Dog pheromones: do they work?


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To follow up from my post about the efficacy of cat pheromones, I wanted to delve into the scientific literature looking into the effects of pheromonotherapy (the therapeutic application of pheromones to treat behavior problems) on dogs.

What is pheromonotherapy?

Scientists have demonstrated that many animals utilize pheromones (chemical communication signals emitted by animals) for a purposes as varied as sexual receptivity to spatial orientation to appeasement of infant animals. The idea behind pheromonotherapy is pretty simple: use synthetic pheromones to communicate a useful message to a pet displaying a behavior problem. While no side effects or toxicity to synthetic pheromones are known, the application of pheromonotherapy is complicated by the fact that animals do not passively intake pheromones (as far as scientists and veterinarians understand) – rather, animals must actively suck in pheromones through a specialized organ in the nasal cavity called the vomeronasal organ (VNO). Unfortunately, there are typically environmental or behavior signals that induce an animal to engage the VNO and these signals may or may not be present when synthetic pheromones are applied. Synthetic pheromones are available from many pet retailers in the form of plug in diffusers, impregnated collars, sprays, and wipes.

What can pheromones do for dogs?

The only dog pheromone that I have found on the market is Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), which is supposed to be a synthetic copycat of the pheromone mother dogs produce to enhance attachment and promote emotional stabilization in her puppies. The common application for this pheromone is, unsurprisingly, to mitigate a undesirable dog behavior resulting from stressors  such as loud noises, being left alone, meeting/living with another animal, going to a veterinary office, etc.

So…do pheromones work for dogs?

I separated studies that I found in my literature review of pheromonotherapy efficacy in dogs into two broad categories: those considering dogs in “social” situations (i.e. where many other animals are present: shelters, veterinary clinics, or training classes) and those looking at dogs in a more private home setting. My motivation for this division is the probable increase in the engagement of the VNO in social situations vs. when dogs are just sitting in their familiar environment.

Interestingly, the general consensus is: YES, pheromones are very effective in reducing anxiety and displacement behaviors (barking, panting, avoidance behaviors, destruction, excessive licking, etc.) while promoting relaxed and social behaviors (social greetings of strangers, laying down, normal appetite, etc.) in dogs. In social settings, results have been reported in as little as 4-7 days, while the treatment period for dogs in home settings is typically longer (4+ weeks). One study even found that DAP application had comparable results to an antidepressant medication, clomipramine, on reducing anxious behaviors.  That’s pretty impressive, considering that DAP has no side effects while clomipramine can have serious side effects including GI upset, elevation of liver enzymes, convulsions, and confusion.

Nearly every study that I read included the stern limitation that more research is needed to confirm these positive results. Furthermore, serious canine behavior problems are unlikely to be fully ameliorated by pheromonotherapy alone: behavior modification programs and psychopharmaceutical drugs should be applied as determined by a veterinarian and/or behaviorist.


Photo credit: Bekathwia via Remodel Blog / CC BY-SA

What does the manufacturer have to say about pheromone efficacy in dogs?

I contacted Ceva Animal Health, the company that produces a popular dog pheromone, Adaptil because their products/website purport to have data on file about the effectiveness of Adaptil. A veterinary technician in their customer service section got back to me with three pieces of literature: one was an actual study of pheromonotherapy and socialization in puppies [1], one was a well-referenced summary of pheromonotherapy studies [2], and the final piece was (probably?) a selection from a book that had no references and a single author [3]. Since I expected some data generated internally from Ceva or at least a Ceva-funded study, I was pretty disappointed in this response – all of this information is available publicly, so what’s with the “data on file” statement? I suspect that Ceva (and other animal product manufacturers) are not all that interested in selling an effective product – they just want to sell any product.

TL;DR

Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) is pretty well established as an effective treatment for stress-induced behavior problems in dogs. Pheromonotherapy has been demonstrated to reduce anxious behaviors and increase relaxed behaviors in dogs in especially short timeframes (4-7 days) in situations where other animals are present, which appears to hold up in more private home settings over longer periods (4+ weeks). Dogs with serious behavior problems should be evaluated by a veterinarian and/or dog behaviorist because pheromonotherapy is likely only one piece of the behavior modification and treatment program that the dog will need.

References

  1. Denenberg, Sagi, and Gary M. Landsberg. “Effects of dog-appeasing pheromones on anxiety and fear in puppies during training and on long-term socialization.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 233.12 (2008): 1874-1882.
  2. Landsberg, Gary. “Why Practitioners Should Feel Comfortable with Pheromones – The Evidence to Support Pheromone Use.” Presented at The North American Veterinary Conference. (2006)
  3. Mills, Daniel S. “Pheromones and Pheromonatherapy.” The Henston Small Animal Veterinary Vade Mecum. Part IV: 316-323
  4. 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.
  5. Tod, Elaine, Donna Brander, and Natalie Waran. “Efficacy of dog appeasing pheromone in reducing stress and fear related behaviour in shelter dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 93.3 (2005): 295-308.
  6. Kim, Young-Mee, et al. “Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) for ameliorating separation-related behavioral signs in hospitalized dogs.” Canadian Veterinary Journal 51.4 (2010): 380.
  7. Gaultier, E., et al. “Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs.” Veterinary Record-English Edition 156.17 (2005): 533-537.
  8. Mills, Daniel Simon, et al. “A triple blind placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behaviour of problem dogs in the veterinary clinic.” Applied animal behaviour science 98.1 (2006): 114-126.
  9. Sheppard, G., and D. S. Mills. “Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks.” Veterinary Record: Journal of the British Veterinary Association 152.14 (2003).

