Dogs and cats can experience anxiety, fear, and panic. In some instances, this is transient or fleeting (such as fear or panic during a thunderstorm or fireworks). However, some pets may experience more frequent manifestations of anxiety associated with things that they commonly encounter. The list of possible triggers includes:

  • People - babies, children, men, skateboarders, people in uniforms, someone who has a different appearance (someone wearing a "puffy coat" or someone with a mobility issue)
  • Other dogs or cats
  • Separation anxiety
  • Vehicles
  • Noise 
  • Veterinary visits
  • Other animals 

Some pets can also start out with anxiety or fear to a single trigger and then go on to develop fear or panic to other triggers (generalized fear or panic). Fears and phobias can adversely affect an animal's ability to learn or make conscious decisions.

Causes of Phobias and Anxiety

Fear has its root in the brain or nervous system. There is a pathway that can be referred to as the "normal fear system." Some fears are normal due to "aversive" experiences - such as a trip to a veterinarian's office.

Animals with fears or phobias that are "abnormal," such as fear of a feather duster (with no explainable cause), often have some degree of dysregulation of the "normal fear system." These animals may have alterations in the balance of chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, or GABA.

Additional factors that can confound anxiety or fear include:

  • Genetics
  • Poor socialization
  • Restricted environmental experiences
  • Learned aversion - such as that first trip to the veterinarian's office
  • Medical problems

Treating Anxiety and Phobias in Dogs and Cats

A multimodal approach is often necessary to work through an animal's fear or anxiety problem. Working with a trainer, animal behavior consultant, or a veterinary behavior specialist can be helpful. Techniques differ from animal to animal and vary depending on the type of fear or phobia, but may include:

  • Addressing environmental triggers
  • Preventing uncontrolled exposure to triggers
  • Desensitizing / counter-conditioning to triggers
  • Training techniques / behavioral therapy
  • Use of safety tools or harnesses
  • Use of pheromones
  • Psychoactive medications