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The first time I ever 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 very anxious and nervous on the whole. But the first day she came over for her week-long stay she stood in my teeny tiny kitchen and shivered and shook. She was so anxious and it made me anxious and then my anxiousness 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. The first time I saw this mysterious, supposedly magical piece of dog clothing, I was perplexed. How did this work? How did you put it on? I watched a video about how to put it on about five times before I got it right.
In between, I gave poor, shivering Charlie a lot of hugs.
How ThunderShirts Work
The ThunderShirt is a pressure wrap for anxious dogs 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. Dog trainers sometimes recommend them for dogs suffering from separation anxiety. (For a deep dive on that special case, check out our guide here.) It was invented by Phil Blizzard, whose dog Dosi was scared of fireworks and thunderstorms. When a friend suggested that dogs could be swaddled the same way mothers swaddle babies, he had an a-ha! moment. Using an old t-shirt and some duct tape, they tried out their invention on Dosi during the next storm. It seemed to work.
The ThunderShirt is now made with velcro and a mix of polyester, rayon, and spandex, and is designed to fit very snugly around the dog’s torso and mid-core, to apply light, constant pressure.
The idea is a replication of swaddling for infants. Swaddling is a mimicking of being back in the womb, with a tight, cocoon of warmth around you. With babies, the snug fit swaddling provides helps them sleep better, especially on their back.
Why It Works
It’s not an exact science. There’s some evidence that swaddling and tight clothing can reduce anxiety. Temple Grandin, the famed animal scientist, who is also autistic, worked with livestock and created the “hug machine.” During Grandin’s work with cows, she noted that gentle pressure helped calm them before they got vaccinations.
“When I went out to Arizona to my aunt’s ranch, I watched cattle going in the squeeze chute,” she said in an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos. “It’s a metal stall and it kind of squeezes them up each side. I noticed some of the cattle just kind of relaxed so I tried out the squeeze chute and it calmed down my nerves. You see, there’s a number of kids on the autism spectrum that will seek deep pressure on wide areas of their body and it will calm them down.”
She took that principle and applied it to animals.
According to Wired magazine, which looked into whether or not anxiety shirts worked, “There’s only been one study to date into the use of anxiety shirts to deal with sound phobias, and it had a small sample size of 18 participants. Published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2013, the study compared owner-reported anxiety levels before and after prolonged use of anxiety wraps, and found that 89 percent of dog owners felt the shirts helped.”
The way it works is pretty subjective and seems akin to the placebo effect (after all, you can’t ask your dog friend, “Are you cool?”). But if coupled with the right training and introduction to the vest, it can be very successful. Spraying pheromones on the shirt, or combining it with calming treats, CBD oils or edibles may increase your chances of success.
The ThunderShirt manual advises an incremental introduction approach to get the best results. During an initial fitting and conditioning, done during a normal time (pre-fireworks show, say) offer a small treat placed on a folded ThunderShirt on the ground, creating a positive association. Then, follow the fitting instructions and observe. If you leave it on the dog for a few minutes and do this every so often to get them acclimated, some dogs could develop positive feelings about the vest when the “big moment” comes.
Which Dogs Could Benefit from the ThunderShirt
Technically any dog suffering from anxiety or nervousness could benefit from a ThunderShirt, says Denise Herman, the founder and head trainer for Empire of the Dog based in New York. The name of the product itself is a misnomer, in that it’s not just for dogs scared of thunder or loud noises. It could be used in any manner of ways.
“It can be anything from generalized anxiety to very specific triggered anxiety,” like thunder or loud noises, she says.
According to the American Kennel Club, symptoms of anxiety include “aggression, urinating or defecating in the house, drooling, panting, destructive behavior, depression, excessive barking, pacing, restlessness, repetitive or compulsive behaviors.”
Herman used a ThunderShirt with her own nervous elderly Chihuahua.
“She had developed a pretty extreme physical phobic reaction to wind moving things in the house, like creaking doors, blinds that would rattle a little bit against the window,” Herman says. With the ThunderShirt, “she could just chill out. I would put the ThunderShirt on her, and at least 50% of the time, she kind of did a big exhale and was able to lay down on her side and almost looked like she passed out from exhaustion,” says Herman.
