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Mersea Road, Colchester, CO2 8PZ

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Fear Free Pets! : 18th September 2018

Stress is one of the great diseases of our times - like cholera in the 19th century, or the black death in the 14th, stress, anxiety, and needless fear are the plague of the 21st. And it’s not just us - our pets are afflicted as well! We live in a complex and confusing world, and our animals can find it as difficult to navigate as we do. After all, we can at least understand why we need to go to the doctor, or the dentists - we might not like it, but we know there’s a good reason we have to be there.

Our pets, on the other hand, cannot make this jump - and all too often, they find a visit to the vets’ practice petrifying, or traffic terrifying, or fireworks frightening. That’s why we’ve teamed up with Fear Free Pets to try and help. We all feel passionately about helping animals, and we’re proud to say we’re one of the first vets’ in the country to be registered with them!

How can I recognise if my pet is afraid?

Humans have an innate ability to read body language - and in fact, there are some experts who believe we have specifically evolved the ability to read the emotional state of other species as well, especially dogs. However, sometimes we can get confused or misunderstand what we’re seeing, so it’s useful to be able to think it through, not just instinctively “get it” (invaluable though that ability can be). Of course, the exact signals will depend on species…


  • Dogs are a social species, and used to communicating their feelings very clearly to each other - and to people. The signs of fear are usually very clear - although in some situations, other signals may be involved as well.

  • A fearful dog generally tries to look small, harmless or invisible, in the hope that the threat will go away.

  • Typically, they tuck their tails underneath them and crough down so their rump is lower than their shoulders. This is the origin of the saying “his tail between his legs”, and is sometimes known as “cringing”.

  • Fearful dogs will usually evade eye contact - and will often be really blatant about it, actively looking away from you so you can’t accidentally see their eyes and think they’re challenging you.

  • Ears are usually flattened, and they will often yawn or pant.

  • If they cannot evade the threat, then they may, if desperate enough, become aggressive.


  • Cats, on the other hand, are more solitary creatures; they’re also smaller and more vulnerable, so tend not to try and communicate their fear in the same way as dogs. Their responses, therefore, are more about self-preservation than letting other animals know they’re unhappy!

  • Typically, cats respond to frightening situations by trying to escape and hide - they like high places, or dark small crevices where they can hide and feel safer.

  • If this isn’t possible, they may freeze, and hope that the threat goes away. They might lose control of their bladder and bowels as well.

  • If the threat doesn’t go away, however, they’ll often fall back on aggression - hissing, snarling, and then scratching or biting.


  • Unlike cats and dogs, rabbits are prey animals. Their natural response to any threatening situation is to try and warn other rabbits (by thumping their back feet against the ground), and then freeze and hide, hoping the potential predator will miss them.

  • This usually involves crouching down (sometimes called “hunkering down” or “squatting”), and freezing - becoming totally immobile.

  • Occasionally, they will start to pant or grunt, and in some cases will squeal as well.

What can I do about it?

Fundamentally, it’s vital to prevent the “fear escalation cycle” from starting - in other words, recognise when your pet is starting to get nervous, and take action to reassure them, before it becomes worse. How to do this depends to a great extent on the trigger for the fear response - for example, persuading a rabbit to feel comfortable in the presence of a large dog is usually a lot harder than persuading a dog that going to the vets isn’t scary.

For this reason, our vets quite often prescribe medication to fearful pets before coming in to see us. The idea is to take away the anxiety before they get to the scary place, so minimising the trigger risks. Unlike some older drugs, that made the animal unable to respond but still afraid, there are now medications available that reduce the fear and anxiety, without knocking the animal out completely. If you have a fearful pet, please do call us before an appointment and we can help with ideas before travelling to us.

What about long-term management?

In many cases, counter-conditioning can be used - in other words, giving the animal a reward for staying calm in the presence of a frightening stimulus. In others, desensitisation may need to be included (gradual introduction of very mild fear stimuli, getting stronger over time) - this is how the fireworks CDs work, for example.

However, in most case we’d strongly advise you to talk to one of our staff, who are all trained in fear-management. In some cases, it may be necessary to get a referral to a qualified clinical behaviourist to help resolve the most stubborn fears and phobias.

What is “Fear Free”?

Fear Free is an educational company, founded in 2016 to provide education to veterinary staff and pet owners about managing fear in animals. Their mission is to “prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them.” You can read more about them here.

Is your pet afraid? Come in and talk to one of our staff about it and see what we can do to help!

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