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So many people love and own dogs in the UK. In fact, 59% of households in the UK owned pets in 2020/2022, which equates to 17 million households, and there are approximately 34 million domestic animals in these 17 million households.
Dogs are the UK’s most popular pets, with 13 million in 34% of UK households in 2022, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA). Statista identified London and the South East as having the lowest percentage of dog ownership with 9% and 21% of households owning a dog respectively, and the North East and Northern Ireland as having the highest percentage of dog ownership, with 36% and 31% of households owning a dog respectively.
However, many people fear dogs; they have a phobia about them. Phobias are a persistent and often irrational fear of an object or situation. The term phobia comes from the Greek Phóbos, meaning “fear” or “panic”. According to the NHS, around 10 million people across the UK suffer from a phobia. ITV’s This Morning phobia experts, the Speakmans, have listed their top ten phobias that they have provided support for, and Cynophobia is at number 9:
1. Emetophobia – 16% of people suffer from emetophobia, a fear of vomiting or seeing others be sick.
2. Claustrophobia – the fear of confined spaces affects 23% of British people.
3. Acrophobia – fear of heights. This is the UK’s most common phobia; 37% of people suffer from it.
4. Arachnophobia – 31% of people have arachnophobia, the fear of spiders.
5. Aerophobia – the fear of flying. This is believed to affect one in ten of the population; however, some studies suggest that the proportion is much higher.
6. Glossophobia – giving a speech is a nightmare for many people; 23% have glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking.
7. Masklaphobia – is a fear of masks, and is surprisingly common, especially among children. However, it is important to note that this fear is often a part of normal childhood development.
8. Globophobia – the fear of balloons is troublesome for 8% of people.
9. Cynophobia – 12% of people have a fear of dogs.
10. Ichthyophobia – whilst many people are afraid of sharks specifically (Galeophobia), a lot of individuals are even afraid of small and seemingly harmless fish (Ichthyophobia).
What is Cynophobia?
Many people are afraid of or at least uncomfortable being around dogs and will take steps to avoid them. Cynophobia is more than being afraid of dogs or not wanting to be around dogs. Cynophobia is a persistent, irrational fear of dogs that causes severe anxiety symptoms. This type of fear interferes with your daily activities.
People with Cynophobia may go out of their way to stay away from dogs, even avoiding going for walks, staying away from visiting places because there is a chance a dog might be in the vicinity, or not visiting people who they know have a dog.
The phobia is not just limited to large dogs perceived as aggressive such as German Shepherds or Rottweilers, as a Cynophobic could be afraid of even the smallest and most inoffensive of dogs such as a Chihuahua, Pug or a miniature Poodle. Even though the person may be well aware that the vast majority of dogs pose no real threat, they may view them as being threatening and fearsome and they feel powerless to control their often all-consuming fear. In some instances, even the sound of a dog barking in the distance is enough to cause apprehension and real fear.
How common is Cynophobia?
Cynophobia, the fear of dogs is an extremely common specific phobia. A specific phobia centres around a particular object, situation, activity or animal; in this case dogs. It often develops during childhood or adolescence and may become less severe as you get older.
The Dogs Trust claims over a third of children are scared of the nation’s favourite pet. It is not clear whether these are included in the 12% of the UK population who are thought to suffer from Cynophobia. For many children, being afraid of dogs may never develop into a phobia as they perhaps get used to being around dogs and realise that the dog does not pose a danger to them. However, 12% of the population equates to many millions of people in the UK who are Cynophobic.
Who is at risk of Cynophobia?
Phobias such as Cynophobia can happen in early childhood, but they are often first seen between the ages of 15 years and 20 years. They affect both men and women equally, but men are more likely to seek treatment for phobias. Other risk factors include having a parent, sibling or child with a phobia such as Cynophobia, or going through a stressful event, such as a trauma or illness.
The environment and stressors may also play a role in making someone more at risk of developing Cynophobia. Experiencing long-term stress could also instigate feelings of depression and anxiety and diminish your ability to cope with specific situations. This, in turn, could make you feel more anxious in certain situations, which could over a lengthier period, contribute to the development of a specific phobia such as Cynophobia.
What are the symptoms of Cynophobia?
