Do Pheromone Diffusers & Sprays Work?
I know that this is a terrible case of anthropomorphism – guilty as charged – but I often can’t help wondering what my two cats would say if they had the words. It’s probably for the best that the cheeky little monkeys can’t talk back, but ministering to the needs of demanding but essentially mute little creatures can take a fair amount of patience and imagination. I often wish I knew what they are trying to say as I run around frantically filling food bowls, emptying litter trays, and opening and closing doors to try and work out why they’re howling at me with such frustration!
However, just because our cats can’t ‘speak’ that doesn’t mean they can’t communicate. One of the most crucial ways they do so is through the use of pheromones – chemical signals that they deposit in their environment (often by rubbing themselves on things), which carry important messages to any other cat who cares to sniff them. They can even leave messages for themselves, like:
‘Dear Me, I checked this place out earlier, and it’s a totally safe and awesome spot to have a nap’.
OK, so maybe I’m getting a bit anthropomorphic here too – but you get the idea. Over time, as scientists have discovered how rich and nuanced our cats’ pheromone messaging systems are, it’s occurred to them that maybe we could hijack them to leave our cats some messages of our own. Wouldn’t it be great if we could leave messages to our cats that said something like:
‘you know what sweetie, you’ve checked this whole house from top to bottom and it is ALL safe and ALL yours so you can just kick back and relax‘.
‘this strange kitten is actually your new little brother, and with time you’re going to love him like he’s family and not just some annoying invader so go on over and give him some love‘.
This is the dream that pheromone diffusers and sprays are built on. They use synthetic copies of our cats’ real and very specific messaging pheromones, to leave calming or reassuring messages for them in their environment.
There’s just one big question – do they actually work?!
This is a market that is pretty much completely dominated by one company, Ceva Animal Health, who make several different pheromone-based products for cats:
Feliway® or Feliway® Classic
This is their original product which comes in both plug-in diffuser and spray on form. It’s worth us pausing for a quick ‘science bit’ here: cats have five distinct pheromones that they release from glands in their face (imaginatively named F1-5), and they use each one in different contexts, and to communicate different things.
For instance, F2 is used by males in sexual displays to females, and F4 is used to mark other animals as ‘friend’ not ‘foe’ – F1 and F5 are still something of a mystery but work is underway to try and find out what they’re all about! (Vitale Shreve, K. et al 2017)
Anyway, F3 is the pheromone that’s in Feliway. We saw in a previous article (How to prepare your cat for the arrival of a new baby) that our cats are pretty nervous nellies, going around checking everything for safety and if it passes the inspection, giving it their mark of approval in the form of a great big brush of their scent from their cheeks. Now we can be more specific, and say that it’s not just their ‘scent’ that they’re rubbing onto ‘safe’ objects, but a big swoosh of F3 pheromone.
The idea is that by infusing your home, or cat carrier, or even a veterinary surgery with the ‘scent’ of F3 pheromone, your cat will feel as though they’ve already checked everything in there and given it their seal of approval. As a result, they should experience a reduction in anxiety and the behaviours it can cause – such as hiding, spraying, loss of appetite or overgrooming.
The second product that Ceva launched was called Felifriends but now seems to have been discontinued. It was a spray containing the facial pheromone F4 and was designed to make a cat more relaxed in the presence of unfamiliar humans or other animals. I’m not quite sure why it’s not available any more, but I mention it because it is confusingly similar in name – but not in content – to Ceva’s latest product…
Feliway® Friends (Europe) or Feliway® MultiCat (USA)
This is a diffuser only product, launched in 2015, which contains a synthetic version of a different type of cat pheromone. Instead of one of the facial ones, it’s a pheromone that is only released from a mother cat’s mammary area while she is nursing kittens – and is called Cat Appeasing Pheromone (CAP). Less is known about CAP than F3 but we do know that it appears to help kittens feel bonded to their mother, and conveys a sense of security and motherly reassurance to a cat’s offspring. (Rodan, I. 2015)
The idea behind this pheromone product is that can help diffuse conflict and tension between warring cats in a household, by making them more disposed towards bonding and less inclined towards fighting.
A quick note – before we go into the evidence I have to say that while there have been a fair few studies that test pheromone therapy for cats, hardly any actually have negative controls – where they compare what happens with the pheromone to what happens in a group that don’t get it, or that get a placebo. This is SO important because a lot of behavioural issues that cats face could go away of their own accord, so without that control group we really don’t know if the pheromone is responsible for the change. Because of that, from here on in, I’ll only quote from the research that has a control group and has been peer reviewed (i.e. verified by an independent panel of experts).
Given all of that, I do also have to caution that a lot of this research is funded by the company that makes the pheromone – which isn’t bad in and of itself, but if we were being cynical could mean it is less likely that negative results get reported. Nevertheless, we have to work with what we’ve got, so let’s take a look!
Tentatively good news here. A study conducted in 2001 found that Feliway® Classic in diffuser form reduced spraying from an average of 11.9 sprays a week to 5.7 sprays a week after 4 weeks of treatment. So that’s a reduction, and there was evidence that the effect was cumulative, so you would expect the reduction to continue – but they didn’t carry the study on long enough to see it. 5.7 sprays a week is still not nothing, but at least it’s half of what it was before! (Mills & Mills, 2001)
- Trips to the Vet
Positive results here too. A study in 2005 found that cats exposed to Feliway® Classic in spray form during a vet stay took more interest in food and groomed themselves more (signs of not being so anxious) than a group of cats that weren’t exposed to the pheromone. It appeared to have the same effect regardless of whether the cats were healthy or sick. (Griffifth, C. A. et al, 2005) A more recent study also looked at the effects of Feliway spray on a cat’s behaviour during a 15 minute vet’s appointment and asked owners to score their cats’ signs of stress using a standardised scoring system. The cats that got the Feliway® showed significantly lower signs of stress. (Pereira, J. S. et al. 2015)
So far, I haven’t been able to find any studies that are peer reviewed and with negative controls that look at whether Feliway® affects a cat’s response to transport, or reduces their rate of hiding – but if I’ve missed them by all means do point them out to me!
On to the evidence for Feliway® Friends / MultiCat…
- Intercat Conflict
There are – to the best of my knowledge – no controlled, peer reviewed studies of Feliway® Friends / MultiCat, so it’s very hard to say at this stage how things are looking.The only thing we have to go on is a conference paper (which is the record of scientific data presented at a conference, but not peer reviewed), describing a pilot study that Ceva conducted of the pheromone. They looked at households where there had been aggression between cats for at least 2 weeks and gave around half the pheromone and the rest a placebo. They found that the group that received the pheromone showed a greater reduction in their standardised ‘conflict score’ across the 4 weeks of the study, and that the effect seemed to persist for at least a couple of weeks after the pheromone treatment was stopped. (DePorter, T. L. et al. 2014).Sadly, that’s all the evidence we have, so it’s over to you to decide whether it’s worth a shot.
- Intercat Conflict
It would also be remiss of me not to point out the quite steep expense of these products. Here in the UK the 30-day diffuser refills retail for around £15, and they’re around $15 in the US. If you have a particularly large home, you may need more than one, as they each cover 700 square feet. In my opinion, for that sort of money, they really need to work. Fortunately, in all of the studies we’ve looked at, positive results have been found after a month, so if you’re thinking of trying it – maybe try for one month and keep an objective record of whether things improve or not. If not, don’t shell out for next month’s refill!
I’d absolutely love to hear your thoughts on these products. Do you use pheromone diffusers and/or sprays? Have they worked for you? Join in the conversation over on our Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore).