Just like people, dogs and cats can get stressed. Changes like a new home, a new family member, or just that annoying cat next door can cause unwanted behaviors like destructiveness, marking or urinating in the house, and excessive barking or meowing.
But some owners would rather not use drugs to treat a stressed dog or cat. One alternative you might see on store shelves are pheromone-based products, which were first introduced in the U.S. in 2001.
Bob, a Maine Coon mix, was never fond of the ride to the veterinarian. While the cat would purr placidly through the vet's exam, he pitched a fit and cried during the trip there.
"Riding in a car stressed him out terribly," says owner Sandy Volkman of Lakeville, Minn.
When Bob went into kidney failure at age 18, Volkman couldn't fathom driving him to be put down through her tears and his cries. Her veterinarian recommended Minnesota Pets, a Twin Cities-based mobile euthanasia service.
But what exactly are these pheromone products, and do they work? Here are expert answers to questions about what they can and can’t do.
Q: What are pheromones?
A: Jacqui Neilson, DVM, DACVB, owner of the Animal Behavior Clinic, a veterinary behavioral referral practice in Portland, Ore., says that pheromones are a type of chemical communication between members of a species. The vomeronasal organ, which is located between the nose and mouth, receives pheromones. Neilson says certain pheromones, called calming or appeasing pheromones, can sometimes help relieve stressed pets. Pet pheromone products are said to mimic natural cat or dog pheromones and come in various forms, including sprays, plug-in diffusers, wipes, and collars.
Q: What type of behaviors do pheromone products target?
A: Neilson says pheromone products were first released for cats and were recommended to help marking or spraying and aggression problems, especially between cats in the same home. But she says cat pheromones also help with problems like scratching and stress while traveling, being boarded or during visits to the veterinarian’s office, and can ease the stress of a cat moving into a new home. “I use it for almost any anxiety-related condition,” Neilson says.
Dog pheromone products are used for general stress, separation anxiety, noise phobias, such as those caused by storms or fireworks, and travel, says Wayne Hunthausen, DVM, the director of animal behavior consultations for Westwood Animal Hospital, in Westwood, Kansas.
However, Hunthausen says dog pheromones are not effective for aggression problems in dogs. Veterinarians also caution that behavioral problems can have medical causes, so pets should be thoroughly checked out by their vet before treating a problem as strictly behavioral.
Q: Do pet pheromone products work?
A: Most of the research that's been published or presented at veterinary conferences has been done on Feliway (cat pheromones) and D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone). In several studies -- most of which were funded by the products' maker -- both products were found to help soothe stressed pets in some circumstances.
Feliway mimics a cat’s F3 facial pheromones, which cats deposit when they rub their cheeks against surfaces, marking the areas as being safe, Hunthausen says.
The pheromone may reduce scratching and some types of spraying. In various studies, Feliway reduced spraying on vertical surfaces, such as walls or doors, in up to 90% of cases. But Hunthausen, who once did a company-sponsored Feliway study, says the product does not usually address the underlying problems that cause spraying on horizontal surfaces, such as beds or couches, so it is not very effective in those situations.