As many of you know, veterinary medicine is as much of an art as it is a science. All of us would like to think that decisions regarding the care of our pets and patients are being made based on science, and that is usually the case … when good (or any) science is available.

Unfortunately, important decisions often have to be made in the absence of definitive research or in the presence of conflicting results. This is where the “art” of medicine comes in. Veterinarians look at what science is available, rely on their training and experience in practice, and even draw on what they’ve learned as pet owners to make the best recommendations possible.

Let me give you an example — the use of synthetic feline facial pheromones (FFP). A pheromone is “a substance secreted by an individual that can be sensed by another animal and affect their behavior.”1 Cats produce a certain type of pheromone when they feel comfortable in their surroundings and release it via facial rubbing. Think of it as a way that cats say to each other, “Chill. Everything is just fine.” This is a handy way to prevent unnecessary drama in a group setting.

Companies have made use of feline facial pheromones by manufacturing and selling a synthetic version that can be added to a nervous cat’s environment via sprays, diffusers, collars, etc. Anxiety plays a role in many undesirable feline behaviors, including urine spraying and aggression. Therefore, as long as the synthetic pheromones are safe and effective, they would be a welcome addition to the other treatment options we have available to us, such as anti-anxiety medications, behavioral modification techniques, and environmental enrichment.

Unfortunately, science doesn’t come down definitively in support of the use of synthetic feline facial pheromone. Here’s a quick review of the papers that I have used to determine whether or not to recommend these products to clients:

  • In one study “significant increases in grooming and interest in food were found in cats exposed to FFP compared with vehicle.”2
  • Another study determined that FFP can help reduce aggression when a new cat is introduced to resident cats.3
  • Research indicated that FFP may “assist in managing urine spraying beyond a placebo based intervention.”4
  • On the other hand, a systemic review of the use of pheromones in the treatment of undesirable behavior in cats “provided insufficient evidence of the effectiveness of feline facial pheromone for management of idiopathic cystitis or calming cats during catheterization and lack of support for reducing stress in hospitalized cats.”5

Tomorrow: The role of anecdotal evidence when research fails to provide a definitive answer.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Sources:

1. Coates J. Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian. Alpine Publications. 2007.

2. Griffith CA, Steigerwald ES, Buffington CA. Effects of a synthetic facial pheromone on behavior of cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Oct 15;217(8):1154-6

3. Pageat P, Tessier Y. Usefulness of the F4 synthetic pheromone for preventing intra-specific aggression in poorly socialized cats, in Proceedings. 1st Int Conf Vet Behav Med 1997;64–72.

4. Mills DS, Redgate SE, Landsberg GM. A meta-analysis of studies of treatment for feline urine spraying. PLoS One. 2011 Apr 15;6(4):e18448.

5. Frank D, Beauchamp G, Palestrini C. Systematic review of the use of pheromones for treatment of undesirable behavior in cats and dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2010 Jun 15;236(12):1308-16.

Image: Nailia Schwarz / via Shutterstock