A person doesn’t have to be in the presence of a dog to experience the symptoms of Cynophobia, often just thinking about dogs, or seeing dogs on TV or in pictures or even hearing a distant dog bark can trigger an anxiety attack. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to:
- Chest pain or palpitations.
- Feeling of choking.
- Heart racing or pounding.
- Hot or cold flushes.
- Numbness or tingling sensation.
- Sense of “impending doom”.
- Shortness of breath.
- Stomach pain or knots in the stomach.
Emotional symptoms might include:
- Detached feeling from self.
- Feeling powerless over your fear.
- Feeling you may pass out or die.
- Intense need to escape situations that trigger fear.
- Loss of control.
- Panic or anxiety attacks.
When a child is exposed to the thing that they fear such as seeing or hearing a dog they may:
- Cling to an adult.
- Freeze and be unable to move or follow parental requests.
- Have a tantrum.
- Jump around hysterically.
A fear of dogs can affect a person’s life in a whole host of different ways. Many of the things that most of us take for granted such as visiting friends and family, holidaying, going for a walk in the park, visiting pub gardens, or even walking down the road can become real ordeals if there is, or might be, a dog somewhere in the picture.
Cynophobia can affect a person’s career and ability to work; for example, nurses, care workers, postal workers, delivery drivers and social workers can even be prevented from doing their job because of this irrational fear, because visiting people’s homes in the line of their work may bring them into contact with dogs.
A specific phobia such as Cynophobia can also result in other mental health complications including, but not limited to:
- Substance abuse as a form of self-medication.
- Thoughts of suicide.
- Increased risk of suicide attempts.
- Social withdrawal or isolation.
What causes Cynophobia?
A person experiences fear when they believe themselves to be in a potentially threatening situation. The body uses this mechanism to prime a person to deal with danger and is there to help keep them safe; this is known as fight or flight. However, this fear response may become too exaggerated or happen at times when it does not need to, causing a phobia. Researchers are not entirely sure what causes this inappropriate fear response that leads to specific phobias such as Cynophobia; however, they agree that a person can develop a phobia in several ways:
- Fear can be learned from others – a child whose parents react with fear and anxiety to dogs is also likely to respond to dogs with fear.
- Cynophobia often develops at a young age and is sometimes, but not always, the result of a traumatic encounter with a dog such as a bite. More often though, the fear originated because of a less traumatic direct contact with a dog that frightened or shocked the person, and so they became conditioned with the fear of all dogs. Usually, such an experience has taken place at some time in childhood, though in a minority of cases it may have occurred when the person was considerably older.
- A person may develop the fear through informational learning – they may read about the number of dog attacks in a year or hear a gruesome story about a dog attack on the TV, and this information may trigger a phobia.
- Sometimes the actual origin of the fear of dogs has been forgotten by the conscious mind and the dog phobic person feels as if it is a fear that they have had forever.
- Research shows that genetic factors, such as a family history of mental health conditions, may determine how likely a person is to develop a specific phobia.
What triggers Cynophobia?
Cynophobia can be triggered by being around, seeing or even thinking about dogs. Sometimes, the fear will involve all dogs, and other times the fear may be more limited to a specific breed, size or characteristic of a dog. For some people with Cynophobia, even talking about dogs can cause them to feel anxious, fearful or overwhelmed. It might develop if a dog has attacked you or someone that you know or, in some cases, there is no specific incident that pinpoints the start of the phobia.
Issues created by irresponsible dog owners are increasing, including noise nuisance, anti-social behaviour, strays and biting incidents. Irresponsible dog ownership that has become a daily nuisance for many can quickly produce a deep sense of fear at the heart of a community and can trigger Cynophobia in some people.
Cynophobia can be triggered in young children by the shock of a dog jumping up at them, or a dog barking loudly, particularly if the child has had no experience of being around dogs. It can also be triggered by the parent’s reaction to the incident.
As dogs can be found in almost any public space, it can make a fear of dogs particularly distressing and debilitating for sufferers.
How is Cynophobia diagnosed?
