What Is Zoophobia?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Zoophobia is a fear of animals. A person with zoophobia may be scared of one type of animal, like snakes or dogs, or they may have a fear of all kinds of animals. The person likely knows that their fear is not rational, but they can't control it. Often, this fear gets worse over time if left unaddressed.

Read on to learn more about zoophobia, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

entrance to a zoo

filo / Getty Images

Zoophobia is just one type of specific phobia, which is a subcategory of anxiety disorder. Zoophobia occurs when a person feels an irrational and intense fear of a mostly unharmful object or situation.

It's estimated that in any given year 9.1% of adults in the United States have a specific phobia, and 12.5% will experience a specific phobia in their lifetime. Zoophobia, or fear of animals, is one of the most common types of specific phobia.

Symptoms

Like other specific phobias, zoophobia can range from mild to severe, depending on how much your daily life is affected by phobia symptoms.

Symptoms of zoophobia are usually brought on by confronting the feared animal. Or, especially in more severe cases, the person may experience constant symptoms if they are preoccupied by trying to avoid the feared animal. This can lead to social isolation, or even a fear of leaving their home, because of worry about encountering the animal.

Symptoms of zoophobia can include:

  • Sense of dread when thinking about situations involving animals
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Hyperventilating
  • Fainting
  • Avoidance and isolation

Specific Phobia Prevalence

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 48.1% of specific phobias lead to mild impairment, 30% moderate impairment, and 21.9% serious impairment.

Diagnosing or Identifying Zoophobia

Researchers believe that specific phobias, including zoophobia, evolve over time from fear to avoidance to diagnosis. A person is usually not diagnosed until their fear and avoidance are significantly impacting their life.

To be diagnosed with a specific phobia, you must meet the criteria set forth in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-5), which is the handbook that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions.

Criteria include:

  • There is marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (animals, or a specific type of animal, for those with zoophobia).
  • The phobic object (animals) almost always immediately produces fear and anxiety.
  • Feelings of fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the phobic object (animal).
  • The phobic object (animal) is either avoided or endured with intense fear and anxiety.
  • The fear, anxiety, and avoidance cause clinically significant distress or impairment in areas of functioning.
  • The fear and anxiety are persistent, usually lasting six months or longer.
  • The fear, anxiety, and avoidance are not better explained by another mental health disorder.

The DSM-5 also includes a subtype of specific phobia according to animal type. This is what people with zoophobia would be diagnosed with.

To reach a diagnosis, a healthcare provider or mental health professional may administer a screening tool, such as the Spider Phobia Questionnaire (SPQ) or the Snake Anxiety Questionnaire (SNAQ), depending on what type of animal you fear. More commonly, though, they will just ask you some questions.

These questions might include:

  • Have you ever had such an unreasonable fear of a certain animal that you tried to avoid it?
  • How long have you had this fear?
  • How do you feel, physically and emotionally, when you encounter this animal?
  • How has the resulting distress of your fear impaired you socially or occupationally?

Causes

There is still a lot that researchers don't know about zoophobia, and other types of specific phobia. Compared to other anxiety disorders, there has not been as much research to date.

Theories into the causes of zoophobia include:

  • Traumatic experiences: A bad experience with an animal, like getting bitten by a cat or dog, might lead to zoophobia in some people.
  • Genetics: Some early research indicates that there could be a genetic component to specific phobias. The Virginia Twin Study, in fact, found that there are genetic risk factors for animal phobias.
  • Observational learning: Observing a parent with a phobia may lead to the child developing the same phobia due to the observational learning model. For example, if your mother was terrified of spiders, then you may learn that behavior and repeat it.

Types of Animal Phobias

A person with zoophobia may be scared of all animals or they may be scared of one type of animal in particular. Some of the most common animal phobias include:

  • Ailurophobia (fear of cats)
  • Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)
  • Batrachophobia (fear of amphibians)
  • Cynophobia (fear of dogs)
  • Equinophobia (fear of horses)
  • Galeophobia (fear of sharks)
  • Herpetophobia (fear of reptiles)
  • Musophobia (fear of mice)
  • Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes)
  • Ornithophobia (fear of birds)

Treatment

Treating zoophobia at its earliest sign is important because it can potentially stop the progression to a severe phobia.

