Child's Fear of Animals

Archived Q&A and Reviews


3-year-old is terrified of all animals

March 2007

I know that kids often outgrow their fears, but is there anything in particular that people have done to help their children? Our daughter had a bad experience with a cat when she was 10 months. Since then, she's been terrified of all animals. She seems to be getting a little better as she gets older (she's 3) but she still flips out when she sees an animal at someone's house. (She's even scared of turtles.) Ironically we had a dog when she was a baby, which she used to crawl-chase and she still calls it her dog. I know my husband hopes we'll have another dog someday, so he's been trying to teach her about animals and pushing her a little to make friends with the ones she sees. She's made some progress, but still has a long way to go. I'm wondering if we should encourage her to overcome her fear or just let it go. I remember being deathly afraid of dogs when I was little, and a lot of it was just never being exposed to them in a friendly manner. momma of zoophobe

My kids went through an extended phase of being afraid of animals, and we had a dog when the oldest was a baby, too. I'm not sure what the triggering incident was, if there was one, but my kids would squeal in fear if a cat came out onto the sidewalk we were walking on. I grew up in farm country with all manner of small and large animals, so I was dismayed by what silly ''city kids'' I was raising!

So here's what we did. We adopted a cat. I didn't want to get a kitten because they tend to bite and claw, so we adopted a young adult. We specifically chose a cat that was super calm - you know the kind that when you pick him up around the middle just drapes his body rather than tensing up? That kind of cat.

My daughter took about half a day to begin to tolerate him and now she is completely in love, calling him her ''baby,'' and constantly pointing out cats that look ''just like ours, only different.'' (i.e. all cats.)

My son, who is younger, still calls the cat ''stupid,'' but is definitely not afraid of him at all. We've had the cat since around Christmas.

They are no longer afraid of other people's animals, even dogs. I am amazed at how well it has worked.

I once read that children who don't know how to be nice to animals can have empathy problems later in life. I don't know whether this is true but it did make me think that so many families have pets for a good reason. Plus, I wanted a cat and it was a convenient excuse. :) kitty's 'grandma'

I'm sorry I didn't answer this the first time around, but I do want to suggest something: take your child to Tilden's Little Farm and just sit off the side -- let her watch other people interact with the animals, let her watch other kids feeding the cows, petting the donkey, but foremost: let take her time and only observe. You could bring a picnic lunch to eat on the lawn right next to the farm, far enough from the animals that she shouldn't be too scared, but close enough to see them if she wants to look. Make it a fun tea-party or something that she particularly would enjoy. Although she will probably be very tense at first, promise her she won't have to go close if she doesn't want to. Also, you must leave your own tensions behind. Like animals, children sense our tension -- how we hold them a little tighter, get stiffer in our behavior -- when we know they are frightened. The Little Farm's animals are all fenced in, and they are all friendly... so if, after a few of these hands off from a distance visits, your daughter wants to venture a little closer, she can. Just don't push the interaction.

I also have an 80 pound American Bulldog dog who lays down for children and is very, very gentle with them. Although that would probably be too much for your daughter, if you would be interested in meeting us, I'd happily meet you at a neutral park location (not a dog park, and on-leash) where your daughter could meet her (from a distance) and watch her and ask questions if she wants. My dog is professionally trained, a bit frisky b/c she's young, but absolutely adoring of small children. Feel free to email me if you are interested. Again, I think this might be too overwhelming, but I'm offering anyway.

Finally, taking her anywhere where she can watch and observe (gentle) animals, without making any demands on her to participate , you will cause some desensitization to occur. I'd also ask what you've asked in regard to why she is so fearful? Perhaps things she's seen on TV, things other kids have told her, or weird interactions the dog you had when she was small (I say this because I was bitten by a dog when I was 6, and I never told anyone! but I was terrified of collies after that) something might have triggered this phobia.

