Zoophobia is a severe, debilitating fear of animals. Though zoophobia is often linked to one specific animal species (e.g., cats or dogs), it may include multiple or even all types of animals. The onset of zoophobia typically occurs during childhood and follows one into adulthood until intervention.
What Is Zoophobia?
Clinically, zoophobia (fear of animals) is categorized as a specific phobia—a condition within the anxiety disorder family. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “The diagnosis of a specific phobia requires unreasonable fear associated with a specific object or situation, avoidance of the object or situation, persistence of the fear over time, and clinically significant distress or impairment associated with the fear, or avoidance.”1
Phobic reactions tend to present with extreme fear, panic, and psychosomatic responses. Given the severity, a phobic reaction is often debilitating, and one will go to great lengths to avoid experiencing it again. If the reaction is practical (i.e., you avoid bees because you have an allergy, or you’re afraid to walk in the woods alone for fear of being chased down by a pack of wolves), it doesn’t meet the criteria for a phobia.
Lifetime prevalence of specific phobias ranges from 3% – 15% globally with zoophobia being among the most common.1 It may be directed toward one, multiple, or all animals. Like other phobias, it often begins with a traumatic childhood experience (e.g., being bitten by a dog or clawed by a cat). During this time, one is more likely to develop core beliefs that the animal species is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
Note that even for specific phobias stemming from childhood, incidence tends to peak during midlife and old age with 10% – 30% of phobias persisting several years or even decades.1
16 Kinds of Zoophobia
Specific forms of zoophobia are varied; they most commonly include a fear of cats, a fear of dogs, a fear of horses, and a fear of mice.
16 types of zoophobia are:2
- Agrizoophobia: the fear of wild animals
- Ailurophobia: the fear of cats
- Alektorophobia: the fear of chickens
- Arachnophobia: the fear of spiders
- Cynophobia: the fear of dogs
- Entomophobia: the fear of insects
- Equinophobia: the fear of horses
- Helminthophobia/Scoleciphobia: the fear of worms
- Lepidopterophobia: the fear of butterflies
- Mellisophobia/Apiphobia: the fear of bees
- Musophobia: the fear of mice
- Ophidiophobia: the fear of snakes
- Ornithophobia: the fear of birds
- Ostraconophobia: the fear of lobsters
- Randiphobia: the fear of frogs
- Spheksophobia: the fear of wasps
Symptoms of Zoophobia
Phobic reactions may occur while speaking, thinking, or hearing about the animal. They may also occur while seeing it from a safe distance or in pictures and videos. Though these reactions tend to be less severe than when in proximity, they may still prove debilitating.
Symptoms of zoophobia include:
- A persistent, excessive, or unreasonable fear that occurs by the presence or anticipation of a specific animal.
- Exposure to the animal almost always leads to an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a panic attack. In children, anxiety may be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing, or clinging.
- The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or out of proportion to the actual threat posed. In children, this feature may be absent.
- The animal is avoided or else endured with intense anxiety or distress.
- The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress involving the animal interferes significantly with one’s normal routine, work or school functioning, social activities, and/or relationships; there is also marked distress about having the phobia.
- The fear is persistent, typically lasting for at least 6 months.
- Anxiety, panic attacks, or avoidance associated with the specific object or situation are not better accounted for by another diagnosable mental health disorder3
Associated physical symptoms of zoophobia include:
- Freezing up
- Racing thoughts
- Tightness in chest
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Heart palpitations
Can Children Have Zoophobia?
Children, just like adults and adolescents, can have zoophobia. One must consider that at a younger age, most everything is novel. While living a life with continued “first experiences,” there is a level of excitement/natural anxiety present. Accordingly, some fear is normal, especially when it involves a potentially threatening or intimidating animal.
For younger children, this fear may be reduced in the presence of parents or other trusted adults who present as a source of calm during the interaction. But when this doesn’t work and there is an apparent disruption in the child’s life, it may serve as an indication that one is struggling with zoophobia.4,5,6
Symptoms of zoophobia in children are:4,5,6
- Irrational fear of animals, even if not dangerous or threatening
- Avoiding places where the animal may be found
- Anxiety or stress in the presence of or due to the thought of animals
- Shortness of breath
- Clinging to a parent
- Throwing a tantrum, or becoming irritable
Not all symptoms need to be present to indicate zoophobia in children, and they may present differently depending on age. Note that even typical responses will vary from one child to the next. Some fear is normal, but when it becomes debilitating and markedly different from typical behavior, this may be an indication of zoophobia.4,5,6
Here are examples of zoophobia in children and teens based on age:
- Ages 2-5: children at this age may be uneasy approaching animals, particularly those they are unfamiliar with or find threatening. A call for concern may be if children continue to express significant fear around familiar animals (e.g., pets) or others that people tend to generally enjoy.
