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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Private: Suds & Cheese: Tips for a minimally painful & non-human-soaking dog bath!

Wisconsin recently treated me to a few days of shockingly warm weather – on the weekend, no less! I try not to bathe my dogs in the winter as much as possible but it can get a little stinky so I took full advantage of the freakish warmth! Below are my tried and true tips for a maximally peaceful, minimally self-bathing dog bath!

Tip 1: Gather your supplies. My pup cleansing supplies are 2 full sized towels, 2 hand towels, a high-quality conditioning shampoo, and cheese. Yes, CHEESE is vital. Few dogs like baths and the ample application of cheese before, during, as after baths can really make everything much more enjoyable for everyone.


Tip 2: Consider your dog’s preferences. 
One of my dog’s prefers warm-to-hot bath water, especially when it is not warm outside. Neither of my pups want to stay in the tub very long. So I trial-and-error water temperature for my pups (lucky for me, Allie will give me a *snappy comeback if the temp isn’t right). And I make sure bath time goes as fast as possible by having purchased a shower head with a long hose and getting together all my supplies before asking the pup to get in the tub. (Also, I have used the cheese tip so much that my dogs both climb in the tub willingly – so no wrestling my 85lb!)

Okay, I know the point of giving your dog a bath is to make her smell nice but puppy noses are approximately 1,000-10,000 times more sensitive than our pathetic human schnozes. And if your dog could pick a smell that was 1,000 times stronger to her than it is to you, do you think it would be tropical mango? Probably not!

Tip 3: Strategize. So you may have read my first tip and thought, Why on earth does she need so many towels?  The answer is strategy:

Exhibit A: Two towels for stability/grip.
  • Possibly the best dog bathing tip I have ever found was from Dr. Marty Becker’s book, “Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual”. He calls it the three towel tip but I have modified it slightly. I put the two hand towels in the bottom of the tub pre-pup. Slipping in the tub can be a real source of bath hatred for dogs, and the wet towels underneath the dog can provide much-appreciated stability.I used two hand towels because I’ve noticed that putting a regular towel in the tub –
    as Dr. Becker suggests – can

    Exhibit B: The after bath splash zone minimizer

    get bunched up and pushed out of the way easily. As soon as I’m done rinsing the pup, I put the first large towel over the dog (see Exhibit B) to decrease my likelihood of ending up in the splash zone of the after-bath shake. I use the second large towel to actually dry the dog.

  • Reconsider washing your dog’s head. The thing is, your dog’s head isn’t really that smelly. Or at least, if your dog doesn’t have an ear infection or bad teeth, your dog’s head shouldn’t be smelly. Most dogs dislike water pouring over their heads and it can even increase the risk of an ear infection with water gets trapped in their ear canals. So skip the head washing! I used grooming wipes on my pup’s heads if I feel so inclined but honestly, even that is generally unnecessary!

 

Winter Dog Walking Tips

In case you are trying, like me, to avoid canine cabin fever for as long as possible, here are some tips to make sure your pup is happy and healthy during the winter walking season!

winterdogwalking

1. Paw protection

Dog paws are not impervious barriers to winter cold, chemicals and other nuisances. Snowmelt chemicals can cause paw irritation and toxicity if the dog licks their paws, and cold sidewalks can cause chaffing and cracking. Dog paw protection is a must for winter walks!

For my dogs, high quality boots were a necessity. I like the Grip Trex ($70) by Ruffwear (and am currently trying out the Summit Trex model ($60) to see if it keeps snow out of the boot better). I’ve also read many positive reviews for the Muttluk’s All Weather or Fleece-lined ($40-60) dog boots. YES, $40-70 bucks is a lot to spend on dog boots but they are a worthy investment. I’ve put my dog’s Grip Trex boots through 3 winter seasons and besides protecting my pups’ paws flawlessly, they still look brand new. Cheaper alternatives aren’t going to do the job and probably won’t last as long.

Dog boots tip #1: You’ve really got to get the right size so the boots don’t come off easily but are still comfortable. Measure your dog’s feet according to the manufacturer’s instructions several times to ensure accuracy. And definitely check out the seller’s return/exchange policy before purchasing in case you need a different size anyway!

Dog boots tip #2: As with any new pet accessory or device, you have to introduce boots slowly and positively. Not many pups are going to be overly thrilled about having boots on for the first time in their lives, but (in my experience) they forget about their footwear disdain when they discover how much more comfortable they are outdoors.

While you’re introducing your dog to the wonderful world of dog boots (or if your dog just really isn’t going for shoes), there are several things you can do to keep your pup’s paws as comfortable as possible in the meantime! First, trim the fur between your dog’s paw pads. This will keep the fur from matting and clumping around snow, ice and snowmelt chemicals. Next, use a paw salve like Musher’s Secret or petroleum jelly to moisturize and minimally protect your pup’s paws from the element. Finally, thoroughly wipe your dog’s paws with a washcloth after every outside excursions, being sure to get in between the paw pads.

