There is nothing more comforting at times of stress than a big, cosy hug. Obviously, for an anxious person, this can be offered easily, but what about for an anxious dog? It’s not uncommon for dogs to be fearful in a variety of situations. And there are many options on the market to help them cope. Since 2009, there has been another option; the ThunderShirt is a wrap-around vest that is designed to lower heart rate and reduce stress. But does it really work?

What is a ThunderShirt? 

A ThunderShirt is a durable but lightweight fabric wrap which is worn by dogs like a harness, with straps under and around the front of the chest which are adjustable with velcro. It should be applied around the dog fairly firmly so it is snug but not restrictive. 

What are they designed to do?

The idea behind the ThunderShirt is that it works on the same principle as swaddling a baby or using a weighted blanket. The pressure applied reduces stress by calming the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response. They can be used in a variety of situations, not just for the thunderstorms after which they are named. The manufacturers claim that the ThunderShirt can be useful for reducing stress associated with vet visits, travelling, loud noises and for separation anxiety, but can also be beneficial during training and to reduce barking. 

Whats the evidence that they work?

The claims are that ThunderShirts will work for 80% of dogs; there are many testimonials on the internet in support of their use. But is there any scientific evidence behind the claims? Well, yes, but under certain conditions. 

One study, in 2014, looked at the effect of a ThunderShirt on heart rate and behaviour in dogs which had a known anxiety disorder. They used three groups of dogs- one wearing the ThunderShirt according to the manufacturer’s guidelines; one wearing the ThunderShirt loosely; and one control group without a ThunderShirt. The dogs were then left alone for 15 minutes whilst the measurements were taken. Those dogs in the group that were wearing a ThunderShirt correctly, ie, tightly, showed less of an increase in heart rate than those in the other two groups. Although there was no difference in the maximum heart rate recorded across any group. They also showed less tongue-flicking and yawning than the other dogs. But the same level of other signs of anxiety such as pacing or panting. 

Another study investigated whether signs of anxiety seen during a thunderstorm could be reduced by allowing the dog to wear a ThunderShirt. Only 18 dogs were included in the research, but 89% of the owners found it to be at least partially effective and reported an improvement in their dog’s behaviour.

Are there any downsides to using a ThunderShirt?

Generally, no, there are no side effects seen with using a ThunderShirt. It is not advised to use them in particularly warm weather for obvious reasons. Care ought to be taken when using them for elderly pets or those with certain health conditions. But otherwise, there is unlikely to be any downside to trying one out. 

Are there any other options for anxious dogs?

Behavioural medicine and anxiety in dogs is a huge topic, one which is beyond the remit of this article. Always speak to your vet for help with canine behaviour. Some suspected behavioural issues could be linked to undiagnosed medical conditions. If these have been ruled out, there are many options available to help our nervous pets. Seeking the aid of a certified animal behaviourist is always recommended as they are skilled in using behavioural modification and training methods to help get to the source of the anxiety and attempt to treat it at its source. There are also various supplements, pheromone therapies and drugs that can be utilised, but it is not a case of one size fits all – trial and error is often needed and a combination of methods used. 

Overall, there is some evidence that the ThunderShirt can help with anxiety in dogs, but the studies are small and few in number. They are easy to use and any results are almost instantaneous. The general thinking is that they may prove at least partially effective in the majority of dogs, and worst, they would just do nothing – in most cases, there is no harm in trying. 

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