Anxiety Vests for Dogs

thundershirt_2.0-dogAnxiety wraps are vest-like garments designed to calm anxious dogs. The vests work under the theory that pressure applied to the dog’s torso causes a calming effect similar to swaddling a crying infant or hugging a distressed person. Some brands of anxiety wrap include The Original Anxiety Wrap, ThunderShirt (pictured right), and Calm Coat, for example.

What causes canine anxiety?

Anxiety in dogs can be triggered by a great number of external stimuli. Dogs often fear loud noises (e.g. firecrackers), household visitors, nail trimming, car travel, vacuum cleaners, or separation from their owners.  Fear of thunderstorms is a common cause of canine anxiety because there are many stimuli associated with bad weather.

For starters, a thunderclap is as scary as the bang of a firecracker. In addition, dogs become anxious when they see lightning bolts or hear the constant pounding of rain on the roof. They also detect changes in barometric pressure and the ozone content of the air (a side effect of lightning) that occur during storms. And if they receive a shock from the buildup of static electricity, dogs really become nervous. It’s no wonder why so many dogs suffer from “storm phobia.”

What are the results of anxiety?

When it comes to anxiety, there are just as many responses as there are sources. Anxious dogs may tremble, pant, whine, or bark. Many are restless and pace constantly. Others become destructive and paw the door, windowsill, or floor. Some seek the comfort of their owners while others hide in the closet or bathroom, preferring to be in confined areas. Outside dogs scale fences or breach the boundary of electric fences and bolt.

High anxiety is miserable for dogs and the results can be dangerous. Dogs that break out of the house may get lost or hit by a car. Even inside dogs can be hurt by clawing incessantly, injuring nails and paws.

How do anxiety wraps work?

When worn properly, anxiety wraps distribute pressure over the back and sides of the dog’s chest, serving as a calming “hug.”  Scientifically, gentle pressure releases chemicals called endorphins that promote a sense of well-being. That’s why stroking a dog firmly and slowly calms him down while a quick pat on the head gets him revs him up.

Are anxiety wraps effective?

While there is little data confirming the efficacy of anxiety wraps, there is a lot anecdotal evidence that they do help some dogs. Pet owners often note a decreased anxiety to noxious stimuli when their dog wears a vest. The dog may appear less agitated, giving the owner the impression that they’ve found a successful remedy for their pet’s anxiety; however, animal behaviorists warn pet owners about misinterpreting their dog’s calm demeanor. The “vested” dog may remain uncomfortable and anxious, but stay quiet and still because he feels so inhibited by the wrap that he doesn’t want to move. Behaviorists are concerned that while the dog’s anxiety may be managed, the source of that anxiety is never addressed.

"It’s important to acclimate the dog
to a vest by putting it on
periodically during pleasant times."

It’s important to acclimate the dog to a vest by putting it on periodically during pleasant times. That way the dog won’t always associate the vest with unpleasant occurrences, and will therefore tolerate it better. Continuous wear may diminish the effectiveness, so anxiety wraps work best when applied before a stressful event and removed afterwards. This means weather forecasts play a big role in the success rate of the wraps.

Although opinions on the helpfulness of anxiety vests differ, it is commonly thought that they don’t hurt. Just keep in mind that the vest alone may not relieve a dog’s anxiety. Some dogs need anti-anxiety medication and/or behavior modification, so consulting a veterinarian or animal behaviorist may be in order. Often it takes all three options (anxiety wrap, medication, behavior modification) to help an anxious dog.

What’s the best approach?

Handling phobias is difficult for pet owners AND for the anxious pet. After watching a terrified dog struggle through a thunderstorm, people are willing to try just about anything. Here are some tips to help you help your nervous dog:

  1. Be there. Most dogs panic even more when they are all alone. If your dog is afraid of nail trims, car rides, visitors or fireworks, stay at his side as he endures the stressful event. Talk to him in a soothing voice and pet him. Of course, you can’t be there every time it storms, so you have to be proactive. Watch the weather forecasts and consider doggy day care when bad weather is predicted and you can’t be home.
  2. Create a soothing environment. Designate a private spot in the house where your dog can retreat when visitors arrive. When it storms, place your dog in the most sound-resistant part of the house (an interior room without windows, such as a bathroom or closet).Sit with him if necessary (see #1) or give him a favored toy. Turn on the TV or radio to deflect outside noise. Install a calming pheromone diffuser in the house.
  3. Stay calm. Your dog will respond to your emotional state. If you are frightened or frustrated, keep it to yourself. Be upbeat as you speak to your dog and don’t make a big deal out of the situation.  Your dog will look to you for reassurance, but don’t overindulge him with hugs and kisses which will only reinforce his behavior.

With a little effort, a lot of patience, the advice of veterinary professionals, and a new anxiety wrap, you and your dog may successfully weather the storm.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

© Copyright 2015 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.

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