Animal and Bird Phobias

Health Writer

Animal and bird phobias are quite common. People may be afraid of dogs, cats, mice, or rats. Someone may be afraid of birds in general, although fear of pigeons is also common. A phobia is an intense and irrational fear. Most people would be afraid of a growling dog standing in their path, however, it may be irrational or unreasonable to be afraid of your neighbor's dog, especially if the dog is friendly and has never really provided a reason for you to be afraid. Phobias interfere with people's daily life or functioning and most people suffering from phobias understand their fears are unreasonable but are not able to overcome their fear.

Symptoms

As with other specific phobias, symptoms of an animal or bird phobia include:

  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating

Causes

Sometimes a person with a specific animal phobia can pinpoint how the phobia began. They may have been bitten by a dog as a child or had a bad experience with the type of animal causing their anxiety. For some, there may not have been a specific event. Possibly, their parents had a phobia about dogs, passing on this fear to their child by their actions whenever a dog was around, essentially, teaching their children to be afraid. For other people, there may not be any specific reason for their fear.

Avoiding a situation (or specific animal) can contribute to the anxiety, as these actions help to reinforce a fear. For example, is someone was bitten by a dog and begins to avoid situations where there may be a dog present, they reinforce, in their mind, the validity of the fear. This helps to fuel the feelings of anxiety.

In treatment, however, the reason for the fear is not always important. Treatment would be the same no matter what the reason behind the phobia.

Treatment

Exposure Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy includes exposure therapy. In this type of treatment, the patient is slowly exposed to animal causing the fear until they are able to be near the animal without experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

Exposure therapy may include the following (example is based on a fear of dogs, but this same type of therapy can be used for any type of animal or bird). Each step would be repeated until the person felt comfortable:

  • Viewing pictures of a dog
  • Viewing videos of a dog, allowing person to see and hear the dog
  • Seeing a dog through a window, where they can view the dog but no contact is possible
  • Seeing a dog in a cage, where they can see the dog and leading up to holding their hand out for the dog to smell
  • Seeing the dog on a leash, but not close enough for contact
  • Moving the dog on the leash closer as the person becomes more comfortable
  • Petting the dog

Each person's anxiety will be different. For some, viewing pictures of a dog or seeing a dog on a video is not a problem and exposure therapy would begin with seeing a dog on a leash across the room.

A therapist specializing in anxiety disorders and exposure therapy would be able to work with each person to determine their level of anxiety and proceed with exposure therapy as needed for their particular situation.

Medication

For specific phobias, exposure therapy has been found to be the most effective type of treatment. Medication, however, can be helpful if a person cannot avoid the situation in their daily life. In this case, medication can help a person cope while exposure therapy continues.

Short acting anti-anxiety medication is also useful it the person's anxiety is so high they will not benefit from exposure therapy without some additional assistance. The anxiety medication sometimes helps a person to get more benefit from exposure therapy.

Self Help

  • Take one step at a time, however, accept you may need to deal with a little anxiety before moving on to the next step.
  • Learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, to help cope with anxiety symptoms as they develop.

  • For specific fears, such as dogs, viewing pictures or reading about the animals can help in exposure therapy by increasing the desensitization toward the object.

  • Work on exposure on a daily basis, even if it includes videos and pictures of the animal or bird that invokes anxiety symptoms.

  • Keep a journal of your treatment so that you can view your progress. This can help when you feel you are not progressing as quickly as you would like. If you can see steady progress, it can motivate you to continue your therapy.

Remember that treatment is available. You do not need to have a phobia control your life. It is possible to control the phobia.

References:

"Animal/Bird Phobias", 2008, Author Unknown, AnxietyCare.org

"Phobias and Fears", 2008, Aug 2, Melinda Smith, Helpguide.org