If you’ve been to the vet trying to figure out how to help your aggressive, anxious or destructive cat, you may have heard about using pheromones. Usually found as a spray or air diffuser, synthetic cat pheromones are often prescribed to help reduce your cat’s intense emotional states, but how do these seemingly unscented products help your cat act more calmly? Is it magic? Actually, it’s science!
Cats use pheromones in many ways to communicate, like most animal and insect species. Pheromone products work by using synthetic versions of your cat’s real pheromones to help your cat better adapt to certain situations. Let’s sniff out the reasons why cats use pheromones, and how they can help your cat.
The Root of the Behavior
A pheromone is a chemical substance that is produced by an animal or insect to communicate something specific to their own species. Sometimes, like with honeybees, they can be an alarm signaling danger to the hive. In mammals, though, pheromones are generally used to display mating readiness, to mark their territory, to help bond with other animals, and to leave a reminder that an object is safe.
In the wild, most cats live solitary lives, and they use pheromones to mark the boundaries of their hunting grounds to let other cats and predators know it’s theirs. This effectively creates a home territory, as other predators will usually stay out of marked areas. Mother cats also use appeasing pheromones to bond with their kittens, which helps them attach to their mother, and gives them a sense of safety and peace. Lion prides often mark each other with their pheromones to keep that bond alive and the community secure.
Domestic cats aren’t much different, and are still ruled by their instincts. Though you may know your home is safe and yours, your cat still needs to chemically mark its territory to know those things. When your cat bumps or rubs their face on objects, furniture, doorways or you, it’s leaving behind their pheromone to not only claim the space, but to mark it as safe.
Cats produce these pheromones from many areas of their bodies, including their chin, cheeks, forehead, ears, tail, butt, and even their paws and claws. Think your cat is kneading your belly or scratching the couch for fun? They are actually leaving behind their pheromones from their interdigital glands. Marking isn’t just about owning everything- it’s actually how a cat feels secure in their environment and is a necessary component of their peace of mind and well-being.
While we can’t smell the pheromones our cats secrete, they certainly can thanks to a special organ many mammals, reptiles and amphibians have called the Jacobsen’s organ. Attached to the olfactory system, this organ can help a cat detect pheromones and other scents left behind in the air, and is the reason why dogs are so good at tracking and police work.
Encouraging the Behavior
Leaving behind pheromones is as natural to a cat as breathing. Allowing your cat to mark their home gives them the ability to relax and feel safe. And when your cat is being affectionate by rubbing their face or body on you, it’s because they want to bond with you and know that you are safe too. You should encourage your cat to spread their pheromones all over your home and family. However, there are certain behaviors attached to pheromones that cat owners may find unsettling, as natural as they may be.
If your cat lived outdoors, they’d scratch and mark trees, bushes, grasses and the ground as they draw that scent line of their territory. But since they are inside, you probably don’t want them scratching up the couch, doorway, or carpeting. And you certainly don’t want them urine marking all over your house!
Then there are the issues that arise in households with dogs or multiple cats which can increase the scratching and peeing outside the litter box, often with the added bonus of aggression amongst the animals. These solitary creatures are simply trying to create their own space in an environment that isn’t made for that, and are just doing what nature tells them to do.
Synthetic cat pheromones, such as those found in products like Adaptil and Feliway, mimic the facial appeasing pheromone in cats, the one used by mothers to bond with their kittens and help them feel safe. Sprayed in cat areas, or diffused in a room, these artificial pheromones do the same thing for our feline friends as the real deal, and gives them the sense they are secure in their own, safe environment. This can reduce their need to constantly re-mark your home. And luckily for the sake of harmony, research has shown that these products can also reduce aggression among multiple cats and between cats and dogs.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Though completely instinctual, you may not see eye to eye with your cat scratching your furniture or home to pieces. But there is hope to redirect your cat in positive ways using those same instincts.
An animal behaviorist sought to determine which cat scratchers cats love best to help consumers make more informed purchases, but what he discovered could be the key to curing this common cat complaint.
In his study, John McGlone and his team watched how kittens reacted to different kinds of scratchers and noticed a pattern. Given a choice between a brand-new scratcher without any scent, scratchers with catnip applied to them, and those that had the pheromones of another cat, the kittens overwhelmingly chose the one with the pheromones.
The theory behind this behavior is that the kittens smell the pheromones left behind by the previous cat, and then engage in normal behavior by scratching the same area, usually for a longer amount of time than a non-scented scratcher. Instinctually, this would mean that they are covering the previous cat’s scent with their own, claiming that scratcher and environment. But for us, that may mean that applying synthetic hormones to a scratcher may lure a cat away from destroying the couch.
So, the next time your cat smooshes their face into you, know that you are part of their pride and their home, and they will work just as hard to keep it as safe and harmonious as you do.
By Kim Rain
Published: 04/29/2021, edited: 12/02/2022