Fear is a physiologic, behavioral and emotional reaction for animals in response to a specific stimulus happening in the present, which is perceived as risk to health or life, power or security. Fear often keeps animals alive in a dangerous world by teaching them to avoid things that could bring about discomfort or their untimely end. It is regarded as a normal response to a feared stimulus. However, when fearfulness is coupled with common, harmless events it’s called anxiety or when it runs out of control it is called a phobia and can become a serious behavior problem for pets and their owners.
The following differences between fear, anxiety and phobia can be distinguished:
- Fear: a feeling of doom or unease in response to imminent danger.
- Anxiety: a feeling of doom or unease in response to an anticipated danger; anxiety, therefore, is the same feeling as fear, but in absence of an imminent danger.
- Phobia: the experience of a persistent fear that is excessive and unreasonable.
Whether it is associated with specific triggers, such as fireworks, thunderstorms, separation, car rides and veterinary visits, or generalized, fearfulness and excessive anxiety can intensify to the point where normal functioning becomes impossible, and pets can act out in extreme ways. They may urinate, defecate, bark, howl, chew, dig, try to escape or shut down completely when forced into situations that trigger fear.
Anxiety disorders are common reasons for consulting a veterinarian in a behavior clinic. Of all the treated patients in the Service of Clinical Ethology of the Veterinary Faculty of Madrid (Spain), an approximate 88% showed anxiety-related disorders. Other studies show similar numbers which leads to the conclusion that the majority of dog behavior disorders are accompanied by anxiety!
Anxiety disorders can be divided into noise phobia, storm phobia and separation anxiety. A Japanese study published in 2012 showed that 49% of cases with anxiety in behavior clinics were diagnosed with separation anxiety, 10% of those were diagnosed with noise or storm phobia, and 41% had separation anxiety and storm or noise phobia. This means it is not uncommon to see two problems together or even 3 problems.
Sensitivity to noise is one of the most common concerns of dog owners with as many as 40 to 50% of dogs reported to be fearful of some form of noise. One recent United States survey of 1,201 owners with close to two thousand dogs found that 17% of dogs were fearful of noises, with storms (86%), fireworks (74%) and vacuum cleaners (41%) most commonly reported. On the other hand a study out of the United Kingdom of almost four thousand dogs reported 25% of dogs with noise phobias and this increased to 49% when owners were provided with a structured questionnaire. Fireworks fears were most common (83%) followed by thunderstorms (65%), gunshots (30%) and cars and trucks backfiring (28%). A third study of more than three thousand pets carried out in New Zealand reported that 46% of dogs and cats had a fear of fireworks. Risk factors vary between studies although an increase with age is consistently reported.
More subtle examples include noise from dishwashers, ceiling fans, plastic garbage bags, and home alarms.
Dogs diagnosed with storm phobia can react with anxiety or fear to wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and other associated stimuli, including barometric pressure changes, the “smell of rain,” static electricity, and even time of day. One study published in 2005 by Drechsel and Granger demonstrated a increase of more than 200% in salivary cortisol levels after exposure to simulated sounds of a thunderstorm.
When faced with these stimuli, dogs may hide or stay near the owner, tremble and shake, or drool profusely. In worst-case scenarios, panicked dogs may try to “escape” from crates, rooms, houses, and fences, severely injuring themselves as well as causing extensive damage both inside and outside the home. An inciting cause may exist, such as a very severe storm or lightning strike.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common and devastating behavioral conditions in pet dogs. It has been estimated, for instance, that at least 14% of dogs examined at typical veterinary practices in the United States have signs of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is triggered when dogs become upset because of separation from the people they’re attached to. Escape attempts by dogs with separation anxiety are often extreme and can result in self-injury and household destruction, especially around exit points like windows and doors.
Separation related problem behaviors in dogs is a severe behavioral disorder often resulting in referral to a behaviorist, administration of medication, or even surrender of the dog to a shelter. Estimates of prevalence of separation-related problem behaviors vary between 15% and 18% of the owned dog population
Common problem behaviors reported as separation related are excessive barking or whining, excessive salivation, property destruction and possible concomitant injury to the dog, and improper elimination when the dog is separated from its owner.
Some dogs suffering from separation anxiety become agitated when their guardians prepare to leave. Others seem anxious or depressed prior to their guardians’ departure or when their guardians aren’t present. Some try to prevent their guardians from leaving. Usually, right after a guardian leaves, a dog with separation anxiety will begin barking and displaying other distress behaviors within a short time after being left alone; often within minutes. When the guardian returns home, the dog acts as though it’s been years since he’s seen his guardian.