Anxiety is too often an insidious side effect of our turbo-charged worlds and fast-paced personal lives. However, people aren’t the only ones who experience this feeling associated with fear, nervousness and unease.
According to PetMD, anxiety is the anticipation of future dangers from unknown or imagined origins that result in bodily reactions, known as physiologic reactions, associated with fear. Studies show that more than 30 percent of dogs in the U.S. suffer from some form of anxiety.
The causes of anxiety vary and can include summer storms, Fourth of July fireworks or even just being left alone. Regardless of the origins, the results can manifest themselves in easily visible ways in pets.
A study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in December 2016 demonstrated that anxiety was associated with premature muzzle grayness in dogs between 1 and 4 years of age. Four hundred dogs were studied, and not only did it find that fear of noise, unfamiliar animals and people were significant for premature graying, but female dogs were more likely to present premature muzzle graying than male dogs.
“Essentially, the results indicate that for each standard deviation increase in the measured trait, either anxiety or impulsiveness, the odds of being in a higher rating category of muzzle grayness increase 40 to 60 percent,” Thomas Smith, one of the co-authors of the study, told CNN in December 2016.
Veterinarians and animal behaviorists say canine pet anxiety falls into three categories: noise anxiety, separation anxiety and social anxiety. And while there are no official numbers for how many pets are affected by anxiety, the estimates are high, according to Phil Blizzard, founder of ThunderWorks.
Blizzard created his company in 2009 to provide innovative solutions for some of the most common challenges faced by pet owners. He shared his company’s research during an information seminar on pet anxiety that was hosted by Pet Age in October.
“We’ve done some extensive surveys [starting in 2011] of well over 3,500 dogs and cats and their pet owners,” said Blizzard, speaking to an audience of retailers and distributors. “It’s easily over 30 percent for dogs and 25 percent for cats, excluding noise and vet visits. For noise anxiety, if you talk to a lot of the experts out there, the belief is that probably every dog and cat out there has a fear response to thunder and fireworks, it’s just at what level does it register.”
Dogs that suffer from anxiety display a host of symptoms, such as barking, pacing, panting, trembling, excessive licking, hiding, climbing onto the pet owner or trying to escape via doors or windows. They also may exhibit destructive or aggressive behaviors in the home or around people.
Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety may incessantly bark, destroy property or injure themselves when left alone in the house. Dogs that suffer from social anxiety, which can occur when the pets do not receive early socialization, may become fearful of people and their surroundings, resulting in aggressive behaviors. Dogs often interpret loud noises as a danger or threat and react in a certain way, no matter how often they have been exposed to the noise.
“Unhappy pets make unhappy humans in a lot of different ways,” Blizzard explained. “Our survey showed that there was about $250 million in property damage every year caused by anxiety problems.”
Dogs that experience anxiety may display their stress in very different ways. Some symptoms, like panting, trembling or tail tucking, are subtle and can be missed or dismissed easily because they are normal in other circumstances. Other more noticeable symptoms include aggression or excessive barking.
Pet owners may mistake such symptoms as their pet acting out due to boredom or other behavioral issues. However, if these symptoms occur in common situations, including a thunderstorm or when pet owners leave the house, it could be an indication that the pet is responding to feelings of anxiousness or stress.
Some of the less obvious symptoms of anxiety manifest as a slight change in behavior. The following symptoms occasionally go unnoticed by pet owners because they are not disruptive.
Extreme Licking/Chewing: Anxious dogs may compulsively lick or chew at their fur.
Hiding/Seeking Solitude: Some dogs want to be alone when they experience anxiety. They may hide out of fear or move away from people and other pets.
Seeking Comfort: Anxious dogs might seek more attention or affection. They may jump into the lap of a pet owner or require more attention.
Trembling/Panting: Dogs that tremble, pant or act generally nervous may be experiencing anxiety. While panting after exercise is normal, panting during a loud fireworks display is often a sign of anxiety. There are additional symptoms of anxiety that are difficult to miss. Depending on the cause of the anxiety, the following behaviors may only appear when the pets are triggered by their phobia.
Aggression: Anxious dogs can become suddenly aggressive, even to their pet owners. Anxious dogs may suddenly snap, growl or show other signs of aggression.
Attempting to Escape: Dogs that feel trapped or enclosed may start digging or running. Enclosing a dog in a crate may worsen its anxiety in this situation.
Destruction: A common symptom of anxiety is destructive behavior, often damaging furniture or other household objects that a pet normally does not chew, scratch or shred.
Excessive Energy: Anxious dogs can display a surge in energy and appear hyperactive.
Excretion: Dogs that are housetrained may urinate or defecate indoors when they are under duress. Uncontrolled
Barking/Howling: One of the most obvious signs of anxiety is excessive noise. If a pet starts to bark because of a loud noise or interruption and cannot be easily calmed, even after the disruption ends, it might be feeling anxiety.
Dogs that experience a variety of symptoms might also start to experience panic attacks, which can last from minutes to hours, potentially involving one or more of the previous symptoms. While such symptoms as excessive energy and destruction of objects can result in self-injury, the mental and physical stress that pets can endure while suffering from anxiety is also taxing and should not go untreated.
Pet owners need to act appropriately when pets are suffering from anxiety. It’s important that a pet is not punished or scolded when it’s having an attack.
Treating anxious pets can be challenging, but veterinarians and animal behaviorists indicate there are certain things pet owners can do to help. The best place to start is to get a diagnosis. Not all destructive behaviors have an anxiety-based cause. Destructive behaviors can be a sign of boredom.
Pets require exercise. The more exercise an animal gets, the less likely it will exhibit destructive behaviors common with separation anxiety. Dog owners should go for long walks with their pet and play games with them to build confidence.
