Recently, I have seen a few new Feliway commercials on television and, of course, my eyes turn and my ears perk up when anything related to cats comes on TV. (Here is a link to one of the commercials.) For those of you unfamiliar with Feliway, it is a synthetic version of the facial pheromones of cats. I do not want to get into the science of pheromones here, but they are naturally occurring biochemicals; humans and dogs secrete pheromones, too, as do all mammals.
The idea behind creating synthetic feline facial pheromones is that their use may reduce stress in cats by creating a calming physiological response. Much of the research done on these synthetic pheromones has been done by or supported by the companies who manufacture them, particularly Ceva. They tout that Feliway is “clinically proven” to work because they have funded studies and have widely distributed the product to veterinary offices for trial, receiving anecdotal reports that it seems to reduce stress in cats. In a quick search, I could find little independent research on the efficacy of Feliway. Here is one non-biased study.
Anecdotally, my experience has been that Feliway falls into the “can’t hurt, might help” category. I have not found it to be efficacious in reducing stress when I have tried the spray and wipe forms with my own cats and foster cats. I have had some clients who report that they have seen a reduction in the symptoms of stress in their cats using the plug-in diffusers. I have heard from an equal number of clients that they saw no difference in their cats’ stress levels with and without Feliway. As a result, I rarely recommend that clients spend the money on Feliway.
Back to the Feliway commercials that prompted me to write this blog. My feelings about Feliway's efficacy aside, as a cat behavior consultant, I am bothered by the messages they send.
The title of the commercials is “You wouldn’t put up with it if someone else did it.” The commercials are about stress-related responses. So why does Ceva portray scratching, peeing outside of the litter box and hiding as intentional and vindictive?
Scratching is a NORMAL cat behavior. Cats scratch to stretch, slough dead nails, and mark territory. They scratch surfaces that feel good and help them accomplish these healthy, normal goals. Rarely is scratching a “stress-related” behavior in cats. And NEVER do they scratch a surface vindictively. Scratching of what we deem as inappropriate surfaces by our cats should be managed by providing appropriate surfaces in places where cats like to scratch – not by discouraging scratching altogether.
On the other hand, cats do hide when they are stressed. And if a synthetic pheromone helps them feel comfortable enough to VOLUNTARILY come out and socialize, great! But, again, hiding is a natural behavior, a normal coping mechanism - not something that we “shouldn’t put up with.”
Urinating outside of the litter box is often a sign of stress for cats but it may be a sign of a medical problem. Rather than suggest that a pheromone diffuser be your first line of defense, the responsible advice is to start with a veterinary visit to rule out a medical problem. The litter box itself, the type of litter, cleanliness, and location all come in as recommendations ahead of potential pheromone usage to reduce stress.
It is disappointing that Ceva, a company that could do so much good for the public perception of cats and their welfare, chose to put profits over science-based education for cat owners. They could have responsibly promoted Feliway as a supplement to medical and behavioral interventions. Instead, they suggest that cat owners should not have to “put up with” normal feline behaviors, including expressions of stress.
When we choose to share our lives with a companion animal, we need to understand that we are not living with a robot, but a sentient being who deserves the freedom to express normal behaviors. If expression of those normal behaviors makes it difficult for us to continue living with that animal, then we should work through the challenges using compassionate, science-based behavior modifications and not put our faith in a well-marketed faux magic bullet.
In my last post, I talked about enrichment and, in general, why you should do it for your pets. In the dog behavior and training world, enrichment for shelter and pet dogs is becoming a more popular/trendy topic. People are learning about creative ways to feed their dogs and to provide mental stimulation through enriching food-based, scent-based, and play-based activities. This is great news for dogs and dog owners. So, naturally, I am going to talk CATS first. Our cats need enrichment as much as our dogs do and for many of the same reasons.
Enrichment for cats can fall into one or more of these categories (and probably some others that I am forgetting): environmental, interactive play, self-play toys, scent, and feeding.
Here are just a some of the reasons that enrichment is important for your cat:
With the social distancing/isolation orders in place, many of us are staying home more. What a great time to get to know your cat better and have some fun experimenting with ways to provide a more enriched life!
Over the next week, I am going to post a series of short (and very homemade!) videos on cat enrichment on my YouTube Channel Cat Behavior Playlist. Check out the first video below. Try out some of the ideas you see in the videos, research other ideas and let the fun begin. I’d love to hear what works for your cat, what you learned about your cat, and any of the creative ways you found to enrich your cat’s life….and yours.
While we are all staying home, we are learning how challenging it is to have limited activity and entertainment options. Many people can “find things to do” to occupy some of their time but after a while, even the most resourceful and creative among us will be itching to get back “normal” routines and behavior.
Imagine how your pets feel every day! Their abilities to “find things to do” are more limited than ours – and when they do “find” something to do, it may not be something we want them to do! Just the other night, my dog decided to shred one of her beds. She may have been bored and decided that the stuffing flying all over the place was fun. She may have just been “fluffing up” the bed. I don’t know. But she found a thing to do, and it wasn’t something I appreciated.
So how do we help our pets channel their energies – both mental and physical – appropriately? The same way we would for ourselves: EXERCISE and ENRICHMENT!
EXERCISE for our pets is similar to what we are doing for ourselves without the access to fitness clubs and gyms right now: running, playing, jumping, hiking, chasing things (frisbees, balls, etc.). It is important that you always provide exercise (safe, species appropriate activities) for your pets to help them stay healthy and well-behaved. And, yes, cats need exercise, too (more on that in a future post). Enrichment for our pets, however, is going to look a little different than it does for us. They could care less about reading books, pampering treatments, and podcasts.
So, what exactly is ENRICHMENT for pets? My favorite explanation is from the 2010 Guidelines for Standards of Care in Shelter Animals written by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. This definition of enrichment applies to all pets, not just shelter animals. The ASV tells us that enrichment is:
"…a process for improving the environment and behavioral care of confined animals within the context of their behavioral needs. The purpose of enrichment is to reduce stress and improve well-being by providing physical and mental stimulation, encouraging species-typical behaviors…and allowing animals more control over their environment."
I love this definition! Enrichment reduces stress. It improves well-being. Enrichment meets the behavioral needs of animals and allows them to be themselves (“species-typical behaviors”). Isn’t this what we all want for our pets (and ourselves these days)?!
My next couple of posts are going to focus on enrichment activities and items for dogs and cats that you can easily and inexpensively implement in your home. Stay tuned and get ready to have some fun with your pet. My hope it that providing enrichment for your pet will be so enriching for YOU that you will want to continue to do it even after you get back to your work and social routines!
Problem-solver, Voracious learner. Educator.