You are walking in the street and suddenly you see an animal… You start to feel unwell, your breath starts to stop or on the contrary to accelerate, your hands become sweaty… your attention is completely fixed on this animal…
1. What is zoophobia?
Zoophobia is one of the most widespread phobias in the world. It is the fear of animals and/or insects. This fear can be directed towards all animals, in which case we will speak of a general phobia or only towards a specific animal.
The etymological origin of the word zoophobia comes from zoo which means “animal” and phobia which means “fear”.
Among the main phobias found in zoophobia are arachnophobia (fear of spiders), cynophobia (fear of dogs), ailurophobia (fear of cats), ornithophobia (fear of pigeons) and ophiophobia (fear of snakes).
Of course, it is important to distinguish between the fear of really dangerous animals and the fear of animals that becomes inappropriate. Indeed, it is important to remember that it is perfectly normal to be afraid of certain animals, simply because they can be really dangerous for us. Zoophobia is an irrational fear, disproportionate to the situation. This fear will impact the daily life of people who suffer from it.
- So, how do you know if you suffer from a phobia or just a normal fear of animals that seem dangerous?
- Does your fear impact your activities or your daily life?
- Is the intensity of your fear excessively high?
- How do you react to this type of fear?
2. What causes zoophobia?
The phobia of one or more animals almost always develops in childhood and mainly affects children. Around the age of 3, the majority of children develop a fear of certain animals, but this fear gradually disappears. If this fear persists and grows and begins to impact the child, we begin to fall into the category of phobia.
The development of an animal phobia can, like most phobias, develop following a trauma. For example, a child who is bitten by a dog may develop a phobia of the dog. Afterwards, our brain will generalize this event. Thus, this traumatic event will lead the brain to evaluate each dog as being a danger.
As with most phobias, there is also a family and educational component to the development of a phobia. Indeed, if you repeatedly see one of your relatives (especially one of your parents), presenting an important anxiety when they are in contact with animals (because they themselves suffer from this phobia), your brain will assimilate the fact that animals are a danger for your parents and therefore also for you. In this development of phobias through contact with relatives, we also find the educational side. Indeed, protective parents, who will regularly repeat to you to be careful when you approach an animal because it can be dangerous, can participate in the development of your zoophobia.
3. Can animal phobia be cured?
Animal phobia is one of the most easily treated phobias today, notably through CBT. In fact, the first studies on CBT were done on zoophobia and showed a success rate of 80%!
The principle of therapy for zoophobia is equivalent to that used for other phobias.
The therapist will determine with you which situations are the most anxiety-provoking and which are the least anxiety-provoking. For example, is it more anxiety-provoking for you to see a dog through a fence and not tied up or to see a dog tied up in the street?
Then, the therapist will gradually expose you to these situations in order to create what is called a habituation. As you are exposed to these situations, your brain will realize that the situation is not as dangerous as it may think, and that it can feel good, even in situations where we are confronted with what we fear. Of course, these exposures will be gradual. The goal is not to put you in a kennel surrounded by a dozen dogs even though you have a phobia of dogs. But we will help you to approach them gradually.
Progressive exposure can be done in different ways, the therapist can use your mental imagery, making you imagine being in such and such a situation. The therapist can use mental imagery to help you imagine that you are in a certain situation. Then the time will come for real-life exposure, accompanied by your therapist or a reassuring person. There is also another type of progressive exposure, which has been proven to be effective, which is exposure through virtual reality before starting an exposure in reality. The advantage of virtual reality is that the exposures can be much more gentle than in vivo exposures. In addition, the therapist can control what is happening in the environment. Thus, you are aware that you are in your therapist’s office or at home, which can be reassuring, but your brain is fooled. It thinks it is in the situation and starts to create the process of habituation to the different situations. Therefore, during the sessions, the therapist will accompany you in order to teach you to manage your emotions in these situations!
4. I am not the one with zoophobia, my child is!
Whether for adults or children, CBT is a therapy that works in the same way. Your child will be gradually exposed to animals or situations that make him/her anxious. The therapist accompanies him/her in the same way in order to help him/her manage his/her emotions.
Of course, the goal is not to remove all anxiety from contact with animals. The goal is to help your child bring his or her anxiety down to a manageable level that is appropriate for different situations. For example, if your child encounters an aggressive dog that wants to attack him, he will develop protective anxiety. On the other hand, if he comes across a dog that does not suggest any danger, the anxiety will be minimal or even absent.