Durham company gives owners a solution for anxious pets

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
A look at the ThunderShirt display at Phydeaux pet store in Raleigh

DURHAM — The loud crack after a lightning strike or the bang of an exploding firework can startle anyone. But for four-legged family members, loud noises can bring on stress and anxiety that not only severely impacts them, but also their owners.Phil Blizzard knows all about this.”My own dog is afraid of thunder and fireworks,” Blizzard said. “Waking up with a 40-pound dog standing on my chest in the middle of the night during thunderstorms … the dog’s miserable, I’m miserable, [he’s] keeping us up.”Blizzard did what most people would do: he went to his vet and asked for help. But outside of medicating his dog, Dosi, with sedatives — which would also mean predicting thunderstorms ahead of time — he found little help.And that’s how ThunderShirts were born.Blizzard, an engineer who worked for Ford Motor Co. in the 1990s before coming to North Carolina to work during the dot-com boom, started to research ways to calm scared or anxious dogs and found that swaddling, which is effective in soothing a crying baby, might also work for his Goldendoodle.During a storm one night, Blizzard and his wife took an old T-shirt and some packing tape, creating a snug, makeshift shirt, and Dosi calmed right down.”When I first heard about swaddling my dog for thunder anxiety I thought it sounded ridiculous, but we tried it a few more times after that first time with similar results, and ThunderShirts basically evolved through that,” Blizzard said.Conversations with people made him realize how many pet owners deal with anxiety, and having seemingly found a solution Blizzard decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship and develop ThunderShirts.”When we told the story of what was working for us, it just had a real high level of engagement,” he said. “We thought this had potential for a business, even though there are really no good statistics out there, no one had done any research prior to us getting into the space as far as how many dogs really have these types of anxieties.”ThunderShirts (retailing at $40 to $50) are made of washable fabric that can be cleaned in the washing machine and air dried. It is held secure on your pet — they are available for both dogs and cats — by fabric fasteners that, when properly sized, should not bother their hair or fur.The company launched in May 2009 and has “helped many, many millions of dogs and cats around the world,” Blizzard said. ThunderShirt headquarters is located in downtown Durham less than a mile from Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Blizzard said their products are in about 90 percent of brick and mortar pet stores — around 10,000 locations.Blizzard said the company has also donated more than 30,000 ThunderShirts to shelters and rescues groups.”Shelters and rescues get a lot of the problem dogs, and then a shelter is a stressful situation in the best circumstances, even for dogs that don’t have an otherwise problem,” Blizzard said. “So ThunderShirts have proved very helpful for dogs adapting to a shelter and getting ready to find a new home.”Other products like ThunderLeash — which, similar to ThunderShirt, uses gentle pressure around a dog’s chest to stop them from pulling — have already hit the market. Blizzard said the company will introduce at least five new products over the next year and that they’re branching out a bit from the “calming” market and into other pet-related areas.But the company’s bread and butter is still the ThunderShirt.”Essentially, any kind of calming could have a benefit,” Blizzard said. “That applies to a tremendous number of situations, whether it’s a jumpy, anxious dog, car travel, going to to vet, new people coming over to your house, interaction with new dogs, being on a leash. You name it. Any time a dog can just tend to get excited, a Thundershirt — just the swaddling has a calming effect — can really help out.”