Can Synthetic Pheromones Help With Aggression in Multi-Cat Households?

Promising results from a pilot study of synthetic cat-appeasing pheromones (Feliway Multicat) for aggression between cats that live together.

Can Feliway Multicat  help resolve aggression between cats that live together? Promising results from a randomized controlled trial
Photo: Samarsky / Shutterstock

Cat owners know only too well that cats can be choosy. As solitary hunters, the domestic cat can do just fine alone and does not have to be friends with other members of the species. On the other hand, cats can live in social groups, especially in colonies of female cats and their offspring, when female cats will help care for each other’s young.

Many people have multiple pet cats and they aren’t always friends. It is obvious cats don’t get along if they fight. But there are also more subtle signs of cat aggression, such as when one cat blocks another cat’s access to a resource like the litter box. As well as bouts of aggression, when cats don’t get along they may hold urine for too long, pee outside the box, suffer feline idiopathic cystitis, over-eat or lose weight, or sometimes (if they have outdoors access) one of them may even leave home.

Resolving aggression between cats may involve reintroducing cats, changes to the layout of the home (such as multiple, separated resources), behavioral work such as counter-conditioning, and/or medication.

A study by veterinary behaviourist Dr. Theresa DePorter and colleagues, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and  Surgery, investigates the effectiveness of a synthetic cat-appeasing pheromone in resolving cases of aggression in multi-cat households.

As the scientists write in the introduction to the paper,
“The wellbeing of millions of cats may be enhanced if cats got along with housemate cats.”
Although this is a pilot study, it is a double-blind randomized controlled trial with a placebo.

Pheromones are semiochemicals, that is, chemicals with meaning. Pheromones are very important to cats and some help maintain social cohesion.

The synthetic cat-appeasing pheromone used in the study is FELIWAY MultiCat which is made by Ceva, who funded the research. In Europe it is called Feliway Friends. It is a synthetic version of the pheromones that are produced by mother cats when the kittens are young, especially during the sensitive period for socialization in kittens, which is 2-7 weeks of age.

The synthetic pheromone is in a diffuser that is plugged into a socket. Therefore the placebo was also a plug-in and looked the same.

Can pheromone plug-ins like Feliway Multicat help with aggression between cats in the same house? Promising results from a study.
Photo: joyfuldesigns / Shutterstock

Forty-five people with 2-5 cats in the home and who reported aggression between cats were enrolled in the study. Three households did not complete the study and so the final sample was 17 households that received Feliway Multicat and 25 that received the placebo.

One week before the start of the treatment, participants attended a 90-minute training session with a board-certified veterinary behaviourist. The session included information and video to teach them how to recognize feline aggression and how to tell the difference between play and aggression. As well, participants were given information on counter-conditioning, advice on what to do if their cats were being aggressive, and told not to use punishment (e.g. spray bottles) or startle their cats. (For more on why you shouldn’t use spray bottles for cats, see this nice post from Julie Hecht).

Participants drew a plan of their house and the scientists decided the best place to plug in the two diffusers (either Feliway Multicat or placebo). The diffusers were used for 28 days during which cat owners filled out a daily diary and a weekly questionnaire about their cats’ behaviour.

Even before the start of the treatment, rates of reported aggression dropped, likely due to the education session. Twelve types of aggressive behaviour between cats were included in the questionnaire.

During the 28-day period of using the plug-ins, aggression decreased in both groups, but it decreased significantly more in the group using Feliway Multicat. During a two-week follow-up, aggressive behaviours remained low in the group that had used Feliway Multicat, but began to go up in the placebo group.

There was no difference between the two groups in terms of affiliate behaviours such as nose-touching, sleeping in the same room, or licking the head or neck of another cat. This category also included affiliative behaviours towards humans, such as whether all cats came to greet the person when they arrived home.

At the end of the study, participants were asked if their cats were getting along better. 84% of the people who had used Feliway Multicat said yes, compared to 64% of those who had the placebo.

47% of the cats in this study were declawed, a much higher proportion than the average in the US (24%). The scientists cite other, unpublished, research that suggests a link between declawing of cats and aggression between cats that live together. Research also shows declawed cats suffer pain and other adverse effects (Martell-Moran et al 2017; you can read more about it in this great post by Dr. Mikel Delgado).

Where I live (BC), declawing of cats is banned, but if you are somewhere this procedure is legal, you should be aware that it has many risks for your cat. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association calls this surgery “unacceptable.”

But back to the pheromone study. It used owner observations and it is possible people missed some behavioural signs, even though they received training. Participants in the study were given information at the education session, but if owners simply use synthetic pheromones on their own without learning more about cat behaviour they may not see the same results. As well, it would be nice to see a longer follow-up period in future research.

