Facing Fears: Dog and Cat Phobias Are More Common Than You Think

Coping With Phobias

Those with dog or cat phobias go to great lengths to avoid the animal they’re afraid of, which can impact their daily routines, relationships, social life, careers, living situations and self esteem. “People with anxiety disorders build a lifestyle of avoidance,” says Dr. Rego.

The trouble is, phobias are perpetuated by avoidance. Mostly it’s self-initiated avoidance where the person acts in certain ways to help them feel less anxious in the short term. “It’s negative reinforcement,” Dr. Rego explains. “If you remove something that’s aversive, the relief you feel is so rewarding that chances are you’ll do it again and again. But, the more you avoid, the more anticipatory anxiety you feel.”

For children, the avoidance is often parent-initiated. “People find a way to accommodate the fear so the person suffering doesn’t encounter corrective information about the fear,” says Dr. Vasey. It’s hard for parents to watch their child experience fear, so they may help them avoid it. This is more hurtful than helpful, Dr. Vasey warns. “It’s a subtle message to the kid that they don’t think the child can handle the anxiety.”

Sometimes a patient's avoidance tactics can be life-threatening. Dr. Rego shares the story of a patient who had a phobia of cats. “If she was driving and thought she saw a cat, she’d swerve the car to escape. That was very dangerous to her and others.”

Good News for Treatment

Fortunately, phobias are highly treatable. “It’s one of the most straightforward and briefest of treatments,” says Dr. Rego. One of the most common methods of treatment is a form of Cognititive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the process of gradually, systematically exposing the person to the feared stimulus without the option of retreating or getting away.

“Because phobias are maintained by avoidance, you never have the chance to discover that your fear is based upon an exaggeration,” explains Dr. Vasey. “The solution is to find a way for the person to experience that their beliefs are wrong. That involves encountering the thing you fear and maintaining proximity to it to discover the thing is not as dangerous as you thought.”

Dr. Vasey describes the exposure therapy process for someone with a dog phobia as gradual exposure to a variety of different dogs, until the patient feels completely at ease, sometimes even ultimately feeling enthusiasm for dogs. “lt’s amazing to watch it happen,” says Dr. Vasey.

According to the ADAA, other treatment options include anxiety management, relaxation techniques and medications.

Dr. Vasey and Rego agree that with exposure therapy, a patient can be treated in six to eight sessions. “Even as little as two very long sessions,” adds Dr. Rego.

While phobias are relatively easy to treat, it’s not typically the reason people initially seek treatment. Rather, they usually initiate therapy for another type of anxiety disorder, like a panic disorder, and through exploration, the trained professional might discover the phobia.

People suffering from a phobia often keep their fears to themselves, keenly aware of how ridiculous their fear seems to others and frustrated by their inability to overcome it. “It really annoys me,” says Roche. “I’ve tried to logic my way through it, but all the logic in the world doesn’t fix the phobia.”

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