Stressed dogs often lack appropriate mental stimulation, so an increase in training is another option. That can enable a dog’s body to be busy while its mind is relaxed.
Consider homeopathic, herbal and nutritional supplements. Consult a holistic veterinarian for dosage and product recommendations.
Similar to swaddling, applying a gentle pressure to a dog or cat torso is another option, and Debbie Spier, owner of Bark Ave Pet Supplies in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, says she has seen it work firsthand. “We had a grooming salon in our store, and [our groomer] was grooming a dog, and it was a little Maltese and it was biting her,” Spier recalled.
“We got the ThunderShirt and within 15 minutes, my husband’s mouth dropped. It really only took 15 minutes, the dog was licking the groomer and in a calm state of just ‘go ahead, do whatever you want to do.’
“I think [retailers] have to tell customers [the ThunderShirt] is for any kind of situation that you might have, and I think the guarantee really reassures them,” she added. “We’ve only had maybe one return in 10 years.”
A variety of veterinarians and animal behaviorists believe the ThunderShirt’s gentle, constant pressure releases such calming hormones as endorphins or oxytocin in the animal’s brain to create a calming effect.
In fact, Temple Grandin, a renowned animal behavior expert and autism awareness advocate, was one of the researchers involved in the 2016 study of anxiety’s impact on premature muzzle grayness. She also invented a hug box that applies pressure to calm people, particularly ones on the autism spectrum. In 2014, Grandin found that ThunderShirt effectively reduced the heart rate of dogs with anxiety disorder.
Blizzard’s company, ThunderWorks, has been providing innovative solutions for some of the most common challenges faced by pet owners since 2009. Blizzard came up with the idea for ThunderShirt when he and his family noticed that their dog, a 50-pound goldendoodle named Dosi, would panic during thunderstorms or when hearing the explosions of live fireworks. Having no luck with medications or behavioral techniques, the Blizzard family received a recommendation from a friend that they attempt to use a wrap, which would swaddle the dog, much like some parents do to calm colicky babies.
Blizzard and his wife, who once worked as an engineer for Ford, took an old T-shirt and put it on Dosi, using packing tape over the fabric to apply pressure to the dog and hold the material in place. The family’s success with Dosi inspired Blizzard to create a prototype of the T-shirt-turned-ThunderShirt. While the design has remained similar to that original model, there have been modifications over time based on style and the size of the dog or cat. The shirts are crafted from a fabric that is a rayon-polyester blend with Spandex to give the product a snug fit.
To launch the startup, Blizzard recalls convincing a few of his entrepreneur poker buddies to invest and join in the company. Blizzard notes his business has worked with veterinarians to develop the product.
“We’ve surveyed a lot of our customers over the years to see what their success rates are, and it’s consistently well over 80 percent,” Blizzard said. “Nothing works for every situation or every pet, but ThunderShirts have amongst the highest success rates in terms of helping to reduce or eliminate the different symptoms that people are dealing with.”
On the topic of a dog having a negative reaction to seeing a ThunderShirt due to the idea that a pet might relate the product to a fear-inducing event, Blizzard says the reality is quite the opposite.
“This [idea of pets having a negative association with a ThunderShirt] was actually a big concern when we started the business—and a big concern for trainers,” Blizzard explained. “If your dog is panicking about an upcoming thunderstorm, and then they see a ThunderShirt, the concern was they would become fearful of the ThunderShirt too. It has not been a problem at all. Surprisingly, it’s been the reverse. I’ve received countless emails from owners who say, ‘I can’t believe it. I didn’t even know a storm was coming and my dog was over pawing at the drawer where I store my ThunderShirt,’ or dogs literally bringing over their ThunderShirt.”
According to Blizzard, ThunderWorks has sold millions of ThunderShirts and has products available in over 8,000 brick-and-mortar stores. The business has expand – ed its line of products, as well, now offering a variety of leashes, calming sprays and essential oils.
ThunderEase: ThunderEase replicates feline and canine pheromones, safely providing a sense of comfort and security during a variety of stressful occasions and situations. A drugfree and veterinary-recommended solution, the pheromones are over 90 percent effective in treating many behaviors, including uneasiness in a new environment, fear of loud noises like thunder or fireworks, urine spraying and scratching, stresses caused by change, tension between cats, anxiety during veterinary visits or boarding.
ThunderSnap: Designed to make putting on a leash as quick, easy and convenient as possible, ThunderSnap uses powerful magnets and a strong steel ball-bearing latch mechanism to easily and securely connect to a standard dog collar or harness. Tested to hold more than 500 pounds of pull force, the leash is produced to hold even the strongest-pulling pet.
Dial-a-Distance: Retractable leashes are great for giving a dog more exercise and freedom on walks, but a momentary distraction might result in a dog lunging into danger before the pet owner can engage the manual brake. Dial-a-Distance is designed to eliminate those risks, allowing pet owners to enjoy a walk with their dog. Within the maximum length that the pet owner selects, Dial-a-Distance works like other retractable leashes. It extends and retracts as the dog moves, while allowing the owner to use the manual brake when needed. When a dog reaches the maximum selected length, from 0 to 15 feet, Dial-a-Distance automatically brakes.
As part of the ThunderWorks Gives Back program, the company regularly donates ThunderShirts to rescue organizations and shelters to help them manage anxiety issues of the animals in their care, including those displaced from the recent natural disasters in Texas, Florida and California. Donation recipients include ASPCA, RedRover, Search Dog Foundation, Save-A-Pet, Hero Dogs and many more. ThunderWorks also donates thousands of ThunderShirts each year to shelters and rescues before the Independence Day holiday.
“Shelters and rescue groups are constantly managing dogs and cats with anxiety problems,” Blizzard stated. “Many pets are given up due to these difficult problems, so to help out where we can, we’ve been donating whenever possible.”