Pheromones are the chemical equivalent of social media and dating apps for animals.
They can convey all sorts of messages and a vast range of information, from territory boundaries to reproductive status, to other members of their species, and are used by most species in some form or other, including our domestic pets.
For example when your cat comes up to you and bunts you on the leg or smoodges their face hard up against yours, sorry but these displays of affection are often no different to them rubbing their face on the door jam or spraying urine in the backyard.
They are marking their territory and claiming you as theirs … letting the world know ‘this is my human’.
This is why they encourage you to rub their face and whiskers … in many cases they are manipulating you into marking yourself and that’s why cats will eventually take over the world.
In dogs, as pack animals, pheromones help reaffirm and maintain the bonds between members of the pack, in addition to the other forms of signalling designed to communicate with individuals and groups in a geographic area.
These chemicals are distributed by several areas of the body, most commonly the face, the chest, the paws and the anal region.
The common factor in this type of messaging is that it is designed to elicit some sort of response be it behavioural or physiological.
For this reason, humans have harnessed them in a myriad of ways.
Pheromones which mimic the sexual attractant of certain insects to draw in the males of the species have widespread applications in the field of pest control, particularly for large scale production.
But in recent years, synthetic pheromones have been adapted for the domestic market in an attempt to address some of the more challenging behaviours exhibited by our companion animals, particularly as they become more and more a part of the family and are sometimes forced into unnatural or challenging situations through their close relationship with us.
Cat-appeasing pheromones (CAP) and dog-appeasing pheromones (DAP) are readily available commercially to pet owners hoping to address a plethora of issues in their fur kids, issues such as aggression, stress-related behaviours like over-grooming, separation anxiety, inappropriate elimination, destructive tendencies, barking and more.
So how do they work?
The Jacobson’s or vomeronasal organ, is part of the olfactory system in many animals from possums to snakes.
It is one of the main receptors for pheromones and is located in the roof of the mouth, where it receives the chemical signals and sends them directly to the brain, eliciting a response.
In effect, animals are tasting the scent, often indicated by what’s known as the Flehmen response, lifting their lips, raising their heads and opening their mouths to draw in the taste.
Anyone who owns a cat will see it on a regular basis … that weird grinny grimace they get when they encounter something new or you have been in a house with a strange cat.
According to research most CAPs and DAPs are synthesised from the same pheromone nursing cats and dogs secrete from their mammary glands to soothe their kittens and puppies.
It is thought to provide comfort to the babies and also create a bond between mother and offspring, and can have the same affect on adult animals.
While all the claims associated with these products are yet to be fully explored, some clear benefits have been revealed.
In the case of multi-cat households, one study found it did help reduce the aggression between cats while another found DAPs did reduce several of the signs of distress, fear and separation anxiety in hospitalised dogs.
However, while pheromones can be an effective, non-invasive solution, they are not a silver bullet to resolve all behavioural issues.
It is always best to discuss any concerns you may have with your vet to ascertain whether pheromones can resolve the problem or another approach is needed.