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The first I heard of a ThunderShirt was when I was dog-sitting my dog friend Charlie. She’s a border collie-whippet mix and tends to be anxious and nervous. But the day she arrived for her week-long stay she stood in my kitchen and shivered and shook. She was so anxious that it made me anxious and then my anxiety made her anxious! We just stared at each other nervously for several minutes.
I texted Sara and told her Charlie was shivering and seemed scared.
“Oh, I forgot to give you her ThunderShirt!”
I’m not a dog owner, just a very good dog friend, and I’d never heard of the ThunderShirt. I drove over to Sara’s house and found the gray item of clothing. “What the heck is this thing?” I wondered. It was a mysterious, supposedly magical piece of dog clothing, and I was perplexed. How did this work? How did you put it on? I watched a video about how to put it on five times before I got it right.
I finally got Charlie into her ThunderShirt. She seemed better, but I couldn’t be sure. I gave her a lot of hugs, anyway. As one of her co-parents told me later: “It’s Charlie. She’s always nervous. The ThunderShirt could make her 10 times less nervous and she’d still look nervous. But it makes us feel better.”
The ThunderShirt is a pressure wrap for anxious dogs. It’s intended to have a calming effect by approximating the feeling of a hug and is a popular drug-free option for addressing a dog’s anxiety. (See how it worked for this nervous dog.) Dog trainers sometimes recommend them for dogs who suffer from separation anxiety. (For a deep dive on that special case, check out our guide here.)
The ThunderShirt was designed by Phil Blizzard, whose dog Dosi was scared of fireworks and thunderstorms. When a friend suggested to Blizzard that you could swaddle a dog the same way parents swaddle babies, Blizzard had an aha! moment. During the next thunderstorm, he and his wife used an old t-shirt and some duct tape to create a vest to swaddle Dosi. Their invention worked and eventually led to a commercial version of the ThunderShirt made with velcro and a mix of polyester, rayon, and spandex. You wrap it very snugly around your dog’s torso and mid-core and it provides a light, constant pressure.
For human infants, swaddling waddling mimics being back in the womb, with a tight, cocoon of warmth around them. With babies, swaddling helps them sleep better, especially on their backs.
There’s now evidence that swaddling and tight clothing can also reduce anxiety in animals. Working with cows, animal scientist Temple Grandin noted that gentle pressure helped calm the animals before they got vaccinations. She went on to invent the hug machine for humans.
Science Direct had this to report about research on anxiety shirts for dogs: “After 5 uses of the Anxiety Wrap, 89% of owners reported that it was at least partially effective in treating their dogs.”
The bottom line is that, if coupled with the right training and the right introduction to the vest, the anxiety shirt can be very successful with some dogs. Spraying pheromones on the shirt, or combining it with CBD oils or edibles may increase the chance of success with your pup.
The ThunderShirt manual advises an incremental introduction approach to get the best results. In other words, start using the vest well before any fireworks are scheduled or before storm season beings. At first, place the folded ThunderShirt on the ground with a small treat on top, creating a positive association. Then, follow the fitting instructions and give the dog a few minutes in the vest. Repeat this every few days to get them acclimated. Ideally, your dog will get used to the vest and be willing to wear it when the “big moment” comes.
Most dogs suffering from anxiety or nervousness could benefit from a ThunderShirt, says Denise Herman, the founder and head trainer for Empire of the Dog in New York. “It can be anything from generalized anxiety to very specific triggered anxiety,” she says. She reports using a ThunderShirt with her own nervous elderly Chihuahua, who had become afraid of sounds like creaking doors and rattling window blinds.
“I would put the ThunderShirt on her, and at least 50 percent of the time, she kind of did a big exhale and was able to lay down on her side,” Herman says. “She would just chill out.”
Herman cautions that the vest doesn’t work in all situations for all dogs, but says it’s worth trying. She advises checking with your veterinarian before using an anxiety vest on elderly dogs or dogs with heart problems, and to avoid using the vest during extreme heat. (As always when introducing something new to your pet’s routine, especially if your dog has health concerns, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian.)
There’s considerable skepticism about anxiety wraps, but many pet parents will tell you that an anxiety jacket has been a life-changer for their anxious dog.
“Both Ronan and myself are getting a full night’s sleep now during rain, wind, thunder, and lightning storms!” a happy Amazon reviewer writes. “This is the BEST product ever!!!… Again, I wish I could give this product 20 stars, I’m so happy.”
Considering one? The ThunderShirt comes in several models.
This is your basic ThunderShirt. It comes in a charcoal gray and in sizes from XX-Small to XX-Large. No matter what size or shape your dog is, they’ve got you covered.Buy Now on Chewy
The Sport Dog model has reflective logos to make it safer for your dog at night and is made of more breathable and expandable fabric—a good choice for an active dog.Buy Now on Amazon
The Polo Jacket comes in a variety of colors (two tones of blue, pink with gray, orange and camouflage, and maroon and gray). This version, like the Sport style, has a built-in ThunderSpray Patch where you can apply ThunderSpray, a pheromone calming spray. Related products include ThunderWunders calming chews (one formula with melatonin, and another with hemp), a ThunderCap (a cap that covers your dog’s eyes so they aren’t stressed by flashes or other visual stimulation), and a ThunderEase collar.Buy Now on Chewy
What if an anxiety jacket just doesn’t work for your pup? Some dogs don’t take to the ThunderShirt, and some don’t like any kind of clothing at all. Fortunately, there are a few other things you can do to help your dog handle anxiety.
- Distraction: When the anxiety is due to a loud event (thunderstorm or fireworks), create a cocoon of safety and distraction. A crate, a room with a white noise machine, a treat or three, and closed blinds and curtains might help distract them.
- Calming Treats: You can try out CBD treats or oils like NaturVet Hemp Chews, which can help calm nerves. (See our guide to CBD treats here.)
- Scent-based therapy: ThunderWorks makes pheromones dubbed ThunderEase, which comes in sprays, diffusers, and dog collars. (Read our guide to calming collars here.)
- Medicine: Many anxious dog owners report good results using Bach’s Rescue Remedy for Pets, a homeopathic solution. When all else fails, a veterinary prescription for anti-anxiety meds may help.
ThunderShirts can be worn by cats as well. Check out our guide to soothing your cat’s anxiety with a ThunderShirt, and see our other articles about cat anxiety below.
We’ve pulled together some additional articles about pet anxiety and how you can help your pet weather a stressful situation.
- Dog Calming Treats: Do They Really Work?
- What Can I Give My Dog for Anxiety?
- Without His Special Shirt, My Nervous Little Dog Would Never Make Friends
- Why Are Dogs Afraid of Fireworks?
- Dog Calming Pheromones: Do They Really Work?
- How to Keep Dogs Anxiety-Free During Fireworks
Featured Image: Flickr@LauraBernhardt