Do ThunderShirts and Anxiety Vests Work for Dogs with Separation Anxiety?
The use of anxiety shirts, calming wearables and body wraps for dogs with anxiety and other ailments has grown increasingly popular.
- ThunderWorks® claims that their ThunderShirt® has an 80% success in helping relieve a dog’s fear of thunder, fireworks, car travel, separation anxiety and more.
- Tellington TTouch® recommends body wraps to help with mobility, injury recovery, and motion sickness in addition to anxiety relief.
- The brand Calmz® combines pressure therapy with calming music and vibrations in their anxiety relief wearable and says that their system alleviates sensitivity to noise, travel or crowds of people.
There are various brands and styles of wearable anxiety relief, from DIY versions to T-shirts to full body suits — but just how effective are ThunderShirts and other wearables for helping your anxious dog? While these products are making strong claims about their success in helping dogs with anxiety, do clinical studies back up these statements?
What is Deep Pressure and Touch Therapy?
The ThunderShirt, released in 2009, is the most well-known wearable product, but the idea behind using deep pressure or touch therapy on the body to alleviate anxiety and encourage relaxation has been around much longer. Acupressure (a non-invasive – no needles – form of acupuncture) has been used for more than 3000 years in Chinese medicine. Temple Grandin, renowned PhD biologist and Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, was instrumental in introducing deep pressure stimulation to a broader audience with her Squeeze Machine for children and adults with autism. More recently, weighted blankets were the trend for many people looking for relief from insomnia and anxiety.
Deep pressure stimulation is based on the belief that applying consistent pressure to certain parts of the body or the majority of the body deactivates the sympathetic nervous system (the system in charge of your fight or flight reflexes) and helps the parasympathetic nervous system take over, triggering a rest and relaxation response.
What Studies Say
While scientific studies have been previously lacking, there are many anecdotal accounts of how these methods and products have helped with anxiety— which unfortunately is also where many of the manufacturer’s success claims originate. Luckily, more research is being done to determine the effectiveness and extent of touch therapy for conditions such as noise phobia and separation anxiety.
In 2011, the ThunderShirt company (now called ThunderWorks) commissioned a survey of dog owners in the United States which found that 29% of dogs suffered from at least one anxiety or fear issue, with the most common anxiety being noise phobia, such as fear of thunderstorms, fireworks, or the sound of the vacuum cleaner. At the time, separation anxiety came in second with 13% of dogs reported to show symptoms. They then surveyed dog owners who had purchased the ThunderShirt product and asked them to rate the level of improvement of their dog’s anxiety, finding:
- For Owner-Reported Noise Anxiety
- 87% of owners reported that ThunderShirt was helpful in improving behavior during noise events (29% mild improvement, 29% moderate improvement, and 29% excellent improvement).
- No improvement was reported by 14% of surveyed owners.
- For Owner-Reported Separation Anxiety
- 77% of surveyed owners reported the ThunderShirt as being helpful when the dog was left alone (29% mild improvement, 24% moderate improvement, 24% excellent improvement)
- 23% of surveyed owners saw no improvement when trying the ThunderShirt to alleviate their dog’s separation anxiety.
In 2014, Temple Grandin co-authored a scientific study to measure the effect of pressure wraps on separation anxiety and general anxiety in dogs, using the ThunderShirt brand. It found that the pressure wraps significantly lowered the heart rate of anxious dogs but did not find any significant difference in 14 of the 15 observed behavioral symptoms of anxiety (such as pacing, barking, etc.). The only symptom showed any observable change was watchful waiting. Researchers concluded that a pressure wrap is a useful tool for decreasing heart rates of anxious dogs and that it can be used in conjunction with other anxiety treatments, such as behavior modification and medication.
Based on owner reporting in 2011 and the 2014 study results, ThunderShirt and other pressure wraps are shown to be a possibly useful tool in helping relieve symptoms of anxiety but are not proven to be an effective or long-lasting treatment of separation anxiety in particular. The most success is seen in helping dogs feel less anxious about noise, as seen in a clinical study of the Anxiety Wrap and its effectiveness in treating thunderstorm phobia completed in 2012.
Will a Calming Vest Work for Your Dog?
If you’re looking to try a pressure wrap or anxiety shirt to help your dog’s separation anxiety, you might see some improvement in your dog’s behavior when left alone or you might not. Based on ThunderShirt’s own studies, owners reported varying success with the use of their product, and anxiety symptoms were not measured with specific data points, simply relying on owner evaluation.
It has been shown to be effective in lowering heart rate, so if your dog suffers from other medical issues this can be a helpful stress reduction tool — but there has been no proof of actual resolution of separation anxiety. A calming wrap or jacket might not be enough of a relief if a dog suffers from a more severe level of anxiety or fear. However, there is no harm in using a pressure wrap or anxiety shirt on your dog since it has no known harmful side effects.
One thing to keep in mind when exploring calming wearable options for your anxious dog is that they must be wearing it for it to have any possible impact on their anxiety levels. If you forget to put it on your dog before you leave, they will still feel anxious while you’re gone, no matter how many times they’ve worn the calming vest before.
How to Help Your Dog Feel Comfortable Wearing a Calming Vest or Anxiety Jacket
In most cases, you can introduce a calming wearable to your dog easily, with minimal conditioning needed for your dog to feel comfortable wearing something new. If you have a dog that is uncomfortable wearing harnesses or other types of dog clothing, you should take some time to introduce the product in a positive way.
Start slowly, just showing the shirt to your dog and then pairing it with something positive — a treat, a game of tug or a belly rub. The first time you put it on your dog, simply lay it over their body and then take it off, all the while providing them with something they find amazing, like a stuffed Kong®. You can start to increase the amount of time they are wearing the shirt and introduce tighter pressure by adjusting the fit slowly.
Ensure that your dog’s calming shirt is fit properly. You do not want them to chew on, rip or swallow it, as this can cause dangerous gastrointestinal obstructions and expensive trips to the veterinarian.
If you are using a wearable for separation anxiety, avoid making it a trigger for your dog’s anxious behaviors. If you only put it on your dog before you leave, your dog will make the association that the shirt predicts your departure. To prevent this, simply have them wear their calming shirt or wrap at various times when you are not leaving them alone.
Other Treatment Options for Separation Anxiety
If you’ve already tried a calming wearable or wrap and haven’t seen the results you were hoping for or don’t want to rely on a tool long-term, there are other options.
King, C., Buffington, L., Smith, T.J., Grandin, T., The effect of a pressure wrap (ThunderShirt®) on heart rate and behavior in canines diagnosed with anxiety disorder, Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.007.