Feline pheromones and pheromonatherapy

Feline pheromones and
Daniel Mills from the Animal Behaviour Cognition and Welfare Group at the University of Lincoln
explains how feline behaviours can be affected by pheromones.
WHEN YOUR CAT rubs against you as you walk through the door, he/she is not only gaining contact with
you, but also depositing a whole range of chemicals, known as pheromones. These help to mark you as
something important in the environment which is reassuring and not to be feared. Pheromones normally
provide a means of chemical communication between individuals of the same species, but in the case of the
pet-owner relationship they may operate across the species divide. They are released from external
surfaces, from where they diffuse and affect the behaviour of others who encounter them. The term
‘pheromone' is derived from the two Greek words ‘ pherein' meaning ‘to carry' and ‘horman' meaning ‘to
stimulate' and was coined by Karlson and Luscher (1959) to describe these chemicals. However, many
other names have also been used to describe these sorts of chemicals including ectohormone and social
odour, but regardless of this, the term pheromonatherapy is now widely accepted for the use of these
chemicals in a clinical context to manage the behaviour of mammals. Recent advances in our understanding
of the nature of these chemicals in cats and other species has seen the development of a number of
pheromone-derived products of demonstrable scientific use.
A mixture of relatively simple chemicals in a particular combination often forms the specific message, but
in some situations a single chemical may be sufficient in triggering a response. Patrick Pageat, a French
veterinary surgeon and behaviour specialist, has been at the forefront of the initial isolation of these
products in cats and other species, while many other scientists have examined their application. Cat facial
secretions may contain up to 40 different chemicals, but only 13 are common to all cats and no cats secrete
all of the chemicals at the same time. From analysing this it has been possible to identify five functional
fractions (F1-F5) which appear to have distinct roles. Two of these can now be synthesised artificially and
used to help reduce stress in the cat.
The results of the first study were presented at the World Small Animal Veterinary Congress in 1996 and
showed that both sexual urine spraying and reactive (non-sexual) urine spraying could be reduced with the
F3 fraction, which is applied to the environment and not the cat directly. Since then several papers have
examined the effects of F3 and its commercial formulation Feliway (Ceva Animal Health) further and
looked at other applications of the substance. Several studies using different target populations have
routinely shown a reduction in urine spraying regardless of cause in over 70 per cent of cases and in some
studies as many as 97 per cent of cases. This is comparable or exceeds that achieved with drugs, without
the associated risks. There has also been encouraging long term follow up, where a reported 77 per cent of
cases were still under adequate control 10 months after treatment. (Mills and White 2000). Urine spraying
induced by stress (as opposed to sexual arousal), can realistically be eliminated with this treatment, with
one caveat of note. If there is also inter-cat aggression within the household, it appears the outlook using F3
is more guarded, even with behaviour therapy (Ogata and Tekeuchi 2001). This has been interpreted by
some as support for the idea that urine spraying may be a form of passive aggression and that the
pheromones work in the natural setting to control low level threat situations and so prevent overt
aggression in a social situation. However, once physical violence has broken out, the problem has escalated
and additional methods may be required to help resolve the conflict. In a domestic setting, this might
include behaviour therapy to address the relationship between the cats involved and possibly the use of
drugs to calm the situation further. In some cases we have found that this can only be achieved with a
combination of F3 as well as the other fraction (F4) and behaviour therapy aimed at desensitising the
individuals to each other.
With sexual spraying, the prognosis is also more guarded, due to the high level of stimulation that is likely
to be present in the environment. Realistically it may be expected to reduce in the majority of cases, but
complete cessation of the behaviour is less likely.
F3 has also been reported to reduce signs of transport stress (it should be applied to the carrier half an hour
before the journey), the risk of overnight roaming from new accommodation and to improve the ease with
which cats can be intravenously catheterised pre-operatively. In addition it seems that the appetite and
general demeanour of hospitalised cats is improved as a result of treatment of the hospital cages with F3
and that they are better able to cope with mild stress (Griffith and others 2000). This finding could literally
be a lifesaver for convalescent cats, since the sooner they return to normal feeding the sooner they are
likely to recover.
F3 also has a role in the management of scratching as it has been found that cats do not scratch on surfaces
marked with this fraction. It can therefore be applied to protect furnishings etc. It is, however, important to
train the cat to use an appropriate scratching area at the same time, since F3 does not appear to suppress
scratching, but rather redirects it.
In all of the clinical studies described so far, the pheromones were sprayed onto objects in the animal's
environment. In the case of clinical treatments this necessitated daily applications. However, a recent
innovation has been the development of a plug-in diffuser, similar to that used as a room freshener, to
deliver the pheromone (Mills and Mills 2001). A recent study has found this to be effective in the control of
urine spraying, just as the spray has been in the past. Ninety per cent of spraying cats improved following
treatment, with a reduction of 49 per cent within four weeks. In this study, no other behaviour therapy was
applied and the owners were specifically asked not to change their routine, indicating that treatment of this
frustrating problem may be virtually effortless for the majority of cases. Even cats which also had blood
and crystals in their urine (but no other signs of ill health) responded to this treatment.
The other facial fraction in the cat which has been used to help improve cat welfare is F4 (Felifriend; Ceva
Animal Health). This too is applied to the environment or the potential handler and seems to encourage
animals to approach unfamiliar people (Pageat and Tessier 1997). It also helps cats adapt more readily to
being moved to a shelter environment (Kakuma and Bradshaw 2001).
In the majority of cases F4 dramatically reduces the risk of aggression while being handled, but in a few
cases increased aggression has been reported. In the small number of cases that we have seen this reaction,
the aggression was directed towards someone that the cat already tended to avoid and had shown
aggression to in the past. We hypothesise that in these cases the cat was receiving conflicting signals
(chemical signal encouraging it to approach and visual one to run away). It then froze and panicked when
touched as a result. Thus F4, like F3, appears to work best in mild threat situations or those involving
uncertainty rather than real aversion. It could therefore be quite useful in the show environment where it
may help reduce the risk of aggression towards show judges and stewards from anxious cats. It can also be
very useful in helping to introduce a cat to new people in a new home. In a small number of cases we have
also used it to help introduce cats to each other by applying it to a piece of non absorbent material and then
to the each of the cats' coats. This should only be done after careful consideration of the individual
circumstances as these products are not produced for direct application to a cat and so any adverse
consequences of their use in such a way is entirely the responsibility of the consulting veterinarian. F4 may
make a cat which is anxious about someone in particular more approachable, but it will not change its
personality, ie, an aloof individual is likely to remain so, as this appears to be a genetic trait.
This article has only reviewed the uses reported in controlled studies, but here are undoubtedly more, and
the author, who can be contacted at the address below, would be pleased to hear of other people's
experiences and uses. Undoubtedly feline pheromones offer enormous potential for helping to reduce a
wide range of the stresses encountered by most cats in the home, cattery, show and hospital. All we have to
do is remember to use them.
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