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Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear? | Vet Organics

Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear?


We've all heard the warning, "they can smell your fear.” It’s typically said in an attempt to help with training, competitions, or animal phobias. This time of year, most families are in full training mode after having adopted a new puppy or kitty into their home over the holidays. Our puppies and kitties are trying to learn the rules and fit into their new home. And the family is trying to figure out how to communicate with their new fur babies while dealing with any nerves they may have about living with someone they can’t speak plainly to, like the other household members. Check out these articles to learn more about cat communication and dog communication. For delicious, nutritious motivation to help the introductions and training process, reach for premium, all-natural dog and cat treats, EcoTreats.

Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear? | Vet OrganicsStill, the phrase about fear and animals plagues many of us who look for science and reasoning in our furry friend’s behaviors. Would being scared limit our chance of survival on the rare occasion we're being hunted by a lion? Will a dog smell our fear and become nervous themselves? Will a horse lash out when they smell our fear? Can animals really smell our fear? The short answer is yes, but read along to find out more.

To begin, let's point out that there's an issue with saying "smell." It almost suggests that animals have some kind of sixth sense that allows them to sniff out emotions. They don’t have a sixth sense. They do have heightened senses that we don’t have. And they are typically hyper-aware of changes in our body language and behaviors because they depend on being able to read us to catch queues about how they are supposed to behave.

Our emotional states, such as fear, aren't really capable of producing a smell. Not like, say, the smell of our coffee in the morning, freshly cut grass, or a campfire.

Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear? | Vet OrganicsStudies have been conducted to test if there is a scent to fear. The result? While fear may not be picked up by the olfactory sense the same way food particles will register, there is such a thing as pheromones. These chemicals set off the limbic system, a system of networks and nerves in the brain responsible for controlling emotions. They are communicative chemicals that transmit information, such as territory, aggression, and reproduction. However, research has also discovered that animals can understand these molecular transmissions within their own species. As far as we know, a rabbit cannot detect fear in a coyote, fish, or birds, only in other rabbits.

What about the concern that our fur babies can smell our fear? What they are really doing is noticing and interpreting our body language and behaviors. For example, humans generally move with fluidity and confidence. When we reach for something, it isn’t slow or jerky. We reach for an apple, for example, in one fluid motion. A nervous dog may be made more nervous with one fluid motion, but a dog who is experiencing uncertainty and using clues from their human about how to behave will tune into the types of movement they see, and other cues. Changes in breathing, unusual posture, and perspiration are all examples of nonverbal cues we may be providing without even realizing it.

So, when someone says, “they can smell your fear,” what they are really saying is, “they have a heightened sensitivity to chemical changes in your body that may get their attention. They are also sensitive to changes in body language and will react with apprehension, aggression, or fear because they have uncertainty about whether you are acting differently because you are about to hurt them.”

Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear? | Vet OrganicsFor those carrying a great deal of fear or uncertainty about animals, one of the best ways to build a more therapeutic relationship, or to at least become more comfortable around fur babies, is to begin by simply spending calm time around each other. Sit near each other and do something like watch TV or read. If we wouldn’t want the animal to approach us and rub themselves on us, then don’t begin with that type of activity while trying to make friends with a nervous fur baby. Instead, shake hands the way they are accustomed to shaking hands. For example, we can extend a bent finger toward a cat’s face to give them the opportunity to smell us. If they reject the offer, wait and try again later. To shake hands with a dog, we can extend the back of our hand toward the side of their face, just an inch or two from their nose. Let them decide whether to return the handshake. Once calm time spent with each other begins to lead to animal-approved handshakes, we can begin to integrate gentle playtime. Play is one of the best ways to make friends, across many species, including humans, right?

Can Animals Really Smell Your Fear? | Vet OrganicsIn the end, the best thing we can do is put ourselves in our pet’s paws. They have been brought into a new home with new people and new rules. They have the burden of figuring out the rules without a common language and without the opportunity to take breaks when THEY need or want to. As the humans with all the opportunities and the burden of leadership, it’s up to us to learn how to communicate in ways they can understand, put in the time, effort and patience to extend a friendly hand and to grow the relationship with kindness and compassion. By building trust and developing a healthy relationship, we will build an unbreakable bond with our fur babies. Plus, we’ll learn plenty of ways to improve communication with other humans!




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