Phobias are not always formally diagnosed. Most people with Cynophobia are usually fully aware of the problem. However, not everyone who appears frightened, uncomfortable or fearful around dogs will have Cynophobia. Only professionals can provide a specific diagnosis after notable symptoms persist for six months or longer. Each type of phobia has its own unique set of diagnostic criteria. When diagnosing a phobia, mental health professionals must use clinical skills and judgement alongside the written list of diagnostic criteria found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 5th Edition).
One of the first steps that a health professional will take in diagnosing a phobia is deciding whether the symptoms are better explained by another disorder. Phobias such as Cynophobia can be traced to specific, concrete fears that adults often recognise as irrational.
Diagnostic criteria that are similar to all phobias include:
- It is life-limiting – a phobia is not diagnosed unless it significantly impacts the sufferer’s life in some way.
- Avoidance – some people with clinically diagnosable phobias are able to endure the feared situation or object. However, attempts to avoid the feared situation are an important criterion for diagnosing a phobia.
- Anticipatory anxiety – people with phobias tend to fixate on upcoming events that may feature the feared object or situation.
People with specific phobias such as Cynophobia, often have other anxiety disorders as well, making it difficult to accurately pinpoint the diagnosis.
If you suspect that you may have Cynophobia, talk to your GP who will be able to discuss treatment options with you. Alternatively, you can refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) without a referral from a GP.
If you are concerned about a family member or friend who may be suffering from Cynophobia, encourage them to make an appointment with their GP or to refer themselves to an NHS IAPT.
A mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychotherapist can diagnose you and get you started on a treatment programme. Psychotherapy, mindfulness and medications can be useful and effective treatments to help you overcome a phobia.
How is Cynophobia treated?
Fear of dogs, like most other phobias, is a learned behavioural response, and learned behaviours can be unlearned. There are several types of treatments available on the NHS for Cynophobia, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation and mindfulness techniques, and medication.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a type of psychotherapy. The main focus of cognitive behavioural therapy is to help you to identify faulty thought patterns and for you to learn how to change your behaviours. For example, your therapist can help you face your irrational fear of dogs and teach you ways to cope with your anxiety symptoms. CBT might include exposure therapy; that is, gradual exposure to the thing a person fears until the anxiety response goes away. This type of treatment begins with exposure to the least-threatening stimulus first and doesn’t progress until you can be with that stimulus without experiencing anxiety. For example, you might begin with talking about dogs, then progress to looking at pictures of dogs, seeing dogs from a distance, then eventually touching a dog.
Medication isn’t usually recommended for treating phobias, because talking therapies are usually effective and don’t have any side effects. However, medication may sometimes be prescribed to treat the effects of phobias, such as anxiety. Antidepressants are often prescribed to help reduce anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are most often prescribed to treat anxiety, social phobia or panic disorder.
These can include:
- Escitalopram (Cipralex).
- Sertraline (Lustral).
- Paroxetine (Seroxat).
There are, however, common side effects of these medications and these might include:
- Sleep problems (insomnia).
- Upset stomach.
They may also initially make your anxiety worse, and can cause sexual problems.
Clomipramine (Anafranil) is a type of tricyclic antidepressant (TCA) that is licensed to treat some phobias. However, the side effects of this medication can include:
- Blurred vision.
- Difficulty urinating.
- Dry mouth.
- Heart palpitations.
- Tremors (shaking).
Benzodiazepines are a group of medicines that are categorised as minor tranquillisers. They include medicines such as diazepam (Valium) and are sometimes used on a short-term basis at the lowest possible dose to treat severe anxiety.
Beta-blockers are often used to treat cardiovascular conditions, such as heart problems and high blood pressure (hypertension). They are also sometimes prescribed to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, such as heart palpitations. Beta-blockers slow down your heart rate and decrease your blood pressure. Propranolol (Inderal) is a beta-blocker that is commonly used to treat anxiety.
However, there are possible side effects and these include:
- Cold fingers.
- Sleep problems.
- Stomach problems.
Another treatment for Cynophobia is hypnotherapy; however, this is not available on the NHS and sessions can cost between £75 and £200.
