What are pheromones?
Pheromones are chemicals that animals release which will influence the behaviour of other animals of the same species. Cat pheromones can therefore only be detected and interpreted by other cats and are odourless to humans and other animals. Pheromones are used to provide an emotional response such as feelings of calm, safety or even aggression (i.e. when a threat is perceived) as well as information about how recently another cat has been in that area.
A great video explaining pheromones and how Feliway was discovered can be found below
Where are they produced?
Pheromones are produced in several glands all over several parts of your cat’s body. The main concentration of pheromone producing glands are found on the face and includes the area between each ear and their eyes, the cheeks, just around their lips and under the chin. This may help explain why cats are particularly fond of being rubbed in these areas. Pheromone producing glands are also found at the base of the tail, the pads of the feet, the area around the anus (called anal glands) and urinary and genital organs (known as the urogenital area) and around certain areas of the tummy.
How do cats detect them?
Unlike humans, cats have an additional organ which allows them to detect pheromones. This is called the VNO (short for ‘Vomeronasal Organ’) and is in the roof of their mouth behind their front teeth. You can see your cats using their VNO which they look at bit like they are grimacing with raised lips and their mouth slightly open. They may also lick their nose or slightly shake their head. Whilst we might think this slightly odd, the behaviour is called the “Flehmen response”, and is performed by all domestic cats when they encounter pheromones.
If you start to look for it, you will notice that your cat demonstrates quite a lot as they interact with their environment be it objects in the home, with any other cats in the house or when outside. When you cat is showing the Flehmen response they are trying to process new information so it’s probably best to leave them to it and not provide any addition tactile information by petting or stroking them as this could be distracting.
Why are they used?
Once pheromones have been detected by the VNO a chemical signal is sent to the cat’s brain which it is then processed and interpreted and can give them useful information about the cat who left it. As predators, it is important that cats don’t get injured and are able to hunt, they will therefore try and always avoid confrontation if they can. Pheromones are a key part of this as they can provide useful information about other cats such as how healthy that cat is (and therefore if it should be avoided), if it is male or female, if it is in season and how recently it was in the area. It also helps them to mark the boundaries of their own territory to help other cats know which areas to avoid.
We know that one of the key areas for pheromones for your cat is their face and pheromones are deposited by rubbing up against either objects or other animals. Facial pheromones are used both as a way of scent marking familiar objects and as a form of social greeting. The pheromones found in the glands of your cat’s paws are also important as they are associated with territorial markings and one of the reasons why a scratching post is a key piece of equipment for your cat!
Often cats will rub up against or even scratch any new items brought into the house like new cat bed or a new piece of furniture. When your cat does this, they are not so much saying it’s theirs but rather that they have checked it out and are happy and similarly when they scratch your furniture, they aren’t being naughty or spiteful but rather marking it to say they have been there and leaving information about their territory.
How can they be used to help your cat
We know that the pheromones that give the signals of ‘safety’ and ‘calm’ are those produced in the cheek glands. A synthetic version of these is available (Sold as Feliway) and can be used to help promote those feelings for cats who are stressed or anxious. It comes in both a spray or as a diffuser which will provide feelings of calm in a much wider area. It can take up to two to three weeks for them to have an impact on your pet so be patient.
They can be especially helpful if used in relation to introducing a new pet to the existing cat (or cats) within the home or to help your cat be less stressed when in their cat carrier (this may however also require further work, especially if your cat has negative associations of the vet with it!). They can also be used on new furniture to help prevent unwanted scratch marks! They can also be helpful if you need to help promote additional calm during any changes to your cat’s territory such as redecoration or building work.
Scientists have also helped provide a synthetic version of the pheromone that mothers produce to help calm their kittens when nursing and this has been successfully used to help in cases of cat to cat aggression (sold as Feliway Friends). If, however, relations between your cats is very tense then further work to help modify behaviour may be needed. The use of synthetic pheromones works best when combined with a full examination of everything else happening within the home, increased time with your cat and enriching your cat’s behaviour.
Please free to consult me as I’d be happy to help you find a way to bring back harmony to your home!
- Bradshaw, J. W.S, Casey, R. A. & Brown, S. L. (2012). Chapter 2 Sensory Abilities. In: The behaviour of the domestic cat. CABI, Oxfordshire pp 16 – 40.
- Mills, D. S., Dube, M. B., & Zulch, H. (2012). Stress and pheromonatherapy in small animal clinical behaviour. John Wiley & Sons.
- Turner, D. C. (2000). Chapter 5: The signaling repertoire of the domestic cat and its undomesticated relatives,. In: The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press pp 67 – 93.
- Frank, D., Beauchamp, G. and Palestrini, C., 2010. Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 236(12), pp.1308-1316.
- DePorter, T.L., 2015. Use of Pheromones in Feline Practice. Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare, pp.235-243.