Animal Phobias - What's Normal and What's Not?

A Fear of Animals Sometimes Requires Treatment

barking dog
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If you're terrified of snakes or even dogs, you're not alone in your animal phobia. It's possible to develop a phobia of anything, including any imaginable type of animal.

However, some animal phobias are much more common than others. Common animal phobias generally fall into a few unofficial categories including predators, "disgusting" animals and superstition-based fears.

Predators

Commonly feared animals that generally fall into the "predator" category include dogs and sharks.

 We can probably blame of fear of predatory animals on evolutionary psychology. The fear of predators was a basic survival skill for our ancient ancestors. Large and powerful animals, or those that were venomous, could easily overpower humans. Without the protections that we currently enjoy, from well-built homes to antivenins, our ancestors competed with predators for food, water and shelter. Even today, it's wise to use caution around unfamiliar animals. But a phobia is a twisting of the normal fear response, turning a healthy reaction into a sense of panic. 

Disgusting Animals

Traditionally, snakes and spiders were lumped in the "predator" category of animal phobias. Research performed at the University of Queensland (Australia) in 2008, however, disputes this notion. Although animals such as tigers and lions are certainly predatory, it's much more common for people to fear snakes, spiders and mice.

According to the Queensland researchers, this may be because we tend to focus on creatures that we perceive as disgusting. Just as we may set a butterfly free but squash a cockroach, we are more likely to fear snakes and spiders than animals that are more traditionally "dangerous."

Superstitious Fears

Snakes may also fall into the category of superstitious fears.

Throughout history, various animals have played a role in superstitions and legends, as well as in religious beliefs. Snakes are heavily featured in lore ranging from the Biblical Garden of Eden to some voodoo practices. Likewise, birds are sometimes seen as an omen of death. Legendary comedienne Lucille Ball was reportedly so afraid of birds that she once had expensive wallpaper removed from her home when she discovered a shadowy bird shape in the pattern. Fears related to superstition and religious beliefs generally focus on what the animal represents rather than the animal itself.

Other Causes

Of course, not all animal phobias fall into the above categories. In many cases, these fears are rooted in early childhood experiences. If you were attacked by a dog or watched a parent scream and run away from spiders, you might be more likely to develop a phobia of these animals. And the negative experience didn't have to happen to you or a close relative. Films such as Arachnophobia or Jaws, scenes in a television show or even the nightly news sometimes contribute to the development of phobias.

Animal Phobias in Children

Fears are a healthy and normal part of growing up. Most children develop short-term, often intense fears that subside on their own. For this reason, phobias are not diagnosed in kids (and adults) until they have persisted for at least six months. If you notice that a younger child is showing an aversion to certain animals, work with her on coping strategies and encourage her to work through her fears. Of course, if the fear is severe or inconsolable, it is always best to check with a pediatrician. Allowing a serious fear to persist could make it more likely for your child to develop a deep-seated phobia. Likewise, resist the urge to force your child to face his fear. Although flooding is a legitimate treatment technique, you run the risk of further reinforcing the fear. The technique should not be used without the guidance of a trained mental health professional.

Coping With Animal Phobias

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition), animal phobias are classified as a subset of "specific phobias." To get a diagnosis of a specific phobia, "the anxiety must be out of proportion to the actual danger or threat in the situation, after taking cultural contextual factors into account." You may not realize you have an animal phobia, but a mental health professional might. 

Although learning the root cause of your phobia is an interesting exercise and may be helpful in your treatment, it's not generally necessary. Animal phobias, like most phobias, typically respond well to a variety of therapeutic techniques.

If your fear is relatively mild, self-help measures such as guided visualization and purposeful breathing may soothe your stress responses. Talking to a supportive friend or relative can also be helpful. If the fear begins to limit your daily activities, however, or if you experience feelings of panic, then it is best to consult with a mental health professional.

Animal phobias are never fun, and untreated fears often worsen over time. With a bit of help and hard work, however, there's no reason for an animal phobia to affect your life.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Publishing. Highlights of Changes from DSM-IV-TR to DSM 5. 2013.

UQ News Online. The University of Queensland. "Researchers unlock snake and spider mystery." March 7, 2008. 

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