Dog pheromones: do they work?


Photo credit: Gatorgoon via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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).
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Let’s Ruin: Dog Shaming – Excessive licking

I follow Dog Shaming on Tumblr. While their posts are occasionally good for a chuckle, many of the photos make me cringe (“please don’t tell me you actually believe that’s why your dog did that” or “it’s not a shame your dog did that, because she’s a dog” or “as your dog’s owner, how did you continue to let that happen? Because your dog could have been seriously injured/killed.” or “you know that’s a behavior you can work on with your dog, right?“). I totally understand the desire to publicize your dog’s odd behavior – like how my dog seems to think her collar is a cozy nap buddy – but the posts that suggest a bizarre rationale for a dog’s behavior, or complain about a perfectly normal dog behavior that could/should have been managed better by the owner, or bemoan a real problematic dog behavior that apparently is going unaddressed by the owner…it’s worrisome!

I understand that Dog Shaming is supposed to be funny, but I’ve got to ruin it. So many of us have welcomed pups into our homes and there seems to be a good portion out there that don’t really understand how dogs think or normally behave. Without understanding what normal dog behavior is and why dogs do the things they do, humans tend to resort to inefficient and potentially inhumane ways of coping with or changing the dog’s behavior – or even ignoring a behavior that is a sign of real distress or harmful to the dog.

Example #1: A recent Dog Shaming post reads:

Sadie is a Jack Russell Terrier mix that my wife and I rescued 3 years ago. She is a complete sweetheart and loves to groom herself while sunning on our bed. However, she has careless disregard for what she is licking while primping herself and always leaves a gross wet lick spot on the comforter. Fortunately, I can’t stay mad at that face for too long.

The Sign reads :
96% Comforter 4% Paw –
I think this is an acceptable lick ratio when grooming myself
– Sadie

Guess what? Far from being a eye-tongue coordination issue, excessive licking in dogs has been shown to be a pretty fair indicator of an undiagnosed gastrointestinal (GI) disorder! In a study from the University of Montreal Veterinary Teaching Hospital, researchers found that nearly 75% of dogs that excessively licked surfaces had an undiagnosed GI condition and once that condition was addressed, the excessive licking behavior resolved. The researchers hypothesized that the excessive licking may pacify feelings of nausea or abdominal discomfort for dogs.