The Thundershirt

“Thunder and lightning, very very frightening–me”  Queen

When I woke up this morning, they were already at it, and I walked into the kitchen and immediately slipped in a large pool of saliva that had apparently been dripping from the mouth of big Magic, my 125 pound scaredy cat Scottish deerhound.  When I say “they”, I mean the tree workers who are up in the giant eucalyptus trees which blanket our property—I would call them arborists but I know better—they’re just very brave guys willing to climb up 100 feet with a chainsaw in hand to hack off the large branches hanging over the house, the horse pastures and our driveway.  Tree work is expensive, and the eucalyptus grow like weeds.  They need to be trimmed every three to five years minimum, and since there have been many other things I needed to spend money on in the last ten, namely, putting children through college, those gargantuan trees had had a bit of “deferred maintenance.”  Sometimes I need to be smacked in the face to pay attention to what is right in front of me, and this is exactly what happened the weekend before I left for Jamaica.  We had what is known around here as “Santa Ana conditions”, where a hot wind blows off the desert from the east, instead of our usual cool ocean breeze from the west.  As leaves and debris flurried like snow, I went out to check on the horses, and heard a crack.  I put my hand up to shield my face from the falling branch, and received the force of the limb with my hand and arm, which were nicely black and blue by the time I arrived in Kingston.  Three weeks later, the chain saws are still singing.

Magic has been afraid of fireworks and thunder since he was a puppy.  The first Fourth of July celebration came when he was eight months old.  As I heard the sound of fireworks, I went outside to call the dogs.  Magic was nowhere in sight, and a thorough search of the property found him shivering and wet, hiding under the bridge over a small creek that flows through the back of the property.  We brought him inside, dried him off and tried to comfort him as best we could.  As he aged, his fears escalated and translated into terror of every large repetitive or continuous noise, to the point where we just stayed home any time we knew there would be fireworks. Fortunately thunderstorms are rare in our neck of the woods, but holidays were problematic, and the usual solutions—closing the windows, playing music loudly to drown the sound, Bach’s Rescue Remedy—were only partially effective. Two years ago when we had a new roof put on the house, the constant hammering and banging overhead put old Magic over the edge.  His fears became uncontrollable to the point where we thought he would hurt himself so in desperation I called my veterinarian for tranquilizers.  She said, “Have you tried the Thundershirt?”

If you are familiar with Temple Grandin’s work, you will know that she is autistic, but with a unique gift which allows her to empathize with the way frightened animals feel and think.  Her designs for humane slaughter of cattle have revolutionized the traditional way that our food animals are led to certain death.  When she was young, she used to comfort herself by enclosing herself in a homemade device which literally held and squeezed her between two walls.  The sense of enclosure, and pressure calmed her panic, and allowed her to function in college and subsequently in society.  The inventors capitalized on the same concept—that perhaps being wrapped tightly in a stretch jersey fabric fastened with Velcro would calm a panicked dog.  We bought one for Magic, just before a scheduled visit to the East Coast and left my adult son in charge of our household with instructions to put it on the dog if he became anxious with the roofers.  A couple of days later, I called to ask how things were going at home.  Brandon replied, “Mom, he comes to me and begs for his ‘special shirt.’”

I arrived in Jamaica to find the rainy season in full swing.  Unlike San Diego, when it rains there the lightning flashes brilliantly across the darkened horizon and the rolling thunder cracks are bone shaking. My host Dr. Spence has four adult Catahoula Leopard dogs, and the dominant male Ludie was like Magic on a very bad thunder day, whining, trembling and salivating.  I told her about the special shirt, and she wrapped him tightly in a blanket, which seemed to help a little bit.  Today as I cleaned off the slimy floor, and pulled out the gray jersey Thundershirt and wrapped up my dog, it occurred to me that maybe this is not such a novel concept after all.  Maybe when we are faced with scary things beyond our control, all that any of us need most is a tight hug from someone who cares.

14 thoughts on “The Thundershirt

  1. Journey’s thunder shirt has rendered thunderstorms endurable. Failing that a good snug t-shirt or ace bandage tied in a figure 8 are also helpful.

  2. Have friends and also granddogs that use these with good success. Ironically, when I did have dogs that could have used them (a deerhound and a collie) I do not believe they yet existed. It is very sad to have a dog like that and see it suffering so obviously. Often times, as noted, they then extrapolate the noise of a T storm with any loud type noises – fireworks, gun shots, etc. My first deerhound reacted to the drop in barometric pressure and he would start pacing and whining when the storm was just across the Mississippi in Iowa – so it wasn’t noise at that point. Unfortunately we lived in Wisconsin where summer T storms can be quiet violent at times. Poor Mac. I surely hope there are no scary noises in Dog Heaven!

  3. There’s also a device that has been helpful for kids with sensory integration issues or autism that is a weighted blanket. It is basically a quilt where the compartments are filled with something heavy (plastic pellets, marbles, ball bearings, pebbles, shot, etc.). If one were going to attempt therapy for dementia and similar conditions it might be something to investigate. SensaCalm and CozyCalm are two brand names I found and there are plenty of online tutorials for making them yourself too.

  4. Thunder shirts are wonderful. You could also give him 12mg of melatonin. Takes about 20 to begin the effect, lasts 6-8 hours, and is very safe.

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