2. Coat protection

Depending on how cold it gets where you live, or if you have a short-haired, elderly, young or ill dog, a dog coat is also a great investment. There are some pretty hardcore coats on the market from brands like Ruffwear or Hurtta that will set you back $40-90 and some less impervious dog sweaters from other retailers like Target or Petco for about $20. A wet coat isn’t going to do your pup much good, so if your area experiences severe weather during the winter, opt for a more expensive, waterproof winter coat. If you’re just combating the cold and can avoid rain/snow/sleet all of the time, a cheaper dog sweater might cut it.

Cold, dry winter air is as rough on your dog’s skin as it is on your skin! Ask your vet if an omega-3 supplement could help keep your dog’s skin moisturized and healthy during the winter months (and beyond!). Lastly, it’s a good idea to wipe off your dog’s legs and underbelly after walks just like paws. You may even want to bring a towel with you during walks to remove snowmelt products or snow/ice from your dog’s coat and feet immediately.

3. Keep your dog on leash with a harness

Although hazards for off-leash dogs exist in abundance year-round, winter poses some particular risks for un- or under-supervised dogs. Toxic substances like snowmelt chemicals and antifreeze abound, and if your dog is zooming around off leash, you may not notice her gulp some rock salt or take a lick of an antifreeze spill. Chucks of ice, asphalt liberated from the street by snow plows and sticks are also items your pup shouldn’t ingest but might if left to her own devices. So play it safe and keep your dog on leash.

Clipping a leash to a neck collar is not an optimal way to walk your dog at any time of year because it puts strain on the dog’s neck, leading to breathing problems and eye issues as the result of increased intracranial pressure. It’s also, like, the least efficient way to control your dog’s position in space, which can really be an issue in winter when ground conditions aren’t ideal. Opt for a front-clip harness like the Easy Walk harness and carry a small bag of dog kibble with your to keep your pup by your side during distracting events.

4. Keep it short

No amount of gear and preparation will wholly protect your pup from winter hazards, so keep walks short by breaking your usual walking time into two or three shorter components that are spaced out over the day. Monitor your dog for signs of real discomfort, frost bite or hypothermia. Frostbitten skin will most common occur on extremities like the ears, tails and toes and can look pale or red, painful or numb, and swollen. If your dog is exhibiting shallow breathing or disorientation, get your dog inside immediately and check for a slow pulse – these are all signs of hypothermia and your dog should be taken to a vet ASAP.


References

ASPCA’s Cold Weather Tips

ASPCA’s Winter Skin & Paw Health Tips

VetStreet Article on Winter Dog Walking

Dr. Marty Becker on the necessity of dog coats and sweaters

Ruffwear’s Blog on the Dog Boot Dance

It Worked For Me: Bell Training

My first dog was an Australian Cattle Dog named Allie. My husband and I adopted her from the shelter where I worked when she was 8 weeks old. Cattle dogs are a herding breed that originated in Australian and if you’ve known a herding breed dog before, they like to communicate with their mouths more than their vocal chords. Allie preferred to let us know that she needed to potty by nipping at my husband and me, which we fairly expected given her breed.

Unfortunately, she also nipped us to say she was out of water, she wanted to play, the cats were ignoring her, etc. etc. We quickly realized that we needed to empower Allie with a communication tool other than her teeth because they A) hurt and B) were very non-specific. I had heard of bell training from coworkers and staff at the shelter and we decided to try it. It was a massive success. After about two months.

We had bumbled around with all of the instructions about bell training from the ASPCA, I watched YouTube videos and I plugged all my coworkers for tips. Unfortunately, Allie had already learned a way to communicate her bathroom needs to us and however irritating they were to us, they did in fact work. But fortunately, one day she just walked up the bell and rang it. And then I took her outside. The rest is glorious non-nipping history.

We got our second dog, a lab named Luna, when she was 10 weeks old from the same shelter. She learned to ring the bell to go outside in about three days. I think there are two reasons for her accelerated pace of acquiring this skills relative to Allie and neither of them have to do with her being smarter than Allie, because she’s not. (Sorry, Luna, but I’ve seen you run into the fence like a dozen times.) First, the bell was the first potty communication method that was available to Luna. Since we already had it hanging on the door, we circumvented her learning a different way to tell us she needed to go to the bathroom.

Secondly, before we adopted Luna we had moved into a duplex with a much more open floor plan than our previous apartment. Dogs can be potty trained because they are hard-wired to not go the bathroom where they live. I think it was much easier for Luna to see that our entire living space was her home because it was so open. In the previous apartment, our bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen were separated by full/partial walls or furniture. Allie almost never had accidents in our bedroom, which I believe was because she viewed that are as “home” and the other parts of our apartment as “not home”.

The bell on the door enabled us to potty train Luna in about a week even though, as we eventually found out, she had chronic urinary tract infections. (She’s all better now, thank goodness!) Bell training worked for me because it provided a tool for my dogs to communicate with me in a manner that we all found agreeable. We used the bell training in conjunction with all these other house training instructions from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).