Do you own a nervous dog?

You may be aware of pressure vests, for example the Thundershirt ™, marketed as an aid to relieving anxiety. But do they work? Are they only a nice idea or is there evidence pressure vests work? Let’s take a look.

The Misery of a Nervous Dog on July 4th

An event such as fireworks on July 4th is a trial when you own a scared dog. A fear of loud bangs and flashes can result in barking, shaking, chewing, or even loss of bladder or bowel control. It’s understandable then that owners are keen to save their pet such distress, which is where pressure vests come in.

What is a Pressure Vest?

Pressure vests are also known as anxiety vests (anti-anxiety vest is more accurate!) or pressure wrap. Of these, the best known is the Thunder Shirt ™ brand, sold widely for the alleviation of distress in anxious dogs.

The theory is they work like swaddling a crying baby or hugging a person in distress. The vest or wrap is designed to fit tightly, pressing on the body to give a sense of security and reassurance.

Pressure Vests for People

Interestingly, pressure garments aren’t just made for dogs, there are human versions too. These are made to assist children with autism or ADHD to help calm them in an over-stimulating world. Can we learn anything from the use of pressure vests in people?

One small study monitored six autistic children wearing weighted or pressure vests. Researchers monitored the children’s activity and noise levels, along with heart rate. Disappointingly the vests were found to be of no benefit. However, this was such a small study, and children are not dogs, so we probably shouldn’t read anything into this for our canine companions.

Proof for Pooches and Pressure Vests?

There have been three scientific papers that set about investigating if pressure vests are of real benefit or not to dogs.

Pekkin (2016)

A Finnish study (Pekkin 2016) recruited 28 anxious dogs with firework phobias. Their stress levels were monitored by measuring oxytocin (a happy hormone) levels in their urine, and cortisol (a stress hormone) in their saliva. The dogs’ behavior was also closely monitored.

The study found there was no significant reduction in stress hormone or rise in happy hormone, despite wearing the vest. This indicates the dogs still underwent distress when they heard fireworks.

However, a significant number of dogs showed FEWER signs of distress (such a lip licking) and spent more time lying down, seeming more relaxed.

Whilst no-one can read the mind of a dog, could it be they still felt distressed but were better able to deal with it?

Let’s see if the second study can shed any light on this.

King (2014)

This study used 90 dogs, all diagnosed with anxiety by a veterinarian. Each dog was fitted with heart rate monitor, so this could be monitored remotely. During the test the dogs were also videoed , so that people didn’t influence their actions.

Here we find some good news. When placed in a mildly anxiety inducing situation (being left in a kennel), those dogs wearing a snug-fitting pressure vest had lower heart rates than when they didn’t wear the vest. Interestingly, if the vest was loose fitting this did not happen.

This benefit seemed to be backed up by video footage. It showed the dogs in snug vests spending less time at the kennel door, seeking a way out.

Better still, some of the dogs were taking anti-anxiety medication. When the test was repeated after their medication had been carefully withdrawn, their heart rates still lowered.

Heart rate is an important indicator of stress or distress. Think of your heart pounding in a horror movie or before a bungee jump and you get the idea. If the pressure vest has the ability to calm the pulse rate, this is a positive sign.

Can we find any other evidence that anxiety wraps or pressure vests work?

Cottam (2013)

This study enrolled dogs with thunderstorm phobias. The dropout rate was high, with 32 starting, but only 21 seeing it through to the end. This study used owners observing and scoring their dogs behavior during a thunderstorm.

Analysis of their questionnaires showed a decrease in signs of anxiety in dogs wearing the pressure vest. Two behaviors in particular improved, these being pacing and trembling.

The Take-Home Message

The studies above all had flaws. From showing less signs of stress to a lower heart rate, there does seem to be something about wearing a pressure vest that helps to some degree.

 However, none of the studies showed wearing a pressure vest did harm. Interesting. Because if there’s a chance an anxiety wrap may help your nervous dog cope with fireworks or thunderstorms, it seems there’s nothing to lose.

So whilst an anxiety vest is not a miracle answer, it may make a nervous dog feel a little bit better. To make a big difference probably means adding in lots of small things that help in order to add up to a happier doggo on 4th July.

Some of these options (proven and unproven) include:

  • Herbal remedies such as skullcap and valerian (how effective this may be is a whole different blog post!)
  • Pheromone therapy (such as Adaptil)
  • Environmental measures, such as closing the curtains and putting the TV on low volume to cover the noise
  • De-sensitization by gradual exposure to the scary sound at a low volume
  • How you act. Importantly, not fussing over the dog which accidentally rewards their anxiety and can make it worse.
  • Medication from your vet. Sileo gel is a product licensed to be effective against noise phobia in dogs.

Paws for Thought

Owning an anxious dog has a bigger impact than you might think. Anxiety doesn’t only manifest itself as barking or soiling (bad as these are) but also aggression. When a fearful dog realizes growling makes people back off, they quickly become labelled as ‘aggressive’.

This in no way minimizes the risk these dogs pose, because it’s only a hop and a skip from growling to biting. But sadly, these much-misunderstood dogs may be punished, which only heightens their anxiety making the problem worse not better.

It is beyond the scope of this article to advice about handling unpredictable dogs. My point is that an anxious or nervous dog isn’t just about shaking or trembling, but can have a more far-reaching impact. If your dog has behavioral problems such as this, then speak to your vet about referral to a registered animal behaviorist. This can make a life-changing difference to your distressed pet.

PS. If you live in the UK and want to reduce the misery of fireworks for pets, follow this LINK to support the RSPCAs #BangOutofOrder campaign.