COLUMBUS, Ohio - Have an anxious cat? A synthetic chemical may be what it takes to put kitty at ease in unfamiliar territory, a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that when stressed cats were exposed to a synthetic form of a feline facial pheromone (FFP), they ate more and seemed more comfortable in a hospital than did cats not exposed to the pheromone.
FFP is one of a variety of pheromones, chemicals that animals use to communicate with others of the same species. FFP seems to signal comfort and amicability.
Changing a cat's behavior by introducing a synthetic pheromone to its environment is a unique solution to helping agitated cats, said Tony Buffington, co-author of the study and professor of clinical nutrition at Ohio State's College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Veterinarians are so used to putting something in or on an animal that we've never really thought of altering the animal's environment," he said. "Using pheromones may be an effective way of calming cats."
The study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of theAmerican Veterinary Medical Association. Buffington conducted the study with Cerissa Griffith, a veterinary student at Ohio State, and Elizabeth Steigerwald, of Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Research.
In one study, 20 cats were housed in stainless steel cages 3 feet high by 4 feet wide at Ohio State's veterinary teaching hospital. The cages included a litter pan, food and water bowls and a clean towel. Enough space was left between the litter box and the back of the cage to allow the cat to hide in this area.
When faced with new surroundings, especially in a hospital with other animals, cats tend to show signs of stress and fear, such as hiding or becoming hyper-vigilant, Buffington said. Common behaviors, such as exploring their surroundings and playing, are often suppressed.
In this study, 10 cats (four healthy, six ill) were exposed to synthetic FFP while the rest of the cats (three healthy, seven ill) were exposed to towels that had been sprayed with ethanol (the ethanol, which acted as a placebo, evaporated before the animals were placed in the cage with the towels.) The researchers applied FFP or ethanol to the towels 30 minutes before placing the towels in each cage. The researchers videotaped the cats for 125 minutes. They then recorded cat behavior and food intake for 18 five-minute intervals that began 35 minutes after the cat was placed in the cage with the towel.
"The effects of FFP tend to kick in about a half-hour after exposure," Buffington said. Once the FFP kicked in, though, the cats exposed to the pheromone exhibited more episodes of typical feline behavior, such as lying in the cage, sitting, grooming and eating. Three cats in the FFP group ate during the observation period, compared to only one cat in the control group; the cats in the FFP group that did eat consumed nearly 10 grams of food during the observation period, compared to 0.2 grams in the non-exposed group.
What was key with these findings was that cats exposed to the pheromone exhibited more "calming behaviors," Buffington said.
"The increases in grooming, interest in food and food intake suggest that FFP had an anxiety-reducing effect on some cats," Buffington said. "The cats responded to the synthetic FFP by increased episodes of facial rubbing, which meant they released more FFP onto objects in the cage." Cats release FFP via glands in their face.
In a second study, researchers looked at another environmental factor that may help calm anxious cats. The researchers exposed 20 cats - all different than those in the first study - to FFP and placed cat carriers in half of the cages. They wanted to know if having a place to hide - the carrier - would have an effect on their food intake. For this study, the researchers recorded the 24-hour food intake of each group.
Adding the carrier caused cats to eat significantly more, Buffington said. These cats consumed an average of 26 grams of food during the 24-hour period, while the cats without the carrier consumed about 9 grams of food. (26 grams is equivalent to about half of a cat's daily food intake needs.)
"The increase in food intake in this group suggests that other features of the environment may affect a cat's response to FFP," Buffington said.
Synthetic FFP is currently available from veterinarians, Buffington said. Cat owners can use it to make their pet feel more comfortable at home or to control fearful behavior.
"It's a lot easier for an owner to spray a pheromone around the home than it is to stick a pill down a cat's throat," Buffington said.
Abbott Laboratories provided support for this study.
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