Stress in cats is not unusual, with separation anxiety being a common stressor. Some cats are cool and independent; others hate to be left alone and become very unhappy. Separation anxiety can potentially impact your cat’s health and may cause behavioural problems such as destructiveness. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that various products are on the market that can (or claim to be able to) address this in various ways. In this article, we’ll take a look at Feliway and other pheromone-based sprays as a means to reduce your furry friend’s separation anxiety
Does Feliway help with separation anxiety? Pheromone-based preparations such as Feliway reportedly help your cat to feel calmer and reduce anxiety, including separation anxiety. This is known as pheromone therapy or pheromone therapy. Scientific evidence provides limited support for manufacturer claims regarding the effectiveness of these products, although there is anecdotal support. Other brands are available.
What is separation anxiety in cats? What is Feliway and how does it work? Are products like this effective? How do you use them safely? As a caring cat owner hoping to address these and other questions, you’ve come to the right page. Read on to get answers about treating your pet’s anxiety from a fellow cat lover.
Pheromone products, anxiety and your cat
Does Feliway help with separation anxiety? First, let’s talk about what Feliway is. This is the brand name given to a particular type of pheromone-based preparation for cats. The name “Feliway” has fallen into use as an umbrella term for all kinds of similar calming sprays, just like “Hoover” for vacuum cleaners in the UK or “Xerox” for photocopiers in the US.
“Feliway” is also used by some people for calming spray products which are not pheromone based, such as those using herbal ingredients or diluted essential oils. In this article, we’ll be talking specifically about products that use a pheromone-based formula to soothe feline anxiety rather than those that use other approaches. Opinion is divided over how effective such preparation may be. Feliway and similar preparations are intended to modify problem behaviour and also improve mood in cats, reducing destructive urges and helping the cat to feel more relaxed. There have been numerous scientific studies, using various sample sizes and methodologies, with rather variable results.
Some show an effect, others do not. I have met cat owners and vets who swore by their pheromone sprays and diffusers, while others have told me the products they tried had absolutely no effect. I would say that pheromone products may work in some cats but are unlikely to be a universal solution to separation anxiety or other emotional upsets that are affecting your cat. In my personal experience, feline separation anxiety is a complex issue and doesn’t really lend itself to simple solutions. As much as I’d like to promise a complete resolution with a spritz of artificial pheromone, that’s probably an unrealistic scenario. If you do decide to try Feliway or a similar product, it should be deployed as part of a comprehensive range of interventions to help your cat.
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What are pheromones?
Cats are highly sensitive to smells and deploy scent marking quite liberally. You will probably have noticed how your cat rubs her head against your legs, as well as rubbing her cheeks on various items around the home. If you have more than one cat, you may notice that they sometimes rub their faces against each other. Why? Well, that’s because cats have pheromone glands near their mouths that exude these aromatic compounds.
Domestic cats also have pheromone-producing organs in their flanks, between their toes and elsewhere on their bodies; these produce different types of pheromone for different purposes. With our weaker senses of smell, we can’t detect any scent but cats certainly can. They use scent marking to indicate that a particular individual is part of their colony group — that’s what they’re doing when they rub their faces on you or wind around your legs. (Some people mistakenly assume that a cat is marking you as their territory or their personal property when they rub up against you to apply their pheromones; in fact, they’re marking you as a friend and ally.)
This scent marking performs a number of functions and is a natural part of feline behaviour. The substance produced by the glands in a cat’s face is called Feline Facial Marking Pheromone (FFMP); there are various constituents in FFMP, called “fractions”. The F3 and F4 fractions are chiefly the ones used in the products we’ll be discussing in this article.
What do pheromone products contain?
It is possible to obtain small amounts of natural pheromone from cats themselves and some versions of pheromone therapy do use natural feline pheromones. It would be costly and impractical to create commercial pheromone therapy products in this way, however. For this reason, products such as Feliway use synthetic pheromones designed to be analogous to the F3 and F4 fractions of FFMP.
These synthetic compounds are mixed with a small amt of a neutral carrier, such as water and denatured alcohol, so they can be turned into drops and sprays, used in a diffuser or painted onto surfaces. The exact ingredients will vary between different brands and formulae. Any preparation marketed for use around pets needs to comply with regulatory requirements, which means they should be quite safe if used in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions.
