Puppies and kittens undergo an intense period of socialization when they are between three and twelve to sixteen weeks of age. During this phase of their lives, youngsters need to be exposed to a wide variety of people (e.g., young, old, men, women, different races, people wearing different types of clothes, etc.) and experiences (e.g., vacuum cleaners, cars, other animals, etc.) to prevent the pets from acting in a fearful manner towards them in the future.
In many cases, adult dogs and cats that display an unreasonable fear towards certain types of people or situations were not exposed to similar experiences during their socialization period. Oftentimes, people misinterpret this behavior as meaning that their pets were abused in the past.
It is far easier to prevent the problems of inadequate socialization than it is to treat them once they have developed. Owners of puppies and kittens must make a concerted effort to expose their pets to all of the situations that they may need to deal with as adults. Make sure that these encounters are pleasant by offering treats, toys, and lots of praise if the animal begins to look anxious. Treating fearful behaviors in adults follows the same rules that are mentioned above, but requires a lot of patience and persistence on the part of the pet "parent." In difficult cases, anti-anxiety medications and consulting with a veterinarian who specialized in behavior problems can be very helpful.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008