Pheromones in cats

Cats use a wide range of communication methods, pheromones are just one of them, to find out more read on below

What are pheromones?

Pheromones are a subclass of semiochemicals, which are used for communication and produced and released into the environment by all mammals and insects at all ages. Pheromones are a type of scent used for intra-specific communication, which means cats can only pick up the scent of other domestic cats’. The scent is released from special secretory glands found around the body and they produce specific responses from other individuals detecting them, such as showing an increased interest. The responses do not have to have been learned and are investigated by both the depositor and the cat. Cats use pheromones to chemically communicate their emotions, behaviours and interactions. Cats produce a wide range of pheromones with different meanings and deposit them using a range of methods including rubbing, scratching and spray marking. Pheromones are received by other cats through a special organ known as the vomeronasal organ and this is located between the nose and mouth. When a cat smells the pheromone the nasal chambers and olfactory bulbs stimulates the vomeronasal organ to open which allows the pheromone to be aspirated. As the scent is being aspirated the cat will lift its upper lip and partially open its mouth, this is known as the flehmen response. Pheromones are mainly produced by chemical deposits and secretions; however, they also contain other odours, which the cat will detect. There are also a number of pheromone products available to buy. These mimic natural pheromones and can help stressed cats in the home or whilst travelling, they can also help in multi-cat households or redirect scratching to a suitable post.

How cats use pheromones to communicate.

Pheromones are used by cats to convey messages about territorial boundaries, sexual cycles and arousal status. They also contain information on identity of other cats as well as being self-soothing and creating familiarity and signals for happiness, contentment, reassurance, stress and fear. Mother cats produce pheromones to help them and their kittens’ bond and create a harmony.. Pheromones are compounds which comprise of fatty acids, esters, diacids, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones or amines which are volatile small molecules. To communicate pheromones are used in the following ways:
•  Facial pheromones – The facial pheromones are responsible for producing almost 40 different chemicals. Facial pheromones are split into five fractions however we do not currently know what chemical signals the first and fifth fractions portray. The F2 facial fraction is associated with sexual behaviour, the F3 facial fraction is associated with territory and the F4 facial fraction is associated with creating a common group scent, which maintains group cohesion. The facial pheromone glands are located in the cheeks, under the chin, at the margins of the lip and where the fur is sparse between each eye and ear. Pheromones are deposited from the face when the cat rubs their head against another cat, human or an object such as furniture to mark them as being safe and secure. If an environment or object is not familiar then the cat may become uncomfortable or stressed, for example moving house, going to the vets or when meeting new cats. Synthetic pheromones such as Feliway use the F3 facial fraction in their products. They claim their Feliway classic pheromones as the comforting pheromone which produce happy messages to help cats feel safe and secure.
•  Mammary glands - These are found in female cats and are located in the area surrounding the teats known as the inter-mammary sulcus. The mammary glands produce appeasing pheromones and helps a mother’s kittens feel safe, secure and content. These pheromones also help to reduce conflict and tension between kittens to help them to get along with one another. Synthetic pheromones such as Feliway friends uses a synthetic copy of the cat appeasing pheromone to create harmony in multi cat households. They help to reduce social stress issues including hissing, chasing and fighting.
•  Feet- These are known as the feline interdigital pheromone and are produced by plantar pad glands and are found on the pads on the cats’ back feet. As well as leaving their mark cats will also leave pheromones when they scratch on an object. When scratching cats release the feline interdigital pheromone. Scratching marks the cat’s territory by both the pheromone release but also by the visual mark. In recent years Feliway have produced a synthetic copy of the feline interdigital pheromone, which has been designed to be placed on scratch posts to re direct cats away from scratching on undesirable areas.
•  Urination - The urogenital area around the urinary and genital organs leads to the production of pheromones. Pheromones in urine are produced mainly through spraying and can signal when the cat is looking to mate. Cats also spray on vertical surfaces outside as a way to mark their territory for other cats to pick up. If a cat starts spraying inside this could signal that they are not feeling safe and secure in their own environment. This is another example of when synthetic pheromones can help to make the cat feel secure again.
•  Defecation and tail - The anal glands are located in the perianal area and this leads to the production of pheromones in faeces. Cats may leave their faeces unburied in prominent areas around their territory this is known as middening and is linked to territorial marking. It is also thought that cats produce pheromones from their caudal glands which are found on the base of the tail and extend along the whole tail of the cat. It is thought the cat will leave pheromones when it wraps its tail around people, objects or other cats.

Overall Pheromones play an important role in cat communication. Allowing them to convey various messages by depositing a scent mark which is picked up by other domestic cats and encouraging various behaviours. Synthetic pheromones have also been produced to aid in keeping cats calm in multiple situations.

Avril Parker-Jones RVN

References 1. Ceva (2019) What are cat pheromones [Available online] [accessed 24.08.19]
2. Heath, S (2007) Understanding pheromones. Veterinary Nursing Journal. Volume 22, 2007 issue 9.
3. Hewson, C (2014) Evidence based approaches to reducing in-patient stress. Part 2; Synthetic pheromone preparations. Veterinary Nursing Journal. Volume 29,2014 issue 6.