This is the first time Feliway Multicat has been tested in a randomized controlled trial. For more on previous research on other synthetic pheromones for cats, see this list compiled by Dr. Mikel Delgado.

The scientists conclude,
“In this study, treatment with a proprietary cat-appeasing pheromone diffuser for 4 weeks showed a beneficial effect in the management of feline aggression in multi-cat households. During the study, when cat owners were educated by a board-certified veterinary behaviourist about feline behavior, provided instruction on handling aggressive events and discouraged from punishing cats (eg, squirt guns or other startle methods), the level of conflict began to decrease even prior to implementation of the treatment. Pheromones may be useful as a component of a complete behavior-modification program.”
While more research is needed, these are promising results that suggest Feliway Multicat may help as part of the treatment for aggression between cats living in the same home. The study is open access (link below).

If you have more than one cat, how well do your cats get on with each other?

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi.

DePorter, T. L., Bledsoe, D. L., Beck, A., & Ollivier, E. (2018). Evaluation of the efficacy of an appeasing pheromone diffuser product vs placebo for management of feline aggression in multi-cat households: a pilot study. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.
Martell-Moran, N. K., Solano, M., & Townsend, H. G. (2018). Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 20(4), 280-288.

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Companion Animal Psychology News October 2018

The latest news including an evidence-based guide to pets, what it's like growing up with wolves, and anxiety in pets and us.

Companion Animal Psychology News October 2018

Some of my favourites from around the web this month

The Psychologist guide to … pets. I love these evidence-based tips on pets put together by Ella Rhodes.

“Fido” or “Freddie”? Why do some pet names become popular? A fun and interesting post from Prof. Hal Herzog, complete with a quiz to test how popular your dogs’ names are.

Do you want to know what the umwelt of a dog is? And what canine science experiments look like? The Scientist Podcast interviews Dr. Alexandra Horowitz

“Treating my cat for depression caused me to question the state of anxiety in animals and us.” Can a cat have an existential crisis? by Britt Peterson.

Secrets of getting pee and poop samples from Fear Free. A tricky thing that many pet owners have to do sooner or later… what to do next time you need to take a sample to the vet.

Caring for senior and geriatric cats by Pam Johnson-Bennett.

“What Rodríguez remembers of his time living wild is that it was “glorious”” The story of Marco Rodriguez, abandoned as a child and raised by wolves. Available as a podcast and text version. By Matthew Bremner.

“Most of the students have had enough of nature red in tooth and claw and many lament, "Look where that 'I'm behaving like an animal' excuse got me."” Inmates and art Connecting with animals helps soften them. Dr. Marc Bekoff reflects on 17 years of his Roots and Shoots humane education class at the Boulder County Jail.

What’s wrong with anti-bark collars? Sylvie Martin from Crosspaws Dogs explains.

Do dogs forget their people? Scientists Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, Stefano Ghirlanda, Rachelle Yankelevitz, Lynette Hart, Ruth Colwill, Nicholas Dodman and Clive Wynne answer the question at Gizmodo. By Daniel Kolitz.

Support Companion Animal Psychology

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A big thank you to everyone who has supported me so far. It is very much appreciated! And I am also grateful for the lovely notes you have sent.

Animal Book Club

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for October is The Dog: A Natural History by Adam Miklosi. It’s a beautifully-illustrated book about the evolution, anatomy, cognition and behavior of dogs.

The Dog: A Natural History is the Animal Book Club choice for October 2018

For those who want to chat about animal books without the commitment to read and comment on a book every month, I started a new Facebook group called Animal Books. Come and share new releases, interviews with authors and your favourite books (fiction and nonfiction) about companion animals.

I've set up an Amazon page with a list of all the books from the Book Club, as well as some other pet-related items too.

Here at Companion Animal Psychology

I’m thrilled to have a piece about dogs in the special issue of The Psychologist magazine on The Psychologist’s Tree of Life. It’s a fascinating issue from start to finish. Look in particular for pieces on dogs by Dr. Julianne Kaminski and Prof. Clive Wynne, but many non-human species are included.I recommend scrolling down to the bottom of the page and downloading the pdf to read so you can see the beautiful artwork commissioned for the piece from Adam Batchelor.

I spoke to Animal Radio about what pets want from people (scroll down to episode 981).

Overweight and obesity in pets is at very high levels. At Psychology Today, I wrote about a study that reviewed the effects of interventions designed to change owner behaviour. It turns out that for overweight dogs, owner behaviour matters

Also at Psychology Today, I wrote about a pilot study that investigated whether you should pet your dog before an absence. (Note the study was only with dogs who don’t have separation-related issues). Dr. Marc Bekoff responded to my post and shared some of his data in should you say goodbye to your dog before you leave them?