How to deal with Cynophobia
Dogs are the most popular pets in the world, so there are a lot of dogs around; as a result it is very difficult to avoid dogs. Dogs are also featured in films, TV shows and frequently pop up in social media posts, so being able to deal with the phobia will lead to a better quality of life with a lot less unnecessary stress. Spending your life avoiding parks and walking outside will not only be bad for your physical health but also your mental health, and if you have children, you could pass this debilitating fear on to them.
Phobias are based on irrational, persistent thoughts that distract you from what is going on around you. Distraction and grounding techniques are a helpful strategy to use when you are faced with a situation involving dogs, or in fact any phobia. Grounding basically means to bring your focus to what is happening to you physically, either in your body or in your surroundings, instead of being trapped by the thoughts in your mind that are causing you to feel anxious. These techniques can help bring your mind back to the present and reduce your anxiety symptoms caused by your irrational fear of dogs. They use your five senses or tangible objects – that is, things that you can touch – to help you move through your distress.
Here are some examples of grounding and distraction techniques that you can try:
- Breathing deeply – slowly inhale, then exhale. If it helps, you can say or think “in” and “out” with each breath. Feel each breath filling your lungs and note how it feels to push it back out..
- Distract yourself – there are several ways to distract your mind so that it stops thinking about your fear of dogs that is worrying you and focuses on something that isn’t emotionally driven. Count backwards by 7, starting at 100. It isn’t that easy and needs you to concentrate. Another way is to try and think of a first name for every letter of the alphabet and say each name out loud; some letters will be more difficult than others. These mind games can also be helpful to do when you are finding it hard to sleep. .
- The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique – sit comfortably, close your eyes and take a couple of deep breathes, in through your nose (count to 3), out through your mouth (to the count of 3).
Now open your eyes and look around you and name out loud:
– Five things that you can see, either in the room or out of the window, or anywhere around you if you are outside.
– Four things that you can feel such as the texture of the material on your chair or your clothing. What does your hair feel like? What is in front of you that you can touch?
– Three things that you can hear, for example traffic noise or birds outside. When you are quiet and actually listening, things in your room are constantly making a noise but typically we don’t hear them.
– Two things that you can smell – hopefully these are pleasant smells.
– One thing that you can taste – when doing this grounding technique, it is useful to have something to taste at hand such as fruit or a sweet or savoury snack. When you taste whatever it is that you have chosen, take a small bite and let it swill around your mouth for a couple of seconds, really savouring the flavour. Take a deep breath to end.
- Move your body – do a few exercises or stretches, put on some music and dance. Try jogging on the spot. Pay attention to how your body feels with each movement and when your hands or feet touch the floor or move through the air.
- Visualise – think of your favourite place. This might be a holiday beach, a garden, your home, a restaurant; wherever it is, using each of your senses, imagine the noises you hear, the objects you see, and the scents you can smell. Try to recall the last time you went there. Think about what you did there and how it felt at the time.
Making simple lifestyle changes may help reduce the symptoms of Cynophobia, such as panic attacks.
These could include:
- Taking regular exercise.
- Eating regular, healthy meals.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Reducing or avoiding caffeine and other stimulants.
If a family member or friend is suffering from Cynophobia, take their phobia seriously. You may not understand it and you may not even understand how someone could have a fear of dogs; however, remember that the phobia is very real to them. Let them know that their feelings are valid.
You may be tempted to encourage the person to face their fears; however, this can be harmful, as to pressure someone to do something they are not comfortable with can intensify anxiety. Facing the fear can be a useful technique to overcoming Cynophobia, but it is probably better left to the professionals. You can help them with distraction and grounding techniques such as those described above when they are exposed to their Cynophobia and experiencing anxiety.
In whatever way that Cynophobia is affecting you, and however much or little it affects your daily life, you do not have to live with it. Know that there are people who can help you. With the right support in place, you can feel better and learn to better manage your fears or to overcome them completely.
Some advice and support contacts that can help with Cynophobia include:
- Anxiety UK Helpline: 03444 775 774 Text support service: 07537 416905.
- MIND 03444 775 774 (helpline) 07537 416 905 (text).
- British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
- No More Panic chatroom.
- No Panic Helpline 0300 772 9844 Youth Helpline 0330 606 1174.
- Triumph Over Phobia (TOP UK) Telephone 01225 571740.