Exploring Fear of Animals in Children

Most children and their pets have a close, special bond. Some children, however, are not as comfortable with animals as their peers are.

A certain amount of fear around animals like snakes and spiders is relatively common, even in adults. But how does one recognize the signs of a phobia in a child? What distinguishes it from a normal, healthy fear?

In an article titled “Animal Phobias in Children,” three academics discuss how an extreme fear of animals is developed in children and how experts treat it.

Causes of Animal Phobia

A child may acquire a specific animal phobia from a very negative experience involving an animal. A young boy or girl, for example, could develop a strong fear of dogs after being snapped at by one dog in particular. When confronted by a dog after this unsettling experience, the child will show signs of fear such as rapid breathing, avoidance, and an increased heart rate. He or she may also start trembling, crying, or clinging to a parent or an adult perceived by the child as safe.

While a scary incident such as the one mentioned can have an effect on a child, it will not necessarily lead to a phobia. According to King, the primary contributor to the article, “a traumatic experience is not always reported as a factor in the aetiology of the child’s phobic reaction.”

King and his colleagues list several factors which may contribute to the acquisition of an animal phobia in a child. Modeling and information were named as two potential contributors to extreme animal fear in children.

Modeling is essentially mimicking observed behaviors. Children who see parents or peers reacting to the presence of an animal with disgust or fear will learn by observation to behave in the same manner.

The development of an animal phobia through information occurs when children hear about an animal hurting a human. For example, a young boy or girl watching television may see a news report about a violent, unprovoked animal attack. This can make the child feel frightened or wary of animals because it can spark a fear that any animal may choose to attack.

Treating Animal Phobia

The article provides information about cognitive-behavioral therapy treatments for phobias.

One strategy used to help children overcome an animal phobia is by giving them new information on which to base their opinions. A therapist can work with parents to teach a child with a phobia about how animals can actually help humans. This allows the child to gain a new, less biased understanding of animals.

A therapist can also treat the child by teaching ‘animal handling skills.’ This provides the child with the knowledge of how to properly interact with animals. The child becomes more confident around the feared animal and can avoid unintentionally provoking it.

Phobias are very treatable in children and in adults. Parents of a child with an animal phobia should try to be supportive and learn as much as possible about treatment options.