The use of Dog Appeasing Pheromones to reduce stress in dogs
by Sienna Taylor, Animal Welfare Research and Knowledge Exchange Arena, University Centre Hartpury
Just like people, stress can negatively impact dogs. There are a number of reasons why stress occurs, including changes in routine, separation from a care giver or a visit to the vets. Undesirable behaviours such as excessive vocalisations, destructive behaviour and inappropriate elimination can occur, with some of these unwanted behaviours causing a breakdown in the human-animal relationship. This breakdown can often result in owners relinquishing their pet to a rescue shelter. With large numbers of dogs in the UK being relinquished annually to already over-burdened shelters, reducing stress related behaviours is an increasingly important issue.
Many owners now seek an alternative to using drugs to manage stress related behavioural problems. A commercially available stress relief product, which can be used as an alternative to drugs, is the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) also known as Adaptil(R). DAP is a synthetic version of the pheromone produced by a lactating bitch to help reassure the puppy. The product comes in various forms including a plug-in electronically heated diffuser (which looks like a plug-in air freshener), a collar which is activated through body heat and also a spray which is portable and offers a flexible means of applying the pheromone. This drug free option is widely available from most pet retailers and Vets and is used to help dogs transition in new, unpredictable and potentially stressful situations such as during crate rest or restricted exercise during rehabilitation.
Evaluation of Dog Appeasing Pheromone Research:
DAP has been suggested to be beneficial in relieving stress in dogs in a number of published studies. A study by Tod and colleagues in 2005 investigated the effects of DAP on the behaviour of shelter dogs. Thirty seven dogs were exposed to DAP diffused into the environment continuously over a 7 day period where they were subjected to two temperament tests used to measure fear, separation and excitable behaviour. The researchers found dogs exposed to DAP exhibited barking at a lower decibel and frequency combined with increased resting behaviour although many behaviours also remained unchanged such as body postures, growling, whining and displacement behaviours. Whilst the researchers suggested that DAP may be a useful tool in reducing stress and anxiety, they recommended that further research was required which combined exposure to DAP alongside behavioural modification. A few years later in 2007, Levine and colleagues found that DAP combined with a behavioural modification programme such as desensitisation training was found to be a more effective, long term solution for behavioural problems relating to fear of fireworks.
More recently in 2015, Landsberg and colleagues tested the effects of a DAP collar in reducing noise induced fear and anxiety in 24 laboratory housed beagles divided into two groups, DAP and a placebo. Dogs were initially exposed to a laboratory controlled thunderstorm simulation and assigned to either the DAP or placebo group which was balanced using dogs that showed a range of fear scores. Dogs were then fitted with either a DAP or placebo collar and exposed to two further thunderstorm simulations on consecutive days where researchers measured fear and anxiety on a scale and also measured how much time dogs spent hiding in a box. Fear and anxiety scores significantly reduced in dogs during and after the thunderstorm simulation when they were wearing DAP collars compared to the placebo group. Dogs exposed to DAP also used their hiding box more frequently which the researchers suggested may be a response by dogs due to increased reactions to the thunder. The results of this study would suggest that DAP helps calm confined dogs exposed to loud noises and should be used in conjunction with a hide in a home environment.
DAP may not appear to calm and reduce stress in all individuals however. In 2016, Broach and Dunham aimed to test the efficacy of a DAP collar in reducing stress in military dogs transitioning from a foster home. Dogs were allocated to either a DAP treatment or placebo group. The treatment group wore DAP collars for four weeks and behaviour was measured at three time points, prior to application of the collar and at 3 and 5 weeks. A performance observation was also conducted in week 3. No reduction in stress related behaviours were observed in either of the groups. The authors recommended that a multimodal approach should be considered in future research that evaluates stress reduction in dogs, whereby a combination of environmental factors, behaviour modification, nutritional, pharmaceutical supplements and medications are taken into account.
To add to the existing research in the field of pheromonal research, Hermiston and colleagues in 2018 investigated the effects of DAP spray upon reducing vocalisations and stress related behaviours in a shelter environment. Twenty five pure and mixed breed dogs were allocated to an order of conditions depending on when they arrived at the shelter. Longer resident dogs were exposed to DAP spray first and then on the consecutive day no DAP was present. Shorter stay dogs were exposed to no DAP first and subsequently the DAP condition. In the DAP treatment, each corner of the kennel was sprayed with two pumps of DAP spray. Another dog unknown to the test dogs was led past the kennel to induce a behavioural response so any effects of DAPs could be measured. The researchers recorded barking intensity, frequency and also the occurrence of stress related behaviours such as low posture. Whilst barking intensity marginally reduced in the DAP condition, a reduction in barking frequency and stress related behaviour was not observed in either condition.
Common Signs of Stress in Dogs:
Behavioural indicators of stress in dogs can be overt and very