Kittens and Puppies Petrify Scaredy Cats: For Some, Animal Phobias Debilitate

on December 16 2011 5:41 PM
Puppies
Cute, right? Not so much for people who have animal phobias that include not only spiders, snakes and rats, but also puppies and kittens. Reuters

Lillian Arrick never liked cats growing up. Dogs were fine, but kitties? No thanks. She owned three dogs, but something about cats just rubbed her the wrong way. They used to give me the chills, said Arrick, a retired social worker.

Cats haven't gotten the best of her, though. She mastered her feline phobia to the point where she can visit her son, who has a cat. I don't quake like I used to, Arrick said of her I-ignore-you, you-ignore-me arrangement. (Cats) know instantly if someone doesn't like them, she said.

Arrick does have her limits, exposed during a visit to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla. Little did Arrick know that the place is known for the many polydactyl cats that live on the property. She walked into the museum - saw felines lounging everywhere - and walked right back outside. If I knew there were so many cats I wouldn't have gone there in the first place, she said.

Animal phobias get lumped in with spiders, snakes and rats, but some people are afraid of seemingly harmless puppies, kittens and even stuffed animal-like toys. The phobia makes for such a conundrum that the television network Animal Planet started to air My Extreme Animal Phobia in October. One episode featured a tough-looking man - complete with facial tattoo - who was terrified of pitbulls to the point that he could not properly enjoy regular walks with his wife and children. You really do understand how debilitating that issue is for them, said Charles Foley, the show's head of development.

One in 12 Americans suffers from a specific phobia, including flying, heights and spiders, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, which does not specifically monitor animal phobias. For one in 50 Americans, the specific phobia is classified as severe enough to cause panic, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath.

Animal enthusiasts may find it hard to comprehend that anyone would be afraid of a cute, cuddly puppy, but studies prove that animal phobias are quite real and distinct from other types of phobias. A 2011 study published in NeuroImage distinguished dental phobias from a fear of snakes, characterized by distinct underlying neural systems. The researchers concluded that phobias should be distinguished to better understand them. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that an animal phobia is distinct from social phobia and agoraphobia, an intense form of claustrophobia.

Common animal phobias include fear of dogs (cynophobia), cats (ailurophobia), mice or rats (musophobia), spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia) and bees (apiphobia), said William Sanderson, director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program for Anxiety Disorders at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y. However, most of the time, people who afraid of these creatures never had experience with them. It's not like they were conditioned, he said.

Anyone can have a phobia, but some are more likely than others. Children are more likely than adults and women more than men, Sanderson said. The average age-of-onset for a specific phobia like animals is 7 years old, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Not all animal phobias are created equally. Experts note that it is normal to be afraid of certain animals.

It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for humans to have an evolved response for snakes, said Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University who has done extensive research on the slithering reptiles. There's things out there that can hurt you, he said.

Herzog explores the relationship between animals and humans - anthrozoology -- in his 2010 book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. The relationship between humans and animals, he notes, is complex. Easy for people to give money to save the baby seals but it's really hard to get people to give money to save the giant Chinese salamanders, he said.

Herzog's own children showed an interest in snakes for a long time, thanks to his research and a pet snake, but they gradually developed a fear of the slithering creatures, something their father has found interesting. They never showed any aversion to these snakes, he said.

But not everyone will seek treatment for being afraid of snakes. Not many people seek treatment for that because it doesn't interfere with their lives, said Michael Kahan, a psychiatrist and physician-in-charge of the Phobia Health Center at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.

Cats and dogs, however, are a different story, as they are two of the most common house pets. Plus, bugs are everywhere. One of the most extreme animal phobia cases Sanderson came across was a woman whose fear of bugs forced her to be housebound during warmer months.

Studies suggest that animal phobias are treatable, though experts disagree on appropriate remedies. A 2011 study found that brief exposure to photos of spiders helped reduce fear of a caged tarantula in participants. Studies suggest that even the Internet can help treat phobias. A 2009 study found that exposure treatment via the Internet could possibly help people with spider phobias, and a 2003 study found that exposure therapy and therapy in which the participant imagines the animal were two effective ways of treatment.

One treatment option is exposure therapy, giving the phobic person a gradual exposure to the feared stimuli, Sanderson said. This can include looking at close-up photos of the feared animal, observing the feared animal through a window or cage, and eventually coming into contact with the animal, or at least a close proximity.

Not everyone agrees that such treatments are the right way to treat an animal phobia. Seymour Segnit is the founder and director of Change That's Right Now (CTRN), an organization whose methods to treat an animal phobia are based on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which looks at the structure of an experience. The people at CTRN, Segnit said, have a series of techniques they use to analyze a certain fear, break it down and mess with it. Most of the help is administered via telephone.

We think exposure therapy is cruel and unnecessary punishment, Segnit said. In the best case scenario it's unpleasant.

A phobia, he said, is a mistaken rule that has formed in the brain. For example, he notes that people are not afraid of flying. Rather, they are afraid of crashing. So part of helping someone who is afraid of flying would be to mess up the movie that people have formed in their minds. This could include imagining the fear in an almost whimsical way, such as thinking of a plane crash in the mind as a scratchy, black and white movie while the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plays Sugar Plum Fairy in the background.

It would be similar with a person who has an animal phobia. They are not afraid of the animal per se, but rather are tormented by horrible possibilities that could happen to them should they come in contact with the animal. They don't need the actual live stimulus because it's in your mind anyway, he said.

But experts do agree on one aspect of treatment: the patient has to make an effort to get rid of their animal phobia. Sanderson said that patients must keep up with their therapy and not avoid the feared stimulus. For example, if someone seeking to get rid of a dog phobia sees a dog nearby, they should look at the dog rather than turn away, even though it may make them feel more uncomfortable in the moment.

Segnit notes that phobias can be overcome, but a participant also needs to really want to get rid of their phobia. If you're determined to overcome it then you will, he said. It requires total individual responsibility for the result.

People who have animal phobias are not the only ones who can do something about it. Family members, friends and partners must also participate.

Justine Lee is a veterinarian and an advocate of petiquette. She said it is important that pet owners empathize with people who are not so fond of animals.  

Most dog and cat people often forget that people have animal phobias and usually it's based on something traumatic, Lee said. And in some ways they often judge people with phobias.

She herself will put up her knee when a dog tries to jump on her. She doesn't do it to be mean or cruel or to hurt the animal. She just doesn't want an animal to jump all over her. It's not a behavior that should be tolerated, she said.

Lee recommends that all dogs go through puppy training before regular training, regardless of age. You can teach a dog new tricks, she said. And the whole family must be involved. She does not advocate that families, for example, send a dog away for two weeks and with the idea of getting the dog back trained, because then the dog will just learn to obey their old trainer and not their actual family.

One of the most important things a dog needs to know, she said, is to sit and stay. This can help in preventing a dog from hurting itself, plus it keeps them from jumping onto people who do not want to show them attention, including people with animal phobias. And it's just respectful of that person's space also, she said.

Sanderson has advice for helping others cope with animal phobias, including parents who want to help their child get rid of any animal phobia.

Don't overwhelm them with the stimulus because it could actually make them feel worse, Sanderson said.

In some cases, time could also get a person over their animal phobia. That's what happened to Arrick.

You get older and you get smarter and you get to know that this is ridiculous, she said.

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