Cynophobia is an intense fear of dogs. The word comes from the Greek words for dog (cyno) and fear (phobia).

For a person with cynophobia, being near a dog can trigger an extreme emotional response, including panic attacks, feelings of dread, and heart palpitations. In some cases, even the possibility of encountering one can lead to these symptoms.

Since more than one-third of households in the United States own at least one dog, the chances of a person with cynophobia encountering a dog are quite high. Such encounters, or the fear of them occurring, may significantly affect the person’s quality of life. However, there are treatment options to help a person manage and lessen their phobia.

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Cynophobia is a specific phobia, a type of phobia that involves an intense fear of a specific object or situation that is usually out of proportion to the danger that the object or situation poses. Specific phobias can severely affect a person’s life.

A person with cynophobia may worry intensely about the possibility of encountering a dog, with these thoughts causing ongoing stress. They may take active steps to avoid dogs, such as staying away from parks and busy areas and not watching TV shows and movies with dogs in them. Some people may find that just talking about dogs begins to make them feel anxious.

When a person with cynophobia encounters a dog or a trigger that relates to dogs, they may experience a variety of symptoms, including:

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. 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. However, they believe that a person can develop a phobia in several ways:

  • Direct learning experiences: A phobia can develop after a traumatic incident, such as a dog biting the person.
  • Observational learning experiences: A person may develop a phobia of dogs if they have grown up with a parent or caregiver who becomes visibly panicked around dogs.
  • Informational learning: A person may read about the number of dog attacks in a year or hear a gruesome story about a dog attack, and this information may trigger a phobia.
  • Genetic factors: 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.

Healthcare professionals may recommend therapy, medications, or a combination of both to help treat cynophobia.

Therapies, such as exposure therapy, are usually the first line of treatment for phobias. Exposure therapy gradually exposes a person to the source of their phobia in a safe environment. In doing so, it aims to help reduce their feelings of anxiety over time. Exposure therapy for a person with cynophobia may consist of these progressive steps:

  1. thinking about interacting with a dog
  2. looking at pictures or videos of dogs
  3. holding a toy dog
  4. watching dogs in person from a distance
  5. getting closer to dogs in person
  6. petting a dog that is on a leash or has a person holding it
  7. petting a dog that is off-leash

Recently, studies have shown that it is possible to deliver exposure therapy effectively through the use of virtual reality (VR) technology. For instance, a 2022 paper showed that VR exposure therapy and augmented reality exposure therapy can be effective in treating specific animal phobias.

However, researchers argue that further studies are necessary and that VR exposure therapy is not as effective as real-life therapy.

A doctor may also suggest cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps a person address, challenge, and control how they respond to the source of their phobia. It aims to help people become better equipped to manage their phobia by helping them reframe their thinking and providing them with coping strategies.

In cases of cynophobia, a CBT therapist may help the person understand how they feel when they see a dog. For example, a person may believe that any dog they see will bite them. The therapist will help the person challenge these thoughts by getting them to recognize that the thoughts themselves are unhelpful, as they are causing and maintaining anxiety around dogs.

A doctor may also recommend medications to help treat panic attacks resulting from the phobia. They might prescribe beta-blockers, which can help alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure.

The process of diagnosing a person with cynophobia will involve a doctor asking about the symptoms, including when they occur and how they affect the individual. The doctor may also ask about the person’s previous experiences with dogs and their family history of phobias.

In some cases, the doctor may refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), which provides diagnostic criteria for specific phobias. These include:

  • Fear of a specific object or situation: In the case of cynophobia, the object causing the fear is dogs.
  • Immediate anxiety response to the object: A person with cynophobia will always, or almost always, experience an immediate anxiety response to dogs.
  • Excessive fear: A person will feel fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the actual danger.
  • Avoidance or distress: A person will actively avoid dogs or endure a situation where dogs are present with extreme distress.
  • Effect on a person’s life: The phobia significantly affects and limits a person’s life.
  • Persistence: A person will usually have experienced the fear for 6 months or longer.
  • Symptoms are not due to another disorder: Another condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), does not better explain the anxiety that the person feels.

After confirming a diagnosis of cynophobia, the doctor may refer the person to a mental health professional for treatment.

Below are the answers to some common questions about cynophobia.

What are the symptoms of cynophobia?

The symptoms of cynophobia may include the following sensations when a person is near a dog:

  • an intense feeling of immediate danger
  • a fear of losing control
  • depersonalization
  • a fear of dying
  • heart palpitations
  • chest discomfort
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling faint or lightheaded
  • nausea
  • trembling

Is cynophobia a mental disorder?

Cynophobia is a type of specific phobia. These phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that the DSM-5-TR lists.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder, affecting almost 30% of adults.

How common is cynophobia?

The prevalence of cynophobia is unknown. However, a 2018 study states that the lifetime prevalence of specific phobia worldwide is 3–15%, with phobias of heights and animals being the most common types.

The American Psychiatric Association states that an estimated 8–12% of adults in the U.S. have a specific phobia.

Cynophobia is an overwhelming fear of dogs that can have several causes. Although this phobia can be life limiting, it is treatable.

A person who suspects that they have cynophobia may benefit from speaking with a doctor or psychotherapist. These professionals can recommend treatment options, if necessary.