The synthetic pheromones used in such products are typically odourless (at least, they don’t smell of anything if you’re not a cat) and are usually formulated such that they won’t stain or damage furnishings, fixtures etc. That said, if the product is to be applied directly to furnishings, you should test it in a discreet area to make sure it won’t affect the appearance of the surface you’re treating.
How do I use Feliway and other pheromone therapy products?
Some products come as a spray and are intended to be spritzed onto surfaces around the home, as well as into cat carriers or vehicles where the cat will be riding. For feline separation anxiety, a spray might be applied to the cat’s bed or favourite sleeping spots; this is intended to help the cat feel relaxed when she settles down to rest. Other products that are designed to be dropped or painted onto surfaces may be useful in addressing the secondary effects of anxiety. Some cats engage in problem scratching when anxious and there are pheromonal products developed to help deal with this, including ones to discourage scratching or transfer scratching behaviours to a more appropriate target.
For separation anxiety, however, you’re more likely to be using a diffuser. A diffuser allows the pheromone to permeate the whole of your space, thus hopefully allowing the cat to benefit from it while roaming the house. Diffusers may be passive and rely on a wick that takes up a pheromone-containing fluid and allows it to evaporate into the air; more usually they need electricity to work and are plugged into a domestic power outlet.
Be advised that some cats are apt to spray diffusers; manufacturers advise keeping cats away from the diffuser until they’ve become used to the pheromones or they may decide to add some pheromones of their own. It may be necessary to locate the diffuser somewhere the cats can’t find it.
Anxiety and problem cat behaviours
Separation anxiety tends to come with a raft of attendant issues (we’ll discuss these more fully in the upcoming sections). Your cat may be displaying some or none of these issues, as anxiety manifests differently in different individuals; some cats demonstrate anxiety in more passive ways, such as crying when left alone, obsessively searching for the absent owner or refusing to leave the doorway. More active signs of anxiety include scratching, aggression and territorial activity such as spraying and inappropriate urination or defecation (especially in male cats). A cat without anxiety may also display these problem behaviours — they’re all part of the feline repertoire.
Pheromone therapy products exist that are intended to help with these more specific issues. Products such as Felifriend are marketed as helping your cat to bond with you and other cats or animals in the household, for instance. Other examples are products designed to encourage scratching on scratching posts or, conversely, to deter scratching on less appropriate objects. Sprays and treatments to encourage scratching may use an analogue of the pheromone found in between a cat’s toes while sprays to ward off scratching tend to be the facial pheromones also used in products meant to relax anxious cats. Products to deter spraying also tend to contain FFMP analogues.
How effective are Feliway and similar products in tackling separation anxiety?
There have been various studies examining the effectiveness of pheromone therapy, looking at different preparations and their effects on multiple aspects of feline mood and behaviour. The results are varied, with some studies showing a clear benefit and others suggesting that Feliway and similar products aren’t much better than a placebo; these results can be difficult to evaluate given the fairly extensive variations in methodology, sample sizes and characteristics, as well as the hypotheses under investigation.
When we look at the anecdotal side of things, we find that opinion is also divided among cat owners and veterinary professionals as to how useful these products may be. Some owners heartily recommend pheromone therapy, as do a lot of vets. Others, though, feel that these preparations don’t really help in their particular situation. With a hefty price tag for most products and limited evidence for pheromone therapy, it’s well worth trying other approaches as well. Even if you get good results with Feliway or other pheromone therapy products, these remedies are best used alongside other tactics to give your anxious cat the support she needs.
Separation anxiety is a common problem and there are lots of steps you can take to help your pet cope when you’re away. If the underlying issue isn’t resolved, however, pheromone therapy will be of limited use. In the following sections, we’ll look at the phenomenon of separation anxiety in cats and some approaches for resolving it.
Separation anxiety in cats: the basics
Even the most laid-back kitty can become anxious under some circumstances. Your cat might be fine in your company but get scared of your guests. She might be confident and happy at the groomer but fearful and shy at the vet. If your cat’s anxiety is mostly manifested when you’re away at work or out of the house for some other reason, we call this separation anxiety.
