Anxiety Wraps for Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRPRyan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Anxiety wraps (vests, shirts, coats) are garments designed to calm anxious dogs. The wraps work under the theory that pressure applied to the dog’s torso causes a calming effect, like swaddling a crying infant or hugging a distressed person. There are several brands of anxiety wraps, including The Original Anxiety Wrap®, ThunderShirt® (pictured right), Mellow Shirt®, Surgi-Snuggly®, and Calm Coat®.

What causes canine anxiety?

Anxiety in dogs can be triggered by a 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. The sound of 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. If they receive a shock from the buildup of static electricity, dogs really become nervous. It is no wonder why so many dogs suffer from “storm phobia.”

What are the results of anxiety?

Dogs have a variety of responses to anxiety. 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 may scale fences or breach the boundaries of electric fences and run away.

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 may calm him down but a quick pat on the head usually gets him more excited.

Are anxiety wraps effective?

While there is little data confirming the efficacy of anxiety wraps, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that they help some dogs. Pet owners often note a decreased anxiety about troubling stimuli when their dog wears a wrap. The dog may appear less agitated, giving the owner the impression that they have found a successful remedy for their pet’s anxiety; however, animal behaviorists warn pet owners about misinterpreting their dog’s calm demeanor. The "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 is important to acclimate the dog to a wrap by putting it on periodically during pleasant times."

It is important to acclimate the dog to a wrap by putting it on periodically during pleasant times. That way, the dog will not always associate the wrap with unpleasant occurrences and will therefore tolerate it better. Continuous wear may diminish effectiveness, so anxiety wraps work best when applied before a stressful event and removed afterward.

Although opinions on the helpfulness of anxiety wraps differ, it is commonly thought that they do not hurt. Just keep in mind that the wrap alone may not relieve a dog’s anxiety. Some dogs need anti-anxiety medication such as fluoxetine (Reconcile® or Prozac®) or clomipramine (Clomicalm®) and/or behavior modification, so consider consulting a veterinarian or animal behaviorist. Often, it takes all three options (anxiety wrap, medication, behavior modification) to help an anxious dog.

What is the best approach?

Handling phobias is difficult for pet owners and for anxious pets. 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. If your dog seeks your company, provide a comfortable surface such as a fleece mat or blanket close to your own seat or allow them to lean on your legs. Some dogs appear to gain comfort when a person quietly puts an arm around them, while other dogs struggle with this type of “restraint”. Of course, you can't be there every time it storms, so you must 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, or give him a favored toy or distraction puzzle (enrichment toy or food maze). Turn on the TV or radio to deflect outside noise. Install a calming pheromone diffuser (Adaptil® is the most common one) in the house in or near this area.
  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 do not overindulge him with hugs and kisses, which will only reinforce his behavior.

For more information, see the handout "Helping Dogs with Severe Phobias During Storms and Fireworks".

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