he says.
The take-home message: If you have a
brand new puppy, make sure that it is exposed to different types of
people and places during the critical socialization period. If you
already have a dog with fears, consult a veterinarian. This is
important because these fears are learned and do not disappear
after a phase.
"The sooner you address these issues,
the better it is because these fears do not go away on their own,"
Stickney says. "Nothing is easy about rearing a puppy. It's a
responsibility. There are incredible benefits if you put in the
time and efforts early on."
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