A cat may also experience separation anxiety when moving to a new home, as she has to leave behind the humans and other animals she was used to and adjust to a different household. In the latter case, the anxiety is likely to be fairly short-lived; if everything goes well the cat should adapt to her situation, bond with her human caregivers and start to enjoy life in her new household. In situations where the anxiety is related to an owner who regularly needs to be away from the home, a longer-term strategy is necessary. The amount of contact and attention necessary to keep your cat feeling safe and happy will vary greatly between individuals.
Some cats are quite cool and independent while others get very attached to their humans and can’t settle easily when they’re away. Some cats who initially show separation anxiety when you leave for work or long errands will adapt once they’re used to your routine; others will tend to be twitchy and anxious any time you go out unless you take steps to address their anxiety (whether with Feliway or other methods).
Scratching in anxious cats
Scratching is a fairly common issue — anxious cats can become very destructive. It’s important not to punish cats for scratching. They’re not simply vandalising your property for the sake of it. This may not be much consolation when you come home to a ruined carpet or a distressed armchair but scratching really isn’t malicious. It’s simply that scratching has a calming effect on cats and so they do it to self-soothe. You can help by providing additional scratching posts and surfaces to help your anxious kitty de-stress. Ideally you should have something for her to scratch on in every room where she normally spends time.
Note that to get the full benefit from a good scratch your cat needs to be able to stretch out properly; scratching posts should be half again as long as she is from nose to hindquarters. You should also make sure to offer both horizontal and vertical surfaces for your cat to scratch on. While she’s getting used to scratching on these appropriate surfaces, it may be necessary to cover up the ones she tends to destroy.
Tie up curtains so they don’t hang down where she can claw at them and cover furniture with cardboard or something else that’s easy to remove or replace. Some cat owners recommend further covering the cardboard with something she won’t enjoy clawing at, such as sticky-tape or plastic. This will help her to transfer her scratching urge to the items you’ve provided.
Spraying and fouling in anxious cats
Spraying proper is distinct from ordinary urination as it involves a specific set of scent glands and is done purely for territorial purposes. It’s normally seen in entire toms and is one of many reasons to get your cat fixed in a timely manner. Female cats and neutered toms may also spray vertical surfaces, as well as urinating and fouling outside the litter-box.
An anxious cat may spray more as a way of feeling secure in a space where there’s a perceived lack of security. You can address the issue by providing additional litter-boxes, especially in the locations where your cat tends to spray or foul. You may find it useful to apply a strongly fragranced polish or cleaning product to the area or place cotton wool pads soaked in something odiferous, such as peppermint essence, near the spots that get the worst of the fouling; this has been known to backfire, however, as some cats try to cover up the smell. As with other problem behaviours, do not punish or scold your cat. She doesn’t understand why you’re shouting or hurting her and the upsetting experience will only make her more stressed, potentially creating a stronger urge to spray.
Intelligence, attention and anxiety
Cats are much smarter than they’re often given credit for — and the smarter the cat, the more mischief they’re capable of getting into. It seems to me that smarts can also make a cat more prone to anxiety, too; perhaps their feline brains work overtime to conjure up scary scenarios where they’ve been abandoned in an empty house forever. Fortunately, you can help here by providing your cat with intellectually stimulating play. While you’re home, make time to play with her and give her lots of attention; a good option is to teach your cat some games or tricks. I’m a big fan of clicker training, where you teach your cat to associate the distinctive sound of a clicker with a particular action (raising her paw, coming over to you, etc).
Games like fetch are a good outlet for your cat’s mental energy and also allow her to spend time with you. When you’re not around, make sure your cat still has plenty to occupy her mind by enriching her environment with puzzles and forage toys that she can play with. Some cats are also great at learning a routine — something you can exploit to soothe separation anxiety. If your cat knows you’ll always be home at a certain time, she will often find it easier to remain calm. If possible, I would encourage you to recruit a friend or a hired cat-sitter to come over and play with your cat for an hour or so during the day, giving her the attention and mental stimulation she needs. Combined with pheromonal therapy, this kind of approach may help resolve the problem and allow your cat to feel secure and happy when she’s by herself.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.