Trying to make sense of the pheromone mess.
First things first! Some of you might be wondering what the heck Feliway is! Feliway is a “feline facial pheromone analogue (also refered to as FFP or FFPA).” It is a human-created chemical copycat (no pun intended) of the pheromones that your cat deposits when they rub their scent glands on objects (or even on you). Pheromones are chemicals that many animals use to communicate – and in cats, these chemicals are quite important! The face (cheek, forehead, chin) and paws have important scent glands, and of course urine or spray marking contains pheromones – cats use all of these scent glands to mark their turf and communicate with other cats.
Now, when scientists came up with idea to manufacture a synthetic version of these pheromones they must have thought they hit the animal behavior jackpot. Imagine, a product that could convince a cat they just sprayed somewhere, so why bother doing so again? Or being able to convince animals that they should feel nice and cozy and secure because the pheromones that their mom would have released are being diffused throughout the environment?
Feliway claims to:
- Create a state of familiarity and security in the cat’s environment
- Comfort and reassure cats during a challenging situation
- Reduce or prevent unwanted behaviors due to stress
- Ease animosity between cats
- Curb spraying indoors
- Prevent cats from scratching on surfaces
- Encourage less hiding in cats
- Make it easier for your vet to examine your cat at the veterinary office
(I took these claims from the Feliway website)
Wow, is this sh*t magic? In theory, it’s a great idea. Vets love to recommend it, and people experiencing behavior problems with their cats want a magic bullet, so they are willing to give it a whirl. Feliway is pricey – with each plug setting folks back $40, a six-pack of refills running over $80 on Amazon, and the spray costing around $20/bottle. One plug diffuser covers around 700 square feet, according to the manufacturers, and the refill lasts one month. You do the math.
But does it work? A new study, “Evaluation of environment and a feline facial pheromone analogue on physiologic and behavioral measures in cats,” by Conti et al., examined the effect of Feliway on cats during a standard medical exam in both the home and the vet hospital. Experimenters measured various parameters that could be related to stress: heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and other signs of stress including struggling and vocalization. Thirty cats were examined under four conditions in a repeated measure study: home with placebo, home with FFPA, vet hospital with placebo and vet hospital with FFPA. The veterinarian examining all cats was blind to whether the cat had been exposed to FFPA. All cats were healthy.
Results found that cats had higher breathing and heart rates in the hospital compared to the home examination. There was no effect of environment on the blood pressure, but more cats were likely to struggle and vocalize during the home examination than the hospital examination. There was no effect of Feliway on any recorded measure in the study.
So back to the question: Does Feliway work? Well, one study is not really enough to convince most people one way or another, so I took a look back at the previous, peer-reviewed and published studies that I could find on our good friend the internet (if I missed any, please let me know!). I did not include any poster presentations (most of them show positive results, and were by Feliway’s inventor, Philip Pageat, and have not been published in a journal). Here’s a brief summary of what I found, as well as a little note as to whether the study was in any way funded by makers of Feliway (the current study by Conti et al., was NOT funded by Feliway, or any of its parent companies – such as Ceva Sante, Abbott Laboratories, or Pageat’s company, the Research Institute in Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology).
Frank, Erb, & Houpt, 1999 – 14 out of /24 households reported a decrease in spraying after implementing Feliway. There was no control group. In other words, we don't know if the spraying would have decreased anyway without the Feliway. Funded by Ceva.
Ogata & Takeuchi, 2000 – a decrease in urine marking was found with the use of Feliway, but again there was no control group. No funding from Ceva.
Hunthausen, 2000 - a decrease in urine marking was found with use of Feliway, but AGAIN, no control group. No funding from Ceva.
Mills and Mills, 2001 – a reduction in spraying behavior was found in cats exposed to a Feliway diffuser. There was a control placebo group, but by the end of the study both groups of cats were spraying at similar rates (5-70 times per week for the treatment group, and 8-58 times per week for the placebo group). Sponsored by Ceva.
Gunn-Moore & Cameron, 2004 - no improvement in health found in cats with feline idiopathic cystitis based on use of Feliway. Double blinded and placebo control study. No funding from Ceva.
Griffith et al., 2005 - hospitalized cats exposed to Feliway and a cat carrier to hide in ate more than cats exposed to just Feliway. The effect seemed to be driven by the cat carrier, not the Feliway. No funding from Ceva.
Kronen et al, 2006 - Feliway did not reduce struggling of cats for a blood draw, although FFPA cats appeared "calmer." Acepromazine and FFPA seemed to result in the most calm cats compared to placebo and FFPA only groups. Funded by Abbott Laboratories, who also produce and distribute Feliway in the USA.
Frank, D, 2010 - review of use of pheromones for cats and dogs (included several of the aforementioned studies). This review basically concluded that based on the quality of evidence, there was no strong support for FFPA having a positive (or any) effect on cat behavior. No funding from Ceva.
Mills, Redgate & Landsberg, 2011 - A meta-analysis of treatments for spraying that included pheromones concluded that the aforementioned studies in the Frank 2010 review that found no strong evidence actually did show an effect of Feliway. Confused yet? Oh, this study was funded by Ceva.
Cozzi et al, 2013 - This study found an increase in scratching of areas sprayed with a Feline Interdigital Semiochemical. Not funded by Ceva. (Correction: March 4, 2016).
an FFPA. Funded by Ceva.
Periera et al, 2015 - A randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled study that found a positive effect of Feliway on owner-reported stress levels in cats in a veterinary clinic setting. Funded by Ceva.
So if we are trying to solve a behavior problem in cats, should we be recommending or using Feliway? I think that for many veterinarians and consultants, the line of thinking seems to be, well it might help, and it probably doesn’t hurt…so…why not? And I guess my answer would be – for the money that owners spend on Feliway, it really should be doing some magic.
For the cost of two or three plugs running in someone’s home (and I did have a client who was using FIVE plugs in her house) – we should be seeing some pretty amazing results! That money could be spent on lots of enrichment and vertical space in a home, which might provide better results!
Now I may have my own biases – the people who are helped (or believe they are being helped) by Feliway most likely never call me for a behavior consultation. Many of my clients have already tried Feliway to no positive effect (and two of my clients had cats who sprayed or urinated on the diffuser…).
So, I have to admit, I don’t generally recommend Feliway to people whose cats are experiencing behavior problems. Does it work in some cats? Maybe! I cannot deny that some people swear by Feliway. And some of the studies (including ones with double-blind, placebo-controlled methodologies) find positive results. Is it odd that most of those studies were funded by the parent company? It makes me a little uncomfortable, for sure.
What I can conclude right now is that we’ve got a pheromone mess, and it would be great for someone to clean it up with some decent studies. Perhaps there are characteristics of some cats that make them more likely to respond to Feliway than others. Maybe some methods of application or use are more effective than others. But right now, it’s really hard to tell, and until we have better evidence, I’m not putting Feliway at the top of my behavior toolkit.