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Feline Pheromones: The Science Behind Them

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If you have a cat, you’ve likely encountered pheromone products available in the form of diffusers, sprays, wipes, or collars. These products claim to stop unwanted behaviors such as scratching, spraying, litter box mishaps, hiding, and fighting. Maybe you’ve read reviews touting pheromone products as a magic charm or, conversely, describing them as nothing more than modern-day snake oil. They are neither.

Let’s dive into the science of pheromones: what they are, how they work, and how they can help your cat.

Communication

Scientists have long been fascinated by the notion of chemical communication between members of the same species. The first pheromone, a female silk moth secretion, was chemically identified in 1959 by German chemist Adolf Butenandt and his team.
Pheromones are odorless, colorless chemical signals used as a form of intraspecies scent communication. When detected they cause physiological and behavioral changes. Pheromones have a broad range of purposes that include alarm signaling, mating, social interactions, territory marking, and maternal bonding. Cats of all sizes send and receive messages via the pheromone message board.

Pheromones are secreted by specialized sebaceous or mucous glands on the body. For cats, these include facial glands (on chin, cheeks, and forehead), anal glands, paw pads, and mammary area.
When your cat rubs her head against you, furniture, or objects, comforting pheromones are released from the cheeks. Your cat marks and recognizes this place for comfort later.

Anal glands release pheromones in urine and feces that deliver messages regarding mating viability, expression of fear or stress, or territorial response (think urine marking or spraying). Scratching, a natural cat behavior, releases pheromones from the paw pads. Scratching delivers scent and visual cues about territorial ownership to other cats.

Mammary pheromones are activated in nursing mothers when kittens suckle. Kittens detect the pheromones, which produce a calming response. It also helps kitten and mother cat recognize each other if they become separated.

Pheromones are detected through the complex olfactory system, therefore, received via the nasal cavity which is lined with millions of olfactory receptor cells. Once detected, cats tongue-flick the molecules to the vomeronasal, or Jacobson’s, organ, located on the roof of the mouth. This stimulates the flehmen response, which causes the mouth to gape open. It may look like a sneer, but this active process enhances pheromone perception. The pathway continues to the brain, which produces a behavioral or physiological response.

Calming Aid

Natural pheromones provide a variety of important functions, but what about synthetic pheromones?

Synthetic pheromones are lab recreations that mimic natural pheromones to help promote a sense of calm and security in stressful situations. The idea is to build a sense of confidence and prevent or alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) and related behaviors such as spraying, scratching, and intercat aggression. They are not sedatives, essential oils, or medication.

The first companion animal pheromone product, Feliway Classic by Ceva, debuted on the pet market in 1996. This product, available in spray and diffuser, is a copycat of the feline F3 facial-marking pheromone deposited when cats rub their cheeks on objects, marking the area as safe.

Feliway MultiCat, based on the cat appeasing pheromone (CAP), premiered in 2016. CAP originates in the mammary region of nursing mothers and provides a sense of safety, security, and harmony. It helps reduce conflict and social tension in multi-cat households.

Feliway Optimum is the latest diffuser product.  It’s designed to reduce scratching, urine spraying, tension and conflicts between cats, fears, and reactions to changes.

The synthetic products can be layered and used together. For example, Feliway Classic and Feliway MultiCat diffusers can be used together in your home along with Feliway Classic spray on your cat’s favorite blanket or carrier and Feliway Optimum in preferred scratching areas.

Other companies have launched similar products and there are dog versions too. You can also use cat and dog products together to promote peaceful compatibility in your multi-pet home. Because pheromones are species-specific, cat pheromones don’t work on dogs and vice versa.

Does this mean you can plug in a diffuser, snap on a collar, or spritz a blanket and expect immediate and magical behavior changes? No. Some cats may be more receptive to the pheromones and alter their behavior, but pheromone products aren’t magic elixirs. The underlying cause of the stress must also be identified and resolved. Pheromone products don’t treat medical conditions. Always consult your veterinarian regarding behavioral changes to rule out medical causes.

Behavior changes aren’t presto-change-o; they take time.
Synthetic pheromones are an aid in a behavioral plan, not a one-size-fits-all cure.

“Synthetic pheromones can be successful when a client follows the written-out behavior plan,” says Rachel Geller, Ed.D., Certified Cat Behaviorist. “Sometimes the addition of synthetic pheromones allows the cat to better access the behavior program. Alone, the products usually aren’t enough to resolve the problem but when used with behavior modification they can resolve some of the emotional part of the problem for the cat. I never put a timeline on resolving cat behavior problems. In these matters, it’s best to go at the cat’s pace!”

Use of pheromone products in your home is designed to bolster a sense of calm, comfort, and positive feelings in stressful environments. Assess the environment from your cat’s perspective.

  • Trips to the veterinarian usually induce high levels of FAS. Before the trip, spray the carrier and a towel with the synthetic pheromone, and wait about 15 minutes for the alcohol to evaporate before putting your cat inside the carrier. Cover the carrier with the towel. The calming effect lasts four to five hours.
  • Scratching and spraying. “Synthetic pheromones can be used if you have a cat who is peeing to mark his territory. Cats don’t pee on territory where they facially mark, so these products trick the cat into thinking he has already marked the territory as his own,” says Dr. Geller.
  • Litter box avoidance. First, schedule a veterinary visit to rule out medical conditions. Set up the litter box arrangement to optimize cat-friendly preferences (size, location, number, preferred litter). Keep it clean! Avoid punishment, and add positive social interactions.

“Synthetic pheromones are especially helpful for those times where everything is completely new for your cat. Examples are moving to a new home, buying new furniture, or putting in new carpet. These products can be used on unfamiliar objects in the home to help a cat feel more safe and secure with them,” says Geller. Consider using the products in your home before bringing home a newly adopted kitty to provide a sense of comfort and security upon arrival.

Crucial to Comfort

Your home is your cat’s whole world. When she has everything she needs to fulfill her felinity, she fills your home with contented purrs. When something disrupts your cat’s sense of nirvana, she becomes stressed. Stressors can be environmental, physiologic, or social. Stress can be mild, moderate, or severe, temporary or chronic.

Stress has a profound effect on emotional and physical health and behavior. Stressed cats may refuse to eat, become ill, or develop serious behavior problems. Minimizing stress is crucial to your cat’s health and wellbeing. Synthetic pheromones can help cats feel safe and secure in their environment.

“Many times cat behavior is 100-percent fixable and solvable through consistent behavioral interventions that are developed by looking at what is happening from the cat’s point of view. There is always a reason! If there is more going on, such as an emotional issue, stress, or anxiety, pheromones and even a pharmacological approach can be considered. This is where I suggest clients speak to their veterinarian,” says Geller.

Pheromone products are versatile and easy to use, and they can be used with a behavioral plan and medical treatments your veterinarian may recommend. While not magic, they may be the essential element your cat needs to ensure a healthy, happy life.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed, is an award-winning writer and 2017 recipient of the prestigious Fear Free Pets Award. She writes about pet care, health and behavior, and cats in the arts. She’s also the author of “Cats for the GENIUS.” Her feline muses are Tsarevich Ivan, a joie de vivre silver tabby Siberian, and Natasha Fatale, a full-time diva dressed as an “anything but plain” brown tabby. You can read more about Ramona and her work at www.RamonaMarek.com.

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