Good luck. heather


Two-year-old is afraid of all animals

Aug 1999

My 22.5-month-old daughter is a very outgoing and sociable kid. She can recognize most animals and loves to play with stuffed animals or any fake animals. However, she is quite afraid of real animals such as dogs, cats, cows, or even butterflies, seagulls, ants. She does not like any battery/manual operated moving toys any more either. When she sees an animal, she usually does not cry but would say I'm afraid of such such... Mommy hold me... and clings to my legs. I wonder whether this fear is normal, will she grow out of this phase by herself. What can I do to help her other than verbal assurance, making an effort to bring her to see more animals, and encouraging her to touch the animal etc.?

Moving objects, especially when big or loud, can be perceived as a reasonable threat to a small body. Maybe it helps if you allow your child more control over the movement (as explained below), because movement is actually a very fascinating matter at that age. My daughter loved to play endlessly with medium size metal replicas of cars at this age. The little Duplo people fit right in there if you buy convertibles without rooftops. That gives her more control over the speed and direction of the movement than anything battery operated. I don't understand why it is important to you that your daughter touches animals. Observing them from a distance is quite nice for a while until she knows enough about them to anticipate certain behavior from them and expresses the wish to touch them. (Otherwise it's seems equivalent to touching a stranger). How about a trip to the Zoo where animals are not as close as at the Farm in Tilden Park? Keep her at your height when looking at animals. Buy books about animals and draw animals on paper that she can scribble over or erase (like a magna doodle). I just worked with my 28 months old daughter through a big fear of spiders, she suddenly picked up at daycare from somebody else's reaction. (Grrrr!) So I bought the cutest out of the itsy-bitsy spider books (the spider with the friendly smile) and it is a big hit. She also loves to draw really big spiders on her magna doodle and then erase them I think your daughter (like mine) is a very careful person who likes to play it safe and I'm very glad and respectful of that. My daughter does not like to touch horses, goats or cows either, but she enjoys observing me do it.

My daughter is 4 years old and had gone through a sensitive time when she was around 2 years old until about 3.5 years. Dogs and cats would both make her nervous. Dogs in particular would make her panic. I coined my own term for it - Fido-phobia. She also was a bit more sensitive to loud noises (vacuums, car washes, and loud characters in a movie) and frenetic movements of anything and anybody. My impression is that this is very normal for some 2-3 year olds. They are more mobile then and starting to learn more about how big the world is. I never pushed her to interact with any animal unless she wanted to do it. I kept a sharp eye out for dogs and cats when we went walking or to the park. If one walked by, I would emphasize how the owner was keeping the dog away or how the dog was just minding his own business and just walking on by. The entire time I would be saying this, I would calmly pick her up or let her hide behind me. (Smart dogs often want to get far away from a panicky child and will walk right on by.) My daughter just recently decided that she is a big girl and that she likes dogs. I told her never to approach a dog that is off-leash and to wait until a leashed dog's owners let her know if the dog wants to be petted. Fortunately, most dog owners around here are VERY responsible and will let a child know right away how child-friendly their pooch is. They will shorten up the lead on the leash and have their dog sit for a quick petting session. I'm sure your child is going through a very normal phobic stage and she or he will grow out of it.

Each of my children had a similar experience as toddlers. My son was frightened by a low-flying jet at an air show and for at least a year, every time we went outside and a low plane flew over, he went into semi-hysterics. With my daughter, it was the big, loud Harley motorcycle across the street and, even in the house, every time he went by, she started freaking out. With my son's phobia, we just kept reassuring him and it gradually wore off. With my daughter, we did the same but we also introduced her to the motorcycle guy and he cooperated by trying to be a little quieter going by our house so her fears became less and less as time went on. If I were you, I would try to show your child all the emergency buttons and phones in the elevator and have her try to use those in her dream to save herself. I would expect, with time and a lot of reassurance and not making too big a deal of it yourselves, the problem will gradually correct itself but it sure can make life difficult in the meantime. Barbara