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Don't vilify cats for being cats

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 usemayreduce 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 aboutstress-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.

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