Kitty Prozac: Can Synthetic Pheromones Calm Your Pet?

Can synthetic, species-specific pheromones really soothe your pet? A cat owner's tale

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Cal Crary for TIME

A pheromone collar helped Sammy, a former street fighter, chill out

Sara, a former shelter cat, has been luxuriating in my home for nine years. She's always been gentle yet skittish, the proverbial scaredy-cat. But after Sammy—a high-spirited (read: aggressive) 5-year-old rescued by the ASPCA—moved in with us two months ago, it was all-out feline war. Sara hissed, Sammy pounced, and I couldn't get much sleep. Desperate to end the territorial battle before my apartment got destroyed—or, worse, marked with urine—I decided to consult my fabulous (but fabulously expensive) veterinarian. I left her office with two pheromone collars, a handful of pheromone diffusers and the ardent hope that the chemical compounds would bring peace to the Sachs household.

I'm not the only pet owner who has sought such relief. According to veterinary experts, behavioral problems are one of the leading reasons that animals are given away or euthanized. With the number of pet cats in the U.S. soaring 18% in the past decade, to 86 million, and with 56% of owners taking in more than one cat, it's no wonder that so many vets are prescribing low doses of fluoxetine (generic Prozac) to calm ruffled felines.

It's also no wonder that companies are racing to market more-natural alternatives. Scientists have known for a good half-century that animals communicate via pheromones—a word that stems from the Greek pherein (to carry) and hormone—to do everything from trigger alarm to soothe their offspring. In the past decade, synthetic versions of these chemicals have been making their way into consumer products. D.A.P. (dog-appeasing pheromone) sprays and collars mimic a puppy-pleasing compound emitted by canine mammary glands. And there are plenty of colognes and body washes that purport to use human pheromones to help attract a mate, although most experts agree that these people-centric products are effective only as marketing gimmicks.

But research indicates that synthetic feline pheromones really do have a calming effect on cats—like a kitty Prozac but without the pill. Numerous studies, in journals such as Veterinary Record and Applied Animal Behaviour Science, have found that Ceva Animal Health's Feliway pheromone sprays and diffusers help reduce stress-related behaviors such as urine marking, vertical scratching and aggression.

Over the past year, more than a million cat-owning households have used pheromone products, which have no effect on humans or other noncat species. Ceva's Feliway diffusers, which look a little like plug-in air fresheners, have been available for more than a decade. Flea-collar maker Sergeant's started selling Sentry Good Behavior pheromone collars in April 2009. Both are cheaper than a vet visit. The diffusers cost $48, while the collars sell for $12 to $15. Results can be seen quickly, typically within a few days. The drawback: these products may need to be replaced after 30 days, so long-term use can get pricey.

Although each of the two manufacturers uses a different patented pheromone, there is no catfighting between them. To the contrary, says Larry Nouvel, a chemist who helped develop the Sergeant's collars, "I'd recommend that you use both." The collars mimic a soothing pheromone that mother cats emit while nursing, and Ceva's diffusers and sprays use a synthetic version of a facial pheromone—which cats leave behind when they rub their cheeks on furniture or people—that signals that the territory is safe and secure.

Many veterinarians have embraced synthetic pheromones, recommending them for use at home as well as in cat carriers. The success of these products has cut down on expensive sessions with animal behaviorists. "We're seeing far less of the common behavior problems such as urine spraying than we saw 10 or 15 years ago," says Gary Landsberg, a leading veterinary behaviorist in Toronto. Instead, he adds, "we're seeing much more difficult, pathologically anxious, phobic or compulsive animals." In those cases, he often recommends pheromones, along with psychotropic medication and behavior therapy.

I put a diffuser in an electrical socket in each room of my apartment. Then I put collars on my squirmy pets, who initially resisted but quickly got used to them. No prescription is needed, and there are no side effects. But as Kyle Creech, a veterinarian at Ceva, noted, "For behavior, there's not a magic pill or a magic shot that will solve all your problems."

He was right. I would love to say my cats snuggled up together, transformed by laboratory science. Alas, that's not the case. Although Sara was a lot calmer, looking positively beatific at times, she still cowered under the bed when Sammy approached. He was also calmer but was still too aggressive to just let Sara be. As the brawling continued, I realized that not even pheromones could make this particular duo harmonize. I didn't think psychotropics would resolve their differences, nor did I want to permanently sequester them in different rooms. So instead of buying another month's supply of pheromones, I took Sammy back to the ASPCA. It's a no-kill shelter, but I still cried the whole way home. Too bad I don't believe in cat whisperers.

This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2010 edition of TIME.