Pheromones – What They Are and What They Aren’t

Pheromone products are becoming widespread and well known in the pet world. Whether in sprays, collars, or diffusers, they promise big effects. With claims to stop unwanted behaviors like hiding, scratching, fighting, and spraying, you might think pheromones are a miracle solution. Here I’ll explore what pheromones are, what they aren’t, and what they can do for your cat.

cat looking for behavior help
Phero-whats? Explain!

Pheromones Are: Chemical signals between members of the same species

Pheromones are naturally occurring molecules secreted from the body. They cause a physiological and behavioral response, mostly a social response, on members of the same species. There are pheromones related to alarm signaling, sexual signaling, bonding, and more.

In cats, pheromones are used to communicate about territory. They are left as signals between individuals passing near or through one another territories. By rubbing on or scratching surfaces, cats leave pheromone messages.

Pheromones Aren’t: Scents, Essential Oils, or Medications

Pheromones are naturally produced by an animal, though they can be recreated in a lab setting for product use. They have no smell, even to the species that they belong to. A human cannot smell cat pheromones and isn’t affected by them. Pheromones are different from scents or drugs that may have calming effects through different pathways.

Pheromones Are: Useful for decreasing stress and anxiety and encouraging social behaviors

There are several products available today that use pheromones to change pet behavior. For cats, the most familiar brand is Feliway. There are multiple Feliway products that use different types of cat pheromones to target specific behaviors. Most of the products mimic the feline facial pheromone which is what is left behind when a cat rubs their cheeks against something. This pheromone is related to feelings of calm and security. The goal of the product is to trigger those feelings and thus build confidence and reduce stress-related behaviors such as hiding or litter box avoidance.

Tabby Cat Hiding
I might like some stress relief, please

Research studies on these products indicate they work. While many studies are funded by the companies that make the products, owner and veterinarian reports seem to support the study conclusions. For many cats, pheromone products can help.

Pheromones Aren’t: Magic

While some owners see immediate, complete results, pheromones are not a quick fix for most behavior problems. These products can only decrease stress as long as the cause of the stress isn’t overshadowing the effects. They also won’t solve problems where stress isn’t the main reason or only reason for the behavior. Finally, stress reduction and building a feeling of security can take time. Even with the help of pheromone products, behavior change won’t likely be instantaneous.

Pheromones Are: Part of a bigger behavior modification plan

As noted above, many factors can affect whether a boost in positive feelings will help a situation. To be successful your cat’s needs must be met and sources of stress reduced. Then pheromone products can be an added boost.

Example: Stress at the Vet

Spray pheromones on towels in and over the carrier at least 15 minutes before putting your cat inside.

Also: 

Example: Litter Box Avoidance

Add a pheromone diffuser in the room(s) where the cat spends most of their time

Also:

Example: Fear and Hiding

Put a pheromone diffuser in the area where the cat hides (it doesn’t need to be too close)

Also: 

  • Schedule a vet visit if your cat has started hiding but didn’t previously
  • Work within your cat’s comfort zone and do not force them to interact
  • Use a routine including play and meal time to create a predictable environment
  • Build positive associations through counterconditioning
  • Give it time

So Should You Use Them?

Big Cheek Tabby
Give it to me straight

Pheromone products should never be expected to work on their own but there is evidence that they can help. There are no medical concerns associated with using pheromones around cats, dogs, or people. Occasionally a cat may have a negative behavioral change (we are, after all, messing with the social signals in their home) but these changes typically resolve after the product is removed.

If you have birds in your home, consult your vet before using a spray or diffuser as birds can have very sensitive respiratory systems.

Conclusion: Using a pheromone product is unlikely to cause harm and may help your cat, and your home, be healthier and happier.

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.