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.
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.
D.A.P., called Comfort Zone when sold over the counter, mimics the pheromone nursing dogs release to comfort their puppies. Studies show that it may help with general anxiety, as well as stress caused by vet visits, travel, fireworks and other loud noises, separation anxiety, and can even help calm dogs in shelters.
A study done in 2005 showed that puppies in a training class that were fitted with pheromone collars were later found to have less behavioral problems and were more sociable than puppies not given the collar.
But pheromone products don’t work for all pets or for all problems. Neilson said she doesn't rely on pheromone products alone.
“I never use it in isolation,” Neilson says. “I’m also usually doing behavior modification and sometimes drug therapy.”
Q: What about other pet pheromone products?
A: Sergeant’s Pet Care Products introduced pheromone collars in 2009 for dogs and the only pheromone cat collar on the market.
Sergeant’s communications manager, Kelly Lytle Baehr, says the collars reproduce the calming pheromones nursing mothers release to soothe their babies. Baehr says Sergeant’s paid for three studies by independent researches that show the collars work, but she says the results were not published or presented and so are not available for review.
Other products use herbal blends to simulate pheromones. Jodi Hoefler, vice president of the Garmon Corporation, says their Quiet Moments sprays for dogs and cats use a patented blend of herbs to simulate canine- or feline-appeasing pheromones to give stressed pets a feeling of safety and well being. The company also makes a product called No Mark, which uses an herbal blend that simulates a feline pheromone to stop cats from marking.
Another company, Nutri-Vet, makes sprays and diffusers called Pet-Ease that use essential oils of herbs that simulate pheromones. “We use calming oils,” says Phil Brown, DVM, vice president of marketing for Nutri-Vet. “The effects are similar, it’s just what is causing the effects that differ.”
Brown says studies like those done for Feliway and Comfort Zone are too expensive for small companies, but he says public feedback has been positive. And, as with other pheromone-based or simulated products, Brown says they should be used in conjunction with behavior modifications and other therapies to have the best chance of success.
Q: Are pet pheromone products safe?
A: There are no reports of any side effects, and Neilson and Hunthausen say they have never seen a bad reaction to the calming pheromones.
“They’re species specific, so they don’t affect people or other types of pets in the home,” Neilson says. “And even if you have several dogs or several cats, the other animals can probably benefit from the pheromones as well.”
Pheromones are also "good for older, skittish or sick pets, because it doesn’t stress them further to use them," Hunthausen says.