I have written numerous times about the use of pheromones to reduce stress and stress-related problems in cats and dogs (1, 2, 3). Overall, the evidence for these products is weak, and it is likely they have little to no meaningful benefit. A new study of pheromone therapy in shelter cats appears to support this conclusion.
Chadwin RM. Bain MJ. Kass PH. Effect of a synthetic feline facial pheromone product on stress scores and incidence of upper respiratory tract infection in shelter cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2017 Aug 15;251(4):413-420.
In this study, several hundred shelter cats were exposed to a pheromone diffuser or a placebo diffuser and assessed in terms of behavioral indicators of stress and incidence of upper respiratory infections (URI), which appear to occur more commonly with increases stress.
The methodology was generally sound, with appropriate randomization, blind assessment, and placebo controls. The study was under-powered, which means it is possible that a small difference between the groups may have not been detected in the statistical analysis. The authors also performed a large number of statistical comparisons of many variables. This is an approach which can raise the risk of falsely positive findings.
The findings, however, were pretty consistently negative. No difference was seen in stress scores or in the occurrence of URI between cats exposed to the pheromone and those exposed to the placebo. No evidence of harm from the pheromone treatment was seen, though this was not specifically sought.
As usual, no single study should be taken as the definitive answer to any medical question. However, in light of the fact that pheromones have been in use and studied extensively for decades and strong, consistent evidence of significant benefits has not been seen, this study strengthens the argument that these products do not, in fact, provide such benefits.
I’m currently taking the Fear Free certification program to complete two final credits of veterinary school. Initially I was a little annoyed that the Fear Free company has been able to market low-stress animal handling as their “invention”. If you think about it, they have a pretty good marketing strategy. They get a lot of vets and vet clinics to become “Ceritified Fear Free” with them, which makes clients think that anyone who isn’t “Certified Fear Free” must be a bunch of animal-abusers, I guess. It kind of reminds me of the Non-GMO marketing ploy. I decided to take the course anyway, as I thought that I could still learn something from the modules, or at least see what all the fuss is about.
Anyway, I noticed in the Fear Free modules that they really push the use of pheromones. It seems like every other slide mentions them, and on the module quizzes they often have them as answers to questions. They never talk about what evidence shows that pheromone therapy works, they just mention them like their efficacy is a well-known fact. That led me to look into the research (again) done on pheromones for the calming of pets. I found a post by Dr. Mikel Delgado (http://catsandsquirrels.com/feliway/) where she lists a bunch of studies done on pheromones. Only a couple showed positive effects of the pheromones, but turns out they were funded by Ceva, the company that creates Feliway. Turns out, Ceva is also one of the major sponsors of Fear Free. Makes me suspect that that’s why they mention pheromone sprays so much in their training modules. It’s frustrating, though, because I know so many students who take these modules, and I think they just assume that there is strong evidence that pheromone sprays are effective because they are mentioned so frequently in the modules.
I hope you continue to update your blogs regarding the pheromone sprays. Hopefully more research is done on the topic. I think that the use of pheromones is still a potential tool in veterinary medicine, but we can’t just keep pretending something works because we want it to. I thought you might find the connection between Ceva and Fear Free intersting as well.
I share your frustration with Fear Free. It is ridiculous to collect a mixture of common and uncontroversial handling techniques with dubious stuff like pheromones and then sell it as a dramatic innovation which veterinarians now feel obliged to buy in order to appear caring and interested in patient welfare. Many of our staff and colors have done the certification, and I see little difference in the methods compared with what we were already doing since most are already widespread practices.
As for the pheromone issue, the most recent summary of the evidence I have done was from my VPN column March, 2018. Still not much compelling evidence of meaningful benefits.
I wouldn’t say I’m an advocate of Fear Free, but I have seen some real improvement in patient handling skills in those who have taken the training. I’ve always tried to impress on staff that when handling, less is more, and then a bad experience with three techs and a veterinarian all piled on one dog to draw blood will only make that animal more challenging to handle the next time. For serious cases, I will sedate 1st, but I’d prefer not to for a routine visit. There are small things, like not staring at a cat or getting down on floor level with a dog to help ease some tension. Not magic, just common sense animal handling; when I was a senior veterinary student, we were trained in safe large animal handling but not small animals. That said, I find smearing peanut butter or Cheeze Whiz on the floor unwarrented, especially if an animal presents for food allergies or GI issues . We do use sprays; I don’t think they work in the fashion that companies claim, but they can help mask other scents, such as dog fur before going into a feline examination.