But Herman cautions, it’s “not a ringer.” It doesn’t always work in every single situation and even the same animal may not respond in the same way.
“What I tell people is that it can help a lot,” she says. “It’s not one hundred percent reliable every single time. I had times where it worked more than other times. Anything that’s easy enough to do that can help even 50% of the time is worth doing.”
With a few exceptions, she considers the ThunderShirt a “do no harm”—in other words, the shirt doesn’t cost much and won’t hurt. She does caution to not use the shirt without vet advice on elderly dogs or dogs with heart problems, and it’s best not to use it 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 a trained veterinarian.)
“When my dog was older, she had an enlarged heart and a heart murmur. And I absolutely did not use it on her,” she says.
ThunderShirt Reviews and Best Options
It’s not surprising the notion of anxiety wraps draws skeptics. I, myself, thought, “Oh, a tight-fitting shirt is going to make Charlie calm??? Right.”
But hear it from one very happy customer on Amazon, who started out skeptical and was totally won over: ”ummm….Right? A thundershirt? Give me a break. This is not going to help me. I was so wrong!!!! Both Ronan and myself are getting a full nights sleep now during rain, wind, thunder, and lightening storms!!! 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.
Just your basic ThunderShirt, which comes in a charcoal gray color and fits dogs of all sizes and shapes. See here for a sizing chart.Buy Now on Amazon for $39.95
The Sport Dog model has reflective logos to make it safer for your dog at night and offers slightly more breathable fabric for outside activity.Buy Now on Amazon for $44.95
For the dashing dog who wants to look more fabulous while wearing his “hug.” You can get the Polo jacket which comes in a variety of colors (two tones of blue, pink and gray, orange and camouflage, and maroon and gray). This version, like the Sport style, has a built-in ThunderSpray Patch where you can apply ThunderEase, a pheromone calming spray.Buy Now on Amazon for $44.95
In addition to ThunderEase, ThunderWorks (the umbrella company for ThunderShirt) offers other products such as ThunderWunders calming chews, a ThunderCap (basically a cap that covers your dog’s eyes so they aren’t stressed by visual stimulation), and an assortment of leashes and collars.
What if all forms of an anxiety wrap don’t work? Some dogs just don’t take to the ThunderShirt; others really don’t like any kind of clothing at all, so the ThunderShirt, and products like it, are not for them.
What can you do for an anxious dog?
- 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. One Redditor wrote of their disappointing trial with the ThunderShirt: “She wouldn’t lay down at all, and was panting and whining worse than when she didn’t have it on. It was heartbreaking, and we ended up taking it off and doing what we’ve done for thunderstorms: Putting her in her crate (safe place) in a separate room, with a peanut butter kong, turning up the white noise machine all the way, and waiting it out.”
- 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 in dog collars. (Read our guide to calming collars here.)
- Medicine: Many anxious dog owners report loving Bach’s Rescue Remedy for Pets, a homeopathic solution. When all else fails, a vet RX for anti-anxiety meds may help.
What About Cats?
Do you have a literal scaredy-cat? The folks at ThunderShirt didn’t forget your feline friend. The cat-sized ThunderShirt is said to be effective in more than 80% of cats, and in addition to helping calm during fireworks, 4th of July and other stressful situations, it can help with inappropriate scratching, marking and meowing.Buy Now on Chewy for $39.95
The D.I.Y. ThunderShirt
Of course, you could always make your own using a T-shirt, or even an Ace bandage wrap creatively. Here’s a video with instructions.
If you’re crafty, you can even sew your own if you follow the basic pattern. If all else fails, do like the founder of ThunderShirt—there’s always a towel and some duct tape.
Oh, and Charlie? I did finally manage to get her into a ThunderShirt. She seemed better, but I couldn’t be sure. I gave her a lot of hugs, anyway.
As one of her co-parents says, “It’s Charlie. She’s always nervous. The ThunderShirt could make her 10 times less nervous and she’d still look nervous. It makes us feel better.”
Featured Image: Flickr@LauraBernhardt