- Ages 6-12: children at this age are more comfortable approaching unknown animals that pose minimal threat, especially their own pets. Classic zoophobia symptoms may be more readily noticed during this age range, as children between ages 6-12 are better able to control emotions and behaviors than those aged 2-5.
- Ages 13-17: children at this age are often more adventurous and willing to engage with unknown and even perceptively more dangerous animals. Zoophobia symptoms demonstrated at this age are clearly pronounced and grossly out of line with more typical fear responses to animals.
What Causes Fear of Animals?
Zoophobia goes beyond a reasonable, somewhat collective fear (e.g., spiders or snakes), and could develop for a variety of different reasons, including a traumatic experience, overgeneralizing a fear of animals, or a learned behavioral response.
A traumatic experience may include seeing a shark fin while surfing in the ocean. Overgeneralizing a fear of animals could entail running from chihuahuas after having been attacked by a pit-bull. A learned behavioral response may be seeing one’s father scream and run in terror at the sight of a garter snake.
7 Ways to Cope With a Fear of Animals
Although coping with a fear of animals requires time and effort, relief is possible. Getting to this point requires enacting intentional and consistent coping skills rather than avoidance.
Seven ways to overcome zoophobia are:
- Take it one step at a time: rather than aiming to become a zoologist overnight, take it step-by-step. For example, a healthy progression may begin by engaging in conversations about the animal, followed by looking at pictures, holding a replica (e.g., toy, stuffed animal), viewing the animal in real life from a safe distance, physically engaging with a safer version of the species, and finally engaging the ultimate object of one’s fear (if appropriate).
- Educate yourself: knowledge is power, and everything begins with awareness. Educate yourself on zoophobia, coping strategies, and the animal itself. If you are reading this article now, you are off to a great start!
- Try breathing activities: a useful coping skill is breathing. Though seemingly simple, this does require concentration. Ultimately, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which yields the fight-flight-freeze response that allows one to calm down in healthy fashion.
- Limit activities that may bring you into contact with animals you’re afraid of: it may help to intentionally distance yourself from animals you’re afraid of while working through a structured approach to overcome the fear. For those animals that truly are dangerous, go ahead and avoid them at all costs.
- Approach the animal in pairs or groups: alongside a trusted other, approach the animal together or in groups. Deciding whether to pet the animal or not is not as important as just being in proximity and working through the anxiety. This is an excellent opportunity to put coping skills to the test.
- Get a small pet: having a positive experience with a pet can help you begin to trust animals again. If your pet is not harmful, neither are most other animals. If you get your pet from a young age, you also could grow and bond together.
- Speak with a professional: becausespecific phobias are relatively common, many therapists are skilled at treating them. Specific phobias are also curable, which is an incentive to work with a professional.
Treatment Options For Animal Phobia
Treatment for an animal phobia is typically conducted in an outpatient setting with a professional therapist. Common approaches include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and anxiety medication (as appropriate).
Although most professionals can treat specific phobias, someone who specializes in anxiety type disorders may prove ideal. Although treatment varies based on the person and the severity of their condition, typical outpatient sessions take place weekly for one hour and may be attended online or in-person. Use an online therapist directory to find a therapist that specializes in phobias in your area.
CBT explores the maladaptive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors involving the feared animal(s). Client and therapist work together toward not only processing difficult experiences but complete extinction of the problematic thought, emotion, and behavior cycle. The intent is to work toward more appropriate reactions by rationalizing thoughts, enhancing emotional coping skills, and experimenting with more acceptable behavioral responses.
Exposure therapy is a common CBT strategy, but it can be incorporated into other approaches. The goal is to face the animal with reduced or no anxiety.
The in vivo approach takes it one step at a time, building up to the final confrontation. Flooding involves facing the fear immediately.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Virtual reality exposure therapy is a relatively newer, specialized approach; it’s not available at all providers. Given advancements in technology, this experience may feel quite real. One sees, hears, and virtually touches the animal. It’s as close as one can get to a real-life immersive experience with the animal.
Animal-assisted therapy uses animals to assist clients with various physical and mental health complications. In the case of zoophobia, animals are typically household pets like cats or dogs. By working together in a safe space, the counselor may help their client become more comfortable around the kind of animals that are part of many people’s everyday lives.
Anti-anxiety medications may prove necessary for the most extreme or co-occurring conditions. These should only be used with the discretion and guidance of a prescribing mental health provider like a psychiatrist. If medication is prescribed, note that this is used to help curb extreme reactions, but work is still required for a full recovery.
Final Thoughts On Zoophobia
Zoophobia can be difficult to overcome, but there are ways to move forward. Some fear is natural, especially in the face of dangerous animals; however, in most everyday situations, engaging with animals is safe. First, acknowledge the problem. Then consider speaking with trusted others and seek therapy when needed. Although zoophobia may last years or decades, it’s readily treatable.
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