In the Pet News Lately, Vol. 1


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Bioethicist Jessica Pierce releases a new book on the ethics of keeping pets, Run, Spot, Run: the Ethics of Keeping Pets. Pierce takes a critical look at the oft-repeated “pets are family” mantra, according to this book review on National Public Radio (NPR). Examining everything from the pet industry’s push to make pet ownership seem fun and easy to the welfare of indoor cats to the “manufacturing” of amphibians and reptiles to be sold at pet stores – I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

Public Radio International does story on paw-ternity leave (paid time off to care for a furry family member) offered by some companies in the U.K.  On the topic of pets as family members, PRI did a story recently about the trend in some small U.K. businesses to offer its employees paid time off to take care of a new or ill pet. Full disclosure: I have actually taken time off work several times to care for a pet undergoing surgery or seriously ill (think projectile vomiting). Have ever taken time off work to due to your pet’s needs?

Renowned ethologist Frans de Waal releases a new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, about the evolution of animal cognition science. I was first introduced to de Waal from his TED talk, Do Animals Have Morals?, a fascinating look at apparently moralistic behavior in (mostly) primates. I am about 1/3 of the way through this new publication about how animal cognition has been viewed historically, ranging from the idea that animals are unfeeling automatons to our much more complex understanding of how animal brains work today. I am so excited to finish this book – look for a review soon!

Inaugural publication of a new journal on animal sentience and cognition, Animal Sentience. Speak of animal cognition…Cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad has launched this new journal on animal sentience as a venue for the emerging research on “what, why, and how organisms feel.” The first issue is focused on the question of if fish feel pain. I am looking forward to perusing this and future issues!

Companion Animal Psychology blog posts about the importance of science to pet welfare and owner happiness.  Psychologist Zazie Todd muses, “[w]e wouldn’t let someone become a school teacher just because they grew up with other kids…”, in this post exploring the importance of understanding our pets’ needs and abilities through scientific exploration. A superb and succinct article that encompasses my entire motivation for this blog!

 

 

The Trouble with Shock Collars: A Real World Example


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A family in my neighborhood welcomed a Great Dane puppy into their lives last fall. The once-gangly, now-100+-lb grey dog regularly greets me and my dog while we walk by his yard with booming barks. This situation has apparently become unacceptable for his owners: this week we have not been regaled with the hound’s vocalizations and he is sporting a shiny shock collar high on his neck.

The training method that shock collars, and all punitive training methods, rely on the operant conditioning strategy of positive punishment. The principal is simple: the dog does something the owner does not like and receives the shock – thereby decreasing the likelihood of the dog to repeat that undesired behavior in order to avoid the aversive consequence. For operant conditioning to be successful, two criteria must be met: timing and persuasiveness. These two criteria are precisely why punitive training methods like shock collars are fraught with trouble – and I’ll tell you why:

Shock collars are not smart.  When using operant conditioning, the trainer’s timing must be impeccable in order to link the correct behavior to the correct consequence, because animals do not possess the mental capacity to link consequences of behaviors that are more than a few seconds apart. Is my neighbor’s dog linking the shock with his barking behavior – or the appearance of another dog? Or a squirrel that just happened to be running down the street at the same time? Or the truck that just drove by?

All types of operant conditioning always involves a little trial and error on the animal’s part. Using aversive consequences for training causes stress in dogs and can likely contribute to the development anxiety disorders, aggression, and a host of other behavioral problems.

Shock collars are not safe. The other vital criteria for successful operant condition is that the consequence of the animal’s behavior must be compelling enough to actually change the animal’s behavior. This is why many dog trainers instruct owners to turn up their dog’s shock collar, despite contrary instructions from the manufacturer.

So what if my neighbor’s dog is connecting the significant shocks to the appearance of me and/or my dog? Well, if human +/- dog = pain, it will behoove the dog to prevent humans and/or dogs from getting near to him – so he will become aggressive towards walkers and their dogs.

Shock collars are not necessary. While I’m having to re-route my walking path due to my safety concerns about my neighbor’s dog (which is actually quite the ordeal for my OCD-anxiety dog), I must admit that I am frustrated by my neighbor’s numerous decisions leading up to this point:

  1. They purchased a dog too large to be adequately contained in their yard
  2. They leave him outside unattended
  3. They are upset that a dog bred specifically for its guarding skills barks at strangers
  4. They chose to install a shock collar on him rather than safely train him to tolerate walkers

Any one of these decisions could have been made differently and our whole neighborhood would be safer! Of course, the welfare of the dog is also a significant concern on mine so I would prefer that my neighbors would train their dog not to bark in a manner that will not cause pain and anxiety.