Some treatment options for zoophobia are:

  • Exposure therapy: This is the primary treatment for zoophobia and other specific phobias. It involves graded exposure to the feared stimulus (animals) in a safe, controlled environment with a trained mental health professional. For example, you may start by talking about spiders to looking at pictures of spiders to being in the same room as a spider in a tank to even having a spider crawl on your hand. Your therapist may teach you relaxation, breathing, or other techniques to cope with these situations and unlearn your fear response.
  • Virtual reality exposure: There is also ongoing research into virtual reality exposure therapy for fear of animals. This may be more feasible than having certain animals available during therapy.
  • Prescription medication: Pharmacotherapy (treating a condition with medication) is not usually the treatment of choice for a specific phobia, but there is some evidence that certain medications may work along with exposure therapy for improved results. The main medication studied is D-cycloserine, a type of antibiotic. However, the research on this drug was on other anxiety disorders and not specific phobia.
  • Treat co-occurring mental disorders: Having a specific phobia often means you have other anxiety disorders as well. Seeking treatment for all your conditions can help improve your mental health overall and help you cope with your fear of animals.

It's estimated that only 10%–25% of people with specific phobias seek treatment. This may be because avoiding their feared object (animals, in the case of zoophobia) reduces their anxiety.

However, this avoidance can become limiting over time. For example, you might avoid going over to your friend's house because they have a cat, change your job to avoid working with animals, or even isolate yourself. This is why it's important to talk to your healthcare provider about zoophobia treatment.

Summary

Zoophobia is an intense and irrational fear of animals that may lead to avoidance or difficulty in functioning in daily life. This could be due to a childhood experience, like getting a dog bite, observing and modeling a parent who had a fear of animals, or even genetics. There are effective treatments available for zoophobia, with the primary option being exposure therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Unfortunately, few people with a specific phobia like zoophobia seek treatment because the fear itself can be a barrier. Know that help is available and you don't have to suffer needlessly. If you have a fear of animals that is impacting your daily life, talk to your healthcare provider about diagnosis and treatment options.

Was this page helpful?
10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Specific phobias.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Specific phobia.

  3. Eaton WW, Bienvenu OJ, Miloyan B. Specific phobiasLancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(8):678-686. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30169-X

  4. Alvear A, Disdier S, Cruz R, Jimenez MG. Virtual reality therapy implementation for zoophobia. In: Global Partnerships for Development and Engineering Education: Proceedings of the 15th LACCEI International Multi-Conference for Engineering, Education and Technology,July 19-21, 2017, Boca Raton, FL, United States, 2017, ISBN 978-0-9993443-0-9. Latin American and Caribbean Consortium of Engineering Institutions; 2017:448.

  5. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Washington, DC; 2013. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

  6. Zsido A. The spider and the snake – A psychometric study of two phobias and insights from the Hungarian validationPsychiatry Research. 2017;257:61-66. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.07.024

  7. Singh J, Singh J. Treatment options for specific phobias. Int J Basic Clin Pharmacol. 2016;5(3):593-598. doi:10.18203/2319-2003.ijbcp20161496

  8. Loken EK, Hettema JM, Aggen SH, Kendler KS. The structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for fears and phobiasPsychological Medicine. 2014;44(11):2375-2384. doi:10.1017/S0033291713003012

  9. Botella C, Pérez-Ara MÁ, Bretón-López J, Quero S, García-Palacios A, Baños RM. In vivo versus augmented reality exposure in the treatment of small animal phobia: a randomized controlled trialPLOS ONE. 2016;11(2):e0148237. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148237

  10. Mataix-Cols D, Fernández de la Cruz L, Monzani B, et al. D-cycloserine augmentation of exposure-based cognitive behavior therapy for anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and posttraumatic stress disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant dataJAMA Psychiatry. 2017;74(5):501-510. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.3955