How do you treat rabbit phobia?

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 21 2010 5:58 PM

How Do You Treat Rabbit Phobia?

With rabbits.

Rabbit. Click image to expand.
Why do bunnies cause debilitating fear in some people?

A German student who claimed her teacher was terrified of rabbits was exonerated in a defamation suit on Tuesday when the judge determined that the teacher did, indeed, have a raging case of leporiphobia. The bizarre story began when a chalk drawing of a bunny caused the teacher to cry and flee her classroom. How do psychologists treat rabbit phobia?

By forcing the patient to confront a bunny head-on. Unlike garden-variety fear, phobic responses include increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Phobics also experience cognitive tunnel vision—an inability to think of anything but escape. Doctors used to gradually expose phobics to the object of their fear over the course of months or years. Recently, however, psychologists have shown that most animal phobias can be overcome in a single, three-hour session. They start by discussing the animal, then display pictures of it. The payoff moment for a leporiphobic comes when the psychologist places her at one end of a long room with a caged rabbit at the other end. The doctor instructs the patient to walk slowly toward the rabbit, and asks her what she's feeling and what she anticipates might occur. When the subject expresses fear that the rabbit will escape and attack, the doctor encourages her to take one more step to see if that happens. The patient doesn't have to embrace the bunny, just get really close to it. The process isn't always pleasant—people sometimes cry, faint, or vomit—but it is effective. More than 90 percent conquer their phobia.

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Eighty percent of Americans report some fear of animals, but only 5.7 percent have a diagnosable phobia. In most cases, animal phobias emerge before age 11, with women overrepresented by 3 to 1. Research suggests that animal phobias can develop in one of three ways: personal trauma, vicarious traumatic experience, and simply hearing that the creature is dangerous. Traumatic experiences are much more likely to cause a phobia if the person has no prior experience with the animal.

The German teacher's dramatic response to a chalk drawing isn't particularly extreme among phobics. In some cases, simply hearing or seeing the animal's name can trigger crying and terror. The mere sight of Steamboat Willie can send muriphobics to the exits.

Research on monkeys suggests that we may be biologically conditioned to fear certain animals. Scientists had no trouble instilling a snake phobia in a population of rhesus monkeys but weren't able to make them afraid of flowers using the same techniques. Snakes, bugs, and rodents are the most feared members of the animal kingdom. (Rabbits were considered rodents until 1912, when taxonomists put them into a separate family along with pikas due to their unique teeth and diet.) Rabbit phobia isn't particularly common, but it's hardly unheard of. In the famous 1920 "Little Albert" experiment, psychologist John B. Watson conditioned a child to fear rabbits. Tennis star Andy Roddick is rumored to have a fear of bunnies.

A phobic's fear isn't always of attack. (Although rabbit attacks apparently have occurred. A hissing, swimming rabbit approached President Jimmy Carter's fishing boat in 1979.) Some phobias have more to do with disgust or revulsion at an animal's perceived germy-ness. In the case of rabbits, this isn't entirely imagined. Bunnies are the best-known source of tularemia, also known as "rabbit fever," a bacterial infection that can be deadly if left untreated.

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Explainer thanks Todd Farchione of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University and Richard W. Seim of Western Michigan University.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.