Here at Companion Animal Psychology, Survey shows changes as dogs age (and how you can help your dog) looks at research on dogs across the lifespan. One of the most interesting findings is about the apparent effects of trauma on canine behaviour.

Five fun things to do to make your dog happy is, well, about fun things to do with your dog

Do dogs and cats get along looks at a survey of people who have both a dog and a cat. It seems the cat’s level of feeling comfortable with the dog is an important factor in their relationship.

And a short petting session improves wellbeing in shelter dogs looks at a study that set out to answer a simple question: Is a 15-minute session with a trained volunteer who will pet the dog (respecting the dog’s wishes) good for dogs?

I've been working very hard on edits to my book and I'll be honest, I'm looking forward to a break soon!

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A Better World for Dogs

It’s hard to believe, but this is the final image from the series about a better world for dogs and a better world for cats. Thank you to all the experts who shared their wonderful ideas!

Companion Animal Psychology News October 2018: A Better World for Dogs

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A Short Petting Session Improves Wellbeing in Shelter Dogs

For shelter dogs, spending 15 minutes with a volunteer who will pet them when they want is beneficial according to both physiological and behavioural measures.

A 15 minute petting session is enough to help shelter dogs' well-being.
Photo: ESB Basic / Shutterstock

Dogs in shelters may be deprived of human company. Can a short petting session help them feel better? A study published earlier this year by Dr. Ragen McGowan et. al. and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science investigated the effects of petting from a stranger and found positive results.

The scientists set out to answer the question, “Does one 15-min petting session make a positive difference for shelter dogs?”

And the answer was yes.

The report concludes,
“As predicted, positive physiological and behavioral changes were evident in shelter dogs even after only a single 15-min petting session with an unfamiliar volunteer. A complete understanding of the human-animal bond from the dog’s perspective is still in its infancy, however this work contributes to the mounting evidence that humans play an important part in the emotional wellbeing of companion animals. As a result of this study it is clear that: “Yes, 15 min can make a difference” for many shelter dogs when that time includes close interaction with a person petting and speaking to them in a calm manner. “
55 shelter dogs took part in the study at a county animal shelter in Maryville, Missouri.

A handler took each dog individually to a small observation room where one of five volunteers – who had never been to the shelter before – was waiting to begin the 15 minute session. The volunteer either sat on a chair or on a blanket on the floor.

Whenever the dog approached the volunteer, they would pet the dog and speak nicely, taking into account the dog’s preferences e.g. if the dog seemed to be presenting particular areas to be petted.

The researchers took measures of salivary cortisol and heart rate, as well as coding the behaviours the dogs engaged in during sessions.

The dogs were divided into three groups based on the results. Highly engaged dogs spent more than three-quarters of the time interacting with the volunteer, moderately engaged dogs spent between half and three-quarters of the time, and indifferent dogs spent less than half the time engaged with the volunteer.

Comparing the end of the session to the beginning, dogs in all three groups had a reduced heart rate. As well, dogs that were highly or moderately engaged with the volunteer had an increase in heart rate variability.

Overall, the dogs spent less time soliciting contact from the volunteer and less time standing up at the end of the session compared to the beginning.

Salivary cortisol samples could only be taken from 32 of the dogs. Results showed no difference in levels before and after the session. However, since cortisol is a measure of arousal rather than stress, this is hard to interpret.

Overall, these results suggest the petting sessions were beneficial for the dogs.

Other research has also shown that shelter dogs like petting. The nice thing about the new study is that it shows just one 15-minute session with a volunteer the dog has never met before can make a difference.

Dogs were only selected for the study if they were healthy and known to be friendly. They had all been at the shelter for at least two weeks so they had had time to settle in.

It’s important to note the dogs were given a choice – if they did not approach the volunteer, they were not petted – and the volunteers were trained in how to pet the dogs.

While more research is needed, the finding that petting from someone the dog had never met before led to behavioural and physiological changes speaks to the value of contact with people for dogs’ emotional wellbeing.

Where does your dog prefer to be petted?

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. And subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to get the latest posts by email.

You might also like: How to pet cats and dogs and great photos are important to dog adoption.

McGowan, R. T., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G., & Martin, F. (2018). Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 203, 42-54.

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Do Dogs and Cats Get Along? Ask the Cat!

Dogs and cats living together get along most of the time, but it’s the cat’s level of comfort with the dog that is the defining factor, according to research.

