Thursday, August 29, 2013

Three things I learned: fears and phobias in pets

It looks like a stripe. Nope, its a storm front heading closer at 5am one morning. In the Northern Territory. Where all the best storms are of course! (Above are dark clouds; below is black water; betwixt, the sky has been lit with electricity).
Dr Andrew O’Shea, veterinarian and head of the behaviour service at the University Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Sydney University, gave a presentation last week on understanding and managing fears and phobias in companion animals.

Behaviour is the result of a complex interplay between genetics, previous experiences and the current environment.

Dr O’Shea pointed out that the terms "fear" and "phobia" should not be used interchangeably, as fear is a normal response designed to protect animals from a potentially dangerous situation.

Phobias are still a response to an anticipated threat, but they are abnormal and occur out of context. [Although that’s a hard one for me to wrestle with mentally – for example, what does a thunderstorm phobia look like out of the context of a thunderstorm? My interpretation is that it might be fearful behaviours in response to ran or heavy clouds]. The reactions are excessive (disproportionate to the threat), intense and uncontrollable. He made the interesting point – corroborated by behaviourist Dr Kersti Seksel – that affected animals on occasion know they are behaving irrationally yet cannot control this.

So what is irrational? As Dr O’Shea pointed out, a wolf – when startled – will run about 1 kilometre before turning to look back. If a dog that is frightened of fireworks jumps the fence and runs a kilometre, is that irrational?

Dr O’Shea didn’t agree with the popular hypothesis that rewarding a fearful animal (eg comforting a dog during fireworks) creates a phobia. But he did suggest it doesn’t help the animal to cope.

Fears and phobias can lead to maladaptive behaviours in dogs and cats, although dogs are more likely to be presented for treatment as cats simply tend to hide whilst dogs are more likely to exhibit anxiety, aggression and/or destructive behaviours.
Phobias occur in about 20 per cent of veterinary behaviour practice cases. Common phobias in dogs: loud noises, thunderstorms, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, people, places, or panphobia (fear of everything).

  1. Signs of phobias: signs of fear, hiding, aggression, escape behaviours, vocalisation,  elimination, self trauma, destruction of property.
  2. Prevention of phobias involves avoiding breeding from phobic animals; early best-practice socialisation and habituation.
  3. Treatment involves managing the environment (for example avoiding the stimulus, providing a safe haven or a support person), modifying the behaviour through counter conditioning and training, and medicating the animal. You need to do all three to manage phobic animals.

Desensitisation can be helpful – but it can also backfire in a big way.