— While many of us would like to believe our little puppy is fearless, the truth is that there are many things a pet will experience that may frighten it at first as it attempts to understand more.
"Pets can be fearful of all types of things," says Dr. Mark Stickney, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Thunderstorms, fireworks, cars, and even children can all potentially be sources of fear for a pet.”
Pets become scared because they, like all animals, have evolved to recognize threats. An animal’s fear physiology is similar to that of humans with the heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature rising when frightened.
Dogs, bred as pack animals, need to be with their owners when afraid. Cats, being more solitary, hide when scared and may be less destructive.
The critical socialization period -- 8 to 12 weeks of age -- is an important factor in shaping the behavior of both puppies and kittens. During this time, the pet should have its first vaccinations and then exposed to all sources of stimuli including people, things, and sounds.
"If you plan to have the animal accompany you while horseback riding, take it to a place where it can see and smell horses. If you plan to take the animal along during hunting, take it to the field where it can see and hear gunshots," said Stickney.
Crate training is also imperative from the first day the pet comes home. This gives the pet a place to feel safe when you leave the house.
"The crate should always be a safe and happy place. The pet should never be put in these crates to be punished or for any negative experience,” said Stickney.
One way to overcome fear is to expose the pet to the source of its fear and reward them for when they are brave.
“Some dogs experience anxiety and become distressed when they hear keys being picked up. One way to desensitize them is to frequently pick up keys and then sit back at home or leave the house for a minute and then come back. The pet will slowly recognize to ignore these cues,” said Stickney.
A current market trend is tight-fitting pet jackets to aid in behavior. While these may help, they are shown to mostly aid in modifying mild behavior problems.
"The idea is that animals feel safe and secure when they are compressed, just like babies when they are swaddled," said Stickney.
To aid in more severe fears, specialized veterinary behaviorists prescribe a combination of behavioral medication and pharmacological treatments.
“Pharmacologic therapy only serves to help the behavior modification, there is no such thing as a single solution to fix the problem," said Stickney.
"The sooner you address these issues, the better it is because these fears do not go away on their own," said Stickney. "Nothing is easy about rearing a puppy. It's a big responsibility, but there are incredible benefits if you put in the time and effort early on."
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.