Dogs and cats living together are often friends, but it's the cat's comfort with the dog that matters most
Photo: Plastique/Shutterstock

With 94.2 million pet cats and 89.7 million pet dogs in the US, it’s inevitable that some dogs and cats live together. While we don’t know how many households have both a dog and a cat, scientists Jessica Thomson, Dr. Sophie Hall and Prof. Daniel Mills (University of Lincoln) recently published a questionnaire study of how well people think their dog and cat get along.

The results show that in general, dogs and cats living in the same house are friendly towards each other – but it’s the experience of the cat that is most important in mediating this relationship.

Early introduction of the cat to the dog (preferably before the cat is 1 year old) helped them to have a good relationship, whereas the age of the dog at first introduction was not important. (This is different to an earlier study that found early age of introduction for both cats and dogs was beneficial). 

In fact the most important factor in a good canine-feline relationship was the cat being comfortable in the dog’s presence.

It also helped if the dog was happy to share their bed with the cat, although cats were generally not willing to share their bed (perhaps because cat beds are typically not big enough to also accommodate a dog).

Cats generally would not share their food with the dog or take toys to show the dog, but if they did it was a sign of a good relationship.

Cats and dogs also got along better if the cat lived indoors, perhaps because they got to spend more time together and learn about each other. But it’s important to remember they should not be forced to interact; instead they should be able to choose whether or not to hang out together.

The relationship between dogs and cats was generally not described as close. For example, it was quite rare for them to groom each other.

The scientists say that because cats have not been domesticated for as long as dogs, it is likely harder for them to be comfortable around other animals. But they also point out that dogs can be a real risk for cats, as dogs may try to eat them, whereas cats are unlikely to cause serious harm to a dog.

Although aggression was most often reported from the cat towards the dog, it was likely because the cat felt threatened.

748 people completed the survey. 20.5% of cats and 7.3% of dogs were said to be uncomfortable in the other’s presence at least once a week. 64.9% of cats and 85.8% of dogs were said to be rarely or never uncomfortable in the other’s presence.

The study relied on owners’ reports of their dog’s and cat’s behaviour and did not make any independent observations – something for future research, especially as people are not always very good at recognizing signs of stress in their pets.

The results suggest that if your cat and dog are not friends, you should put extra effort into helping your cat feel comfortable around the dog.

If you have a dog and cat, how well do they get on with each other?

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. Visit my Amazon store for a list of all book club titles and other suggestions.

You might also like:
How to pet cats and dogs
The sensitive period for socialization in puppies and kittens
How can I tell if my dog is afraid?

Number of pets in the United States.
Thomson, J. E., Hall, S. S., & Mills, D. S. (2018). Evaluation of the relationship between cats and dogs living in the same home. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 27, 35-40.

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Companion Animal Psychology Book Club October 2018

"An accessible and richly illustrated introduction to the natural history of dogs―from evolution, anatomy, cognition, and behavior to the relationship between dogs and humans"

The October 2018 choice for the Animal Book Club is The Dog: A Natural History

The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club choice for October 2018 is The Dog: A Natural History by Ádám Miklósi.

From the cover,
"As one of the oldest domesticated species, selectively bred over millennia to possess specific behaviors and physical characteristics, the dog enjoys a unique relationship with humans. More than any other animal, dogs are attuned to human behavior and emotions, and accordingly play a range of roles in society, from police and military work to sensory and emotional support. Selective breeding has led to the development of more than three hundred breeds that, despite vast differences, still belong to a single species, Canis familiaris
The Dog is an accessible, richly illustrated, and comprehensive introduction to the fascinating natural history and scientific understanding of this beloved species. Ádám Miklósi, a leading authority on dogs, provides an appealing overview of dogs' evolution and ecology; anatomy and biology; behavior and society; sensing, thinking, and personality; and connections to humans."

Will you be reading too? Let me know your thoughts on the book!

You can find a list of all the past and upcoming book club titles on my Animal Book Club Amazon store. And check back often as I will be adding lists of some of my favourite books and dog and cat toys over the next few weeks.

Also new this month: The Animal Books Facebook group is for anyone who wants to chat about books about animals,  share book reviews, news about new titles and interviews with authors, and tell us about your favourite animal books (old and new). All welcome.

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Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Tabby cat with pumpkins and walnuts

It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and there is much to be grateful for.

I am thankful for such a wonderful community of people who want to learn more about companion animals. I am thankful to have met so many amazing people as a result of writing this blog. And I am thankful for every one of you who, in your own way, does something to make the world a better place for pets (and people).

Happy Thanksgiving!

The beautiful photo of a tabby cat with pumpkins and walnuts is by Nailia Schwarz/Shutterstock.

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