Do Pheromones Work for Separation Anxiety?
When searching for a solution for your dog’s separation anxiety, you might come across dog-appeasing pheromones (also called DAP or apasine). These pheromones are available as plug-in diffusers, sprays, or collars. Makers of these products claim that they encourage calm and lessen anxiety. Adaptil®, the most established maker of DAP, describes pheromones as “comforting messages” that help puppies and dogs feel secure and comfortable.
Pheromone therapy has become quite appealing to pet owners because they are non-prescription, easy to use (just put on a collar, plug in a diffuser, or quickly spritz a dog’s bedding), and have no negative side effects. But you might be wondering if dog pheromones are effective in treating your dog’s separation anxiety. Are they worth the investment? Do these calming sprays and diffusers actually work?
How Do Pheromones Work?
Pheromones are naturally released by animals to elicit social responses from other members of their species. Reptiles, insects and amphibians tend to use pheromones more frequently, but mammals also release and respond to pheromones. Different kinds of pheromones might indicate nearby danger, readiness to mate, territorial marking, tell others that food is nearby and more.
Dog-appeasing pheromone products are synthetic versions of a chemical compound naturally secreted by lactating mother dogs during nursing. These are odorless but are detected by a dog’s vomeronasal organ, which is connected not only to the olfactory system (your dog’s sense of smell), but also to the amygdala and hypothalamus — important parts of a dog’s brain that affect behavior and nervous system reactions. This organ allows dogs to taste and smell pheromones. You might notice a dog make a funny face after smelling something, almost like they are “tasting” the smell. This is called the flehmen response, and while it isn’t seen as often in dogs as it is in cats, horses, or other animals, when dogs are processing the smell you might see them flicking their tongues or smacking their mouth to better gather all the pheromone’s information. Watch this video to see an example of a dog showing the flehmen response.
When a dog smells the dog-appeasing pheromones that they have associated with the safety and comfort of their mother and littermates, their autonomic nervous system (which is responsible for the reactions of fight, flight, rest, and relaxation) responds in a positive way, helping them relax and stay calm. For this reason, pheromones have been widely suggested for helping dogs during transitional periods or with anxieties and phobias.
Do Pheromones Work for Canine Anxiety?
There have been a few studies done that look at the effectiveness of using pheromones for a variety of uses, from puppy socialization and learning to different types of canine anxiety. Results have been mostly positive, although not necessarily consistent between different uses.
In one study that assessed the use of DAP collars on puppies during training and socialization class, they found that the puppies exposed to pheromones during classes were “less fearful, learned better, and had fewer behavior problems,” and noted that this was most likely due to increased confidence and feeling of security during socialization promoted by the pheromones.
When looking specifically at the reduction of canine separation anxiety behaviors, one study compared the use of dog-appeasing pheromones to the use of Clomipramine (Clomicalm®), a medication commonly prescribed for dogs with anxiety. They found similar results between the different treatments but, it’s important to note, they did combine the use of DAP with active behavioral modification (counter conditioning and desensitization). The study concluded that that “DAP, in combination with a behavioral plan, can quickly reduce the undesirable behaviors exhibited by dogs suffering from separation-related problems and overattachment.” Owners in the study also preferred the ease of use and lack of negative side effects using DAP instead of using an anti-anxiety prescription drug.
Another study looked at whether pheromone spray reduced stress behaviors in shelter dogs and found that while the intensity of the barking went down, the frequency of barking and other stress-related behaviors did not. After getting these results, they recommended further research that “uses both a longer time period of DAP exposure and behavioral observation.”
In a similar study of pheromone diffusers used in a long-term kennel facility, researchers found no change in stress behaviors. They concluded that “the level of stress experienced in a long-term kenneling facility was too great for DAP to have a marked effect on behavior.” The results indicate that pheromones might not be effective for more serious levels of stress, such as severe separation anxiety or isolation distress. However, after the study was completed, the kennel facility was able to alter the environment to include more mental enrichment and stress-mitigating activities which are beneficial steps in addressing canine anxiety.
Perhaps the most promising use of dog-appeasing pheromones is for helping dogs with noise anxiety (such as the fear of fireworks and thunder). A 2015 study looking specifically at thunder phobia found that “the DAP collar reduces global and active fear and anxiety to a thunder recording…support[ing] a possible use for DAP in the prevention and management of noise-related fear and anxiety.”
Should You Try Dog-Appeasing Pheromones?
So, what do all those studies mean for you and your dog? Based on the study results, dog-appeasing pheromones might be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, especially when used during the important socialization period for young puppies and in conjunction with positive reinforcement training and any needed counter conditioning or desensitization treatments.
However, just like anxiety wraps and wearables, pheromones are not considered actual treatment for anxieties and phobias, but useful tools for prevention and management. Pheromones must be present in your dog’s environment to have any effect, meaning your dog must be wearing the collar or be near the diffuser or pheromone-sprayed surface to show changes, if any, in stress levels.
In much the same way as calming body wraps and anxiety-reducing compression wearables, you might notice a difference in your dog’s anxiety level, or you might not. Many owners report seeing a change in their dog’s stress levels after using pheromones, while others report no change. However, since there are no known negative side effects when exposing a dog to DAP, it’s something that you can certainly consider for use during a treatment program.
How to Use Pheromones for Your Dog
Follow these tips to get the most benefits from using dog-appeasing pheromones with your dog:
- It’s recommended by manufacturers to expose your dog to pheromones for a longer period of time in order to see noticeable results. Don’t plug in a diffuser and expect instant results — leave it plugged in (or the collar on) for at least 2 weeks, if not longer.
- Use dog-appeasing pheromones in the following situations to help set your dog up for success and prevent anxiety or fear from developing:
- When you first bring a new puppy home
- When bringing home an adopted dog
- During puppy play dates and dog training classes
- During thunderstorm season
- Before and during veterinary visits
- When guests or visitors come to your home
- During car rides or other travel that might cause your dog anxiety
- Combine pheromone therapy with behavior modification and training, focusing on counter conditioning and desensitization.
Denenberg, S. & Landsberg, Gary. (2009). Effects of dog-appeasing pheromones on anxiety and fear in puppies during training and long-term socialization. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 233. 1874-82. 10.2460/javma.233.12.1874.
Gaultier, Emmanuel & Bonnafous, Laurence & Bougrat, Laurent & Lecuelle, Céline & Pageat, Patrick. (2005). Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. The Veterinary record. 156. 533-8. 10.1136/vr.156.17.533.
Hermiston, C., Montrose, V.T., & Taylor, S. (2018). The effects of dog-appeasing pheromone spray upon canine vocalizations and stress-related behaviors in a rescue shelter. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 26, 11-16. doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.013
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