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Better behaved pets through chemistry?

People with anxious pets are trying recently introduced pheromone sprays and plug-ins, which are aimed at calming animals down. But how well the products work is debatable.
F.Birchman /
/ Source: contributor

Linus doesn’t like strangers. The 4-year-old mixed breed had a lot to cope with, then, when his owner, Alberta Hanko of Smithtown, N.Y., had eight guests that Linus had never met. But Linus had a security blanket in the form of a plug-in that was emitting DAP, or dog appeasing pheromone, which is said to have a calming effect.

“I used the plug-in along with a lot of positive reinforcement,” says Hanko, who had confined Linus to the kitchen using a baby gate. “At first, he was extremely nervous, barking whenever people moved, but we had only had the DAP plugged in for half an hour. After an hour or so, he settled in and I was able to remove sheets that I had hung over the gate so he was able to see people. He actually acted calm and got used to them coming and going."

Not surprisingly, people with anxious pets eagerly seek out anything that might help reduce the barking, howling, chewing, house soiling and urine marking associated with their pets’ problem. Like Hanko, many try the recently introduced products containing pheromones, which are biological or chemical substances that influence sexual and other behaviors in animals. The sprays and plug-ins — Feliway for cats and DAP for dogs — are aimed at calming anxious pets. 

Various forms of anxiety, from separation angst to extreme shyness to fear of thunderstorms or fireworks, are common behavior problems in dogs and cats, so much so that it was the subject of no fewer than six seminars at last month’s Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas.

“Separation anxiety is supposed to affect 15 percent of the nation’s 73.9 million dogs,” says Nicholas Dodman, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and professor of animal behavior at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass. Separation anxiety also affects cats, Dodman says, although it’s usually not as noticeable because cats tend to be less noisy and destructive in expressing their anxiety.

At Westwood Animal Hospital in Westwood, Kan., veterinarian Wayne Hunthausen, who is board-certified in animal behavior, says he sees a lot of dogs with separation anxiety and fireworks and thunderstorm phobias. Anxiety is an underlying issue in a significant portion of aggression problems as well, he says. “Anxiety problems are also fairly common in cats,” Hunthausen says. “Usually, fear of people is at the top of the list.”

How well do the products work?
Just how much pheromone-based products help is debatable. While some dog trainers use them in classes to help keep canine students at ease, veterinary experts have mixed reactions. Dodman doesn’t believe they are very effective, although he concedes that Feliway may have a minor effect. Hunthausen says he sees some benefits when they’re used in conjunction with behavior modification.

“It really depends on the problem. My experience is that they’re less successful for thunderstorm phobias than they are for firework phobias, for some reason. Anxiety around people is where I probably have the best results,” Hunthausen says. He especially likes them for use with older pets when there’s a concern about the liver’s ability to process drugs such as Xanax or Valium, and with cats, whose resistance to taking pills may limit what can be done therapeutically.

Board-certified veterinary behaviorist Gary Landsberg of Doncaster Animal Clinic in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, says: “If I choose cases where I expect them to work, they’re usually fairly effective, and in cases where I am uncertain they’re going to work, then it’s more variable. If a dog has specific fears and anxieties, I use the pheromones in combination with a major behavior program. I seldom just dispense it and say, ‘See if this works.’ ”

Landsberg uses Feliway most successfully with cats that spray urine to mark their territory, as well as with cats that are anxious about changes in the home, such as a move, new people in the family or strangers coming over. “I find that Feliway as a diffuser can help calm most cats sometimes, along with behavior therapy,” he says.

A disadvantage of the pheromone products is their cost. "It’s a little more expensive than medication in most cases," Hunthausen says. The upfront cost for the spray or diffuser ranges from $20 to $40, and refills are $15 to $20.

How pheromones might actually work is a matter of conjecture. Because these synthetic pheromones are often used in concert with a behavior modification or counter-conditioning program, as in Hanko’s case, it’s possible that the pet is reacting more to the owner’s changed behavior or expectations than to the product itself.

When pheromones do appear to work, they usually do so within 3 to 10 days, although Hunthausen has seen a couple of almost immediate reactions in some animals. When a fearful reaction can be predicted, as in the case of fireworks on the Fourth of July or an upcoming car trip, Hunthausen recommends that pet owners start using the product at least 10 days beforehand.

Longtime Turkish Van owner and author of "Kittens for Dummies" Dusty Rainbolt of Lewisville, Texas, credits Feliway with keeping kitty hostilities at bay in her multi-cat household.

“I use it to help prevent territoriality,” she says. “It doesn’t stop it entirely because you can’t when you have this many cats, but it really tones it down.” The one time she ran out of it, she noticed an increase in urine marking until she was able to replenish her supply.

Rainbolt also finds Feliway effective for cats that don’t enjoy the car ride to the veterinary clinic. She sprays Feliway in the cat carrier 10 or 15 minutes before putting the cat inside it. She recommends using Feliway any time a cat faces a stressful situation: a new pet in the home, an owner bringing home a baby or a new boyfriend, or a pet sitter coming in while the owners are on vacation.

Could pheromone therapy help your pet? It’s possible, but you have to be willing to try to figure out why Misty or Max is anxious in the first place. Few cases of anxiety-related problems are successfully resolved without behavior therapy.

“There’s always a reason why the pet is doing what it’s doing,” Landsberg says. “If you don’t address the underlying cause, then you might not get the improvement you expect.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

Creature Comforts appears the third Monday of every month.