Stress in Cats: Part 3
Dr Caity Venniker
Pheromones – What, Why and How We Can Use Them
In the last two articles we have looked at ways to manage stress in your cat through making changes to the environment as well as interactions between cats in a multi-cat household. Today I want to focus on a very interesting topic - the use of pheromone therapy in cats.
What Are Pheromones?
Pheromones are a group of chemicals involved in communication between members of the same species. In dogs and cats there are many different types which elicit various effects in the behaviours of others. They are used to signal alarm, sexuality, territory marking as well as bonding and familiarity. This is done through a special organ known as the vomeronasal organ, adjacent to the nasal passages, which serves to recognise and help interpret the nearly 40 different chemicals present in pheromones(4).
In humans, this system of communication is now recognised as being largely non-functional(3) but in cats it is highly tuned; and represents just another way in which our pets operate on another sensory level to us. Understanding this form of communication may help us to perceive certain behaviours in a more insightful way, and to better manage stress amongst our feline friends.
Why And When Do Cats Release Pheromones?
Cats have many different glands which release scents and secrete pheromones. Most of them are located around the face (for facial rubbing) but are also present in the paw pads (for scratching) and around the nipples of female cats (for suckling) as well as in the urine.
Pheromones help cats to make sense of their environment and to better understand other cats. Facial rubbing pheromones can be used to affirm familiarity and enhance social relationships. Pheromones released during suckling can help mothers and kittens to bond, while those released during scratching can help to mark territories(2). Pheromones in urine can help to establish boundaries, as well as indicate sexual viability, or even express fear(2). These marks help cats to establish whether they want to find or avoid each other, either to enable mating or reduce conflict.
The Phenomenon of Pheromones
While many cats come across as aloof or stand offish, it’s clear that they are in fact experts at communication, and as humans we are simply not capable of conversing in their particular language.
When your cat rubs his face or sprays or scratches, it’s easy to think of it as the equivalent of him scrawling into a park bench:
“FLUFFY WAS HERE”
In fact, he’s leaving a much more nuanced and informative message. It may be more along the lines of a Facebook post:
“Fluffy – middle aged, neutered male, checked in at Park Bench, in the afternoon, feeling happy. #blessed”
Or even a Tinder profile:
“Fluffy - tall, dark and handsome, three years old, unsterilized, is feeling frisky and ready to mingle”
The reality is that we will never be able to fully grasp exactly what is communicated in this remarkable dialect, but we can respect it and even try to manipulate certain aspects of it for the emotional benefit of our cats.
How Pheromones Can Help Reduce Stress
Synthetic pheromones have been developed commercially to mimic those produced by cats naturally. There are sprays, diffusers and collars, which can be used in slightly different ways.
Diffusers are good for managing stress in multi-cat households. Sprays are useful for targeting specific problem areas, such as where the cat is marking, or onto a carrier to help with travel anxiety(2). Collars are useful for especially anxious individuals.
There are many types and brands of synthetic pheromones with different functions according to which natural version they are based on. We discuss two popular choices below.
1. F3 is one of the naturally produced feline facial pheromones; and is used to mark territories. This pheromone is involved with affirming familiarity of places and objects and promoting emotional stability(2). Feliway® is one synthetic version of F3 and is effective in reducing stress - particularly that involved with introducing the cat to a new situation, such as a vet visit or a new home.
Feliway® has also been used effectively to reduce unwanted behaviours such as urine marking and anxiety-induced scratching.
Scratching is a means of stretching and conditioning the claws; but can also be motivated by the need to leave both a visual and a scent marking. It is worth noting where and when scratching takes place, to try and interpret the motivation behind it:
- After resting, cats often scratch to stretch(5) so it may help the state of your furniture to keep scratching posts near resting areas.
- When scratching occurs at other times and areas within the home, it can be a sign of the cat feeling insecure, particularly if done at entry and exit points where the cat may feel threatened(5), or in areas where cats need to pass each other(1).
The use of pheromone sprays can help to establish a feeling of security and thus reduce the incidence of spraying and scratching.
2. F4 is another naturally produced facial pheromone used by cats to essentially mark their friends, whether that is another cat, other pets in the household or you. It signals familiarity and a good relationship. If we stick with the pheromone-Facebook analogy, every time your cat rubs his face against you, you may in fact have just been tagged! 😊
Felifriend is one of the synthetic versions of F4 and is used to assist in developing comfortable relationships between cats and new animals or people in the environment(2).
These are only two of the most commonly used pheromone products but there are many more available.
Pheromones – How Far Can They Take Us?
Pheromone therapy is very useful because it does not involve giving oral medication – which for an anxious cat can be extremely stressful. As a natural form of therapy, it also has no contraindications. It is best used for reducing tension rather than controlling overt aggression (for help with this take a look at our previous blog, How to Manage a Multi-Cat Household). Pheromone therapy is largely accepted to be safe and when used correctly can be of significant psychological relief for stressed cats.
Tweaking environmental factors; carefully managing multi-cat households; and pheromone therapy all have important roles to play in the reduction of stress in cats. In some cats however, these measures are not enough, and for these individuals it is worth seeking veterinary advice on if a medical treatment may be of benefit.
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- Casey, R. (2017). Management Problems In Cats. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.
- Crowell-Davies, S.L & Landsberg, G.M. (2017). Pharmacology and Pheromone Therapy. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.
- D’Aniello, B., Semin,G., Scandurra, A. & Pinelli, C. (2017, August 7). The Vomeronasal Organ: A Neglected Organ. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5566567/#_ffn_sectitle
- Feliway: What Are Cat Pheromones? (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.feliway.com/uk/Products/What-Are-Cat-Pheromones
- Rochlitz, I. (2017). Basic Requirements for Good Behavioural Health and Welfare in Cats. In D. F. Horwitz & D. S. Mills (Eds.), BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine (pp. 136-144). British Small Animal Veterinary Association.