AVMA 2018: Differentiating Fear and Frustration in Pets

August 1, 2018

Fear and frustration play a huge role when it comes to problem behavior in pets.

Fear and frustration play a huge role when it comes to problem behavior in pets. At the 2018 American Veterinary Medical Association Convention, Daniel Mills, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS, DECAWBM, professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Lincoln, explained why differentiating the 2 emotions is extremely important.

"One of the things which has become increasingly apparent is that we use the word anxiety to describe both an anticipation of a nasty event, which is actually fear, but also anxiety when an animal is in conflict, which is frustration. And that can be quite confusing when you read the literature, because you see these treatment plans for anxiety, and if you don't think it through, it can actually be quite confusing as to what measures you need to use.

For example: With things like fear where the animal is feeling threatened, the treatment plan really needs to focus on sort of desensitizing the animal to the stimulus so that it sees it in a different way or creating a different emotional response. However, in the case of frustration, the animal is losing autonomy, it's losing control over the situation, and actually desensitization programs may be much less effective.

So, for example, if you've got a dog with a bone and somebody goes to take the bone away from the dog, now the dog could respond out of fear because if it's had a history of being physically punished, it's worried about that, but it will certainly also be frustrated because it's losing the resource. Now, if you don't read the situation properly, you see a hand coming toward the dog and you think, 'Oh well, you know, the dog needs to be desensitized to hands because it's feeling threatened by hands that have previously hit it,' when actually if the dog is just frustrated it's about teaching it frustration and tolerance that actually, you know, you can't have everything that you want when you want, but you know if you give things up, good things happen in the longer term.

So, it's quite important to be able to make that distinction. And one of the things I've been talking about at this conference is how you actually make that distinction more effectively."