One of the most common tools sold by vets and at pet shops in dealing with problem behaviour in cats is Feliway. And the response this product has gotten has been mixed at best - many claim it isn’t the miracle performer it is touted to be. So is this product truly just a sham - or is there more to it?
What is Feliway?
Feliway is a product that attempts to mimic the natural way cats make themselves feel comfortable in their environment - by marking it with their facial pheromones. This is why cats rub our legs, our bags and all the nooks and crannies in our homes. It is to reaffirm that this is their territory and advertise this fact to other animals. A more aggressive form of doing this is by spraying the borders of their territory. It makes them feel more secure, more at ease and less anxious when they are surrounded by their own smell.
Feliway is typically sold as a diffuser which spreads a synthetic version of the universal ‘marker’ all over the territory, though it also exists in a spray to use locally. It has its limitations though as it does not have the ‘individual’ marker of your specific kitty, meaning that it is probably less effective in some situations than the actual pheromones of your own kitty would be. On the other hand, for multi-cat households, it can likely help bring the group together by reinforcing the ‘nest scent’.
Is it a sham?
There is no sham. Feliway does work - it just has to be used properly. Part of the problem is that veterinarians often don’t know how to treat the behavioral problems that clients come to them with - which is understandable as this isn’t their field of expertise. So, in an effort to fix things or help the client out at least somewhat, the vet sells them a Feliway. And for sure, in some cases, this can alleviate some or all of the symptoms. The problem is that Feliway isn’t a miracle drug. And it doesn’t target the cause of the anxiety that the cat is experiencing or the behavioral problems that result from that anxiety. So when Feliway gets used to work as a band-aid for every issue out there, it is going to fail. And even if it does the job, you might end up spending a fortune on refills as you might be treating symptoms instead of the cause.
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Using Feliway properly
One of the best ways to use Feliway is to help your cat through a stressful time. Concrete examples are going to the vet, being put in a cattery for a few days and even new furniture being added to their existing territory. Other changes that might trigger anxiety are a new baby or pet in the house, or even a new cat in the neighbourhood which is trolling through their territory, making them flee inside.
Changes can be tough on a cat, especially when they involve leaving their sanctuary where they feel safe. They get taken out of their familiar territory, with no idea where they’re going or what will happen next. Who wouldn’t be scared? Any reassurance at that point is going to be welcome.
When planning to move the cat out of its home, it is helpful to use a Feliway spray half an hour before they get put in the pet carrier can do a lot. Additionally, add a blanket or shirt with either your or their smell in it - something that you or they sleep in or on. Surround them with familiar smells to help them over the hump. If the change is taking place in their territory, plugging in a diffuser will go a long way as well.
The reason that Feliway alone is enough in most of these situations is because the stressor is presumed to be temporary as the cat adjusts to the new situation or waits for the situation to pass. If this turns out not to be the case, don’t blame the vaporiser. Just add additional measures to deal with the cause of the now chronic anxiety, by either removing the trigger, or helping the cat deal with it better. Big changes such as moving to a new house, preparing for a new baby and dealing with a new pet in the house are likely going to need additional measures to help the cat through them. While the Feliway will still be provide significant support, it won’t be enough on its own.
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Addressing actual problem behaviours
When addressing actual problem behaviour that has been going on for a while, Feliway on its own is never going to be the solution. But coupled with the proper therapy, it can be quite a help. Anxiety and fear keep animals from being able to learn, and therapy is just that - learning how to cope with a situation that you don’t know how to deal with. In that respect, Feliway plays a crucial role in that it can bring down the anxiety at least somewhat - even if it doesn’t solve the actual problem. In a way, it can help create the space needed to address the situation properly - a process that frequently takes 2 to 3 weeks.
If you want to use a cheaper - and in some situations more effective - alternative, you can rub cotton balls along the corners of your cat’s mouth and pin them to the wall at kitty height in the rooms your cat enjoys frequenting. The scent in them will stay for up to two weeks, after which you’ll have to replace them.
In the end, it is just common sense to use a tool for the job it is meant for to get the maximum results. On their website, Feliway has helpfully listed several situations their product can help out with as well as additional instructions to rectify an undesirable situation. Those extra instructions are vital for you to succeed in your goal and help your kitty out - and are often more important than the diffuser or spray itself. The company of course is emphasising the importance of its product there to market as best they can, but don’t let them trick you into thinking it’s a fix-all. Often, you need to do more than just plug in a diffuser.
All in all, I cannot recommend Feliway enough - when properly used. It’s been a life saver more than once when things got rocky for me and my cats.