Cat pheromones: do they work?

I can’t speak for all pet owners but pet pheromone products have been pushed at me from all quarters – pet shop associates, veterinarians, trainers, and even other pet owners! I was initially recommended pheromone products due to car- and moving-induced stress in my pets but if you pick up any brand pheromone dispenser and you will discover a  multitude of potential applications. (Urine marking, inappropriate scratching, multicat tension, excessive barking, hiding, etc.) These products cost a pretty penny too – around $30 for a diffuser or spray, $15 for a pheromone-infused collar. So it begs the question: do pheromone products work?

Photo credit: Trish Hamme via Foter.com / CC B

What are pheromones anyway?

Pheromones are a means of chemical communication. Although not completely understood, it is thought that animals perceive pheromones through a specialized receptor in roof animal’s snouts called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). The VNO does not always pick up pheromones, however – it has to be activated by the animal. Have you ever seen a cat, intrigued by a new smell or etc., open her mouth and “pant” with her tongue out? That behavior is called “flehmen” and it’s function is to suck pheromones into the VNO.

Animals use pheromones to communicate a wide array of messages: territorial marking, sexual receptivity, spatial orientation and emotional stabilization, assertion of social status, alarm marking during fear reactions, appeasement of infant animals – and those are just the pheromones that scientists understand (and there are loads whose functions are unknown).

Scientists and pet product companies have developed synthetic pheromones that can be purchased at many pet stores and veterinary offices. Several types of pheromone dispensation products are available: passive diffusers that are plugged into a wall outlet, pheromone-infused collars, pheromone-infused wipes, and pheromone sprays.

What could pheromones do for cats?


Photo credit: Sander van der Wel via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Considering that our pets live in a world full of smells, veterinarians and behaviorists have  been exploring the application of pheromones to treat animal behavior problems because, when used correctly, they are completely non-toxic, have no side effects, and involve little effort on the part of owner or pet. The therapeutic use of pheromones to treat behavior problems in pets is called pheromonotherapy.

The principle of pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. Many behavior problems are the result of fear and anxiety in pets, so using a pheromone with an emotional stabilization function – like the pheromone cats release when they rub their chin on something to distinguish it as “known”. Reduction of feline spraying has been a target of numerous pheromonotheray studies – no doubt because this is a common and extremely aggravating behavior problem for cat owners. Scientists have also evaluated cat pheromones in calming cats during transport, prior to intravenous catheterization, in preventing stress-induced anorexia, and facilitating the peaceful introduction of unsocialized cats.

So…do pheromones work?

There are real barriers to the success of pheromonotherapy. First, animals generally do not communicate by pheromones alone. Usually there would be a multitude of body signals or vocalizations that would accompany (and emphasize) the pheromone message and open up the VNO so that the animal perceives the message.  Secondly, pheromones may “prime” an animal’s emotional state to be receptive to a behavior modification program but it is unlikely that pheromones alone will completely address behavior problems.

Thus the importance of the scientific evaluation of pheromonotherapy! All of the studies that I read about the use of pheromones for emotional stabilization, i.e. for behavior problems like urine marking, inter-act aggression, transport-induced stress, stress-induced anorexia (see Sources below), were all suggestive of a positive effect. The general consensus is that the longer pheromones were used (4+ weeks), the better the effect. Additionally, many cats maintained improved behavior after pheromones were removed.

I did find a very critical meta-analysis, which is a study of studies. This meta-analysis looked at all available pheromone studies and found that most studies had significant problems with design and/or analysis, such as small sample size, the absence of blinding or randomization, and the lack of a control sample. These problems prevented the authors from agreeing with the positive findings of the individual studies. However…I had problems with the meta-analysis’s problems! The principles of “robust” clinical research aren’t always ethical – especially in a situation where, say, you’ve got an owner whose cat is spraying all over the house and euthanasia is seriously on the table. Furthermore, the funding opportunities for these studies don’t seem to be abundant so gathering huge sample sizes may not be possible. I did not find any study over stating its findings and hopefully the examination of pheromonotherapy will continue to provide additional information.


Photo credit: jenny downing via Foter.com / CC BY

TL;DR

We have reasonable evidence to suggest human-applied pheromones (or pheromonotherapy) can be helpful as part of a behavior modification program for a cat displaying certain behavior problems, especially urine marking and inter-cat aggression. Best results have been seen in prolonged use (4+ weeks) of pheromonotherapy.

 

 

Sources

  1. Frank, Diane, Guy Beauchamp, and Clara Palestrini. “Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 236.12 (2010): 1308-1316.
  2. Mills, Daniel S., Sarah E. Redgate, and Gary M. Landsberg. “A meta-analysis of studies of treatments for feline urine spraying.” PloS one 6.4 (2011): e18448.
  3. Griffith, Cerissa A., Elizabeth S. Steigerwald, and CA Tony Buffington. “Effects of a synthetic facial pheromone on behavior of cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217.8 (2000): 1154-1156.
  4. Mills, D. S., and C. B. Mills. “Evaluation of a novel method for delivering a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone to control urine spraying by cats.” RIVISTA DI ZOOTECNIA E VETERINARIA 30.1 (2002): 50-51.
  5. Kronen, Peter W., et al. “A synthetic fraction of feline facial pheromones calms but does not reduce struggling in cats before venous catheterization1.”Veterinary anaesthesia and analgesia 33.4 (2006): 258-265.
  6. Gunn-Moore, D. A., and M. E. Cameron. “A pilot study using synthetic feline facial pheromone for the management of feline idiopathic cystitis.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery 6.3 (2004): 133-138.
  7. Frank, D. F., H. N. Erb, and K. A. Houpt. “Urine spraying in cats: presence of concurrent disease and effects of a pheromone treatment.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 61.3 (1999): 263-272.
  8. Pageat, Patrick, and Emmanuel Gaultier. “Current research in canine and feline pheromones.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 33.2 (2003): 187-211.
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