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Can Thundershirts Ease Anxiety for Dogs With Epilepsy?

Updated: Jun 14

Can Thundershirts ease Anxiety for Dogs With Epilepsy?

When it comes to keeping our dogs calm during stressful situations, many of us have heard about Thundershirts. But what exactly are they, how do they work, and how can they help our dogs in times of stress? Let’s delve into the science behind these anxiety-reducing garments and how they can benefit your dog.

Understanding Thundershirts

Thundershirts are snug-fitting vests designed to apply gentle, constant pressure to a dog's body, much like swaddling an infant. This comforting pressure helps to soothe dogs experiencing anxiety, fear, or stress during events such as thunderstorms, fireworks, or separation from their owners.

Thundershirts are known by many names including:

  1. Anxiety Wraps

  2. Calming Vests

  3. Pressure Vests

  4. Comfort Coats

  5. Anti-Anxiety Jackets

  6. Stress Relief Vests

  7. Compression Shirts

  8. Relaxation Wraps

The Ancient Practice of Swaddling

Swaddling, also known historically as "caudling," is the practice of wrapping infants tightly in blankets or cloths to provide a sense of security and warmth. This method has been used for centuries across various cultures to soothe and calm babies, helping them sleep better and cry less. The snug wrapping mimics the comforting pressure felt in the womb, which can help regulate an infant's nervous system.


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Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT) and Its Applications

The principle behind swaddling is a form of Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), which involves applying firm but gentle pressure to the body. DPT has been extensively studied and used in various therapeutic contexts for humans, including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): DPT has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve focus in individuals with ASD.

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): It helps in calming hyperactivity and improving concentration.

  • General Anxiety and Stress: DPT is used to release calming hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins while reducing cortisol, the stress hormone.

From Humans to Dogs: The Connection

Thundershirts leverage the same principles of DPT and swaddling to provide comfort and reduce anxiety in dogs. By applying gentle, consistent pressure, Thundershirts mimic the soothing effects of swaddling, helping to calm dogs during stressful situations.

The Science Behind Thundershirts

The gentle, constant pressure exerted by the Thundershirt is believed to stimulate the release of calming hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, while simultaneously reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol. This physiological response helps dogs feel more secure and relaxed during stressful situations.

The Effectiveness of Pressure Vests in Reducing Anxiety in Dogs

Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of pressure vests like Thundershirts in reducing anxiety-related behaviors and physiological responses in dogs.

  • King et al. (2014) found that dogs diagnosed with anxiety disorders who wore a properly fitted Thundershirt showed significantly less increase in average heart rate compared to control groups when left alone in a kennel. However, there were no statistically significant differences in most behavioral outcomes, except that control group dogs were more likely to orient towards the door.

  • Pekkin et al. (2016) tested the effects of deep pressure vests (around 10-12 mmHg) and light pressure vests (2-3 mmHg) on noise-phobic dogs exposed to loud noises. The deep pressure vest reduced the time dogs spent lying down during the noise interval, which correlated with lower salivary cortisol levels, indicating reduced stress. Both vest types increased the time dogs spent near their owners during noise exposure, suggesting they may facilitate seeking owner support.

  • In an open-label trial by Cottam et al. (2013), 89% of owners reported that the Anxiety Wrap was at least partially effective in treating their dogs' thunderstorm phobia after five uses. The mean thunderstorm anxiety score was 47% lower after using the Anxiety Wrap compared to before.


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Physiological Effects

While the behavioural effects of pressure vests are mixed, some studies have found physiological changes suggesting reduced anxiety:

  • King et al. (2014) reported that dogs wearing a properly fitted Thundershirt had significantly less increase in average heart rate compared to control groups.

  • Pekkin et al. (2016) found that the time spent near the owner while wearing the deep pressure vest during the recovery period correlated positively with urine oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with social bonding and stress reduction, suggesting the vest may facilitate seeking owner support and reduce acute stress reactions.

Limitations and Considerations

It's important to note that many of the positive effects reported in these studies were based on subjective assessments by owners or unblinded observers. Additionally, some studies had small sample sizes or methodological limitations. Pressure vests should not be considered a standalone treatment for severe anxiety disorders in dogs. They may be most effective when used in conjunction with other interventions, such as behavior modification techniques, environmental management, and, in some cases, medication prescribed by a veterinarian. More rigorous, blinded studies with larger sample sizes are needed to fully understand their effectiveness and the underlying mechanisms involved.

Alternatives to Thundershirts

If you don't have access to a Thundershirt, there are a few DIY alternatives you can try:

  • Snug-Fitting T-Shirt: You can use a snug-fitting t-shirt to provide a similar effect. Ensure it's tight enough to apply pressure but not so tight that it restricts breathing or movement.

  • Stretchy Bandage Wrap: Wrapping a stretchy bandage around your dog's torso can also offer some relief. Be careful not to make it too tight, as this can cause discomfort and breathing issues.

However, these alternatives may not provide the same consistent pressure and comfort as a Thundershirt specifically designed for this purpose.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Thundershirts

To determine if a Thundershirt is effective for your dog, observe their behaviour before and after wearing it during a stressful event. Signs that it’s working include reduced panting, trembling, pacing, and whining. Some dogs might even become more relaxed and sleepy while wearing the Thundershirt.

Ideal Situations for Using Thundershirts

Thundershirts can be beneficial in various anxiety-inducing situations for dogs, such as:

  • Thunderstorms and fireworks

  • Separation anxiety when left alone

  • Vet visits or grooming appointments

  • Travel or car rides

  • Introducing new people or animals into the home

Introduce the Thundershirt gradually, pairing it with positive experiences to ensure your dog doesn’t develop a negative association with the garment.

Helping Dogs with Epilepsy

For dogs with epilepsy, Thundershirts can be particularly useful in managing seizure-related anxiety and stress. The consistent pressure provided by the garment can help calm and soothe dogs before, during, and after seizure episodes. By reducing stress levels, Thundershirts might even help decrease the frequency and severity of seizures in some cases.

It’s important to note that Thundershirts should not replace prescribed medication or veterinary treatment for epilepsy. However, they can be a valuable complementary tool in managing the condition and improving the overall well-being of dogs with seizures.

Conclusion: Can Thundershirts ease Anxiety for Dogs With Epilepsy?

Thundershirts offer a simple yet effective way to help dogs cope with anxiety and stress. Whether it’s a thunderstorm, a trip to the vet, or managing epilepsy-related anxiety, these snug-fitting vests can provide much-needed relief. Always consult with your veterinarian for the best approach to managing your dog’s anxiety or epilepsy, and consider integrating a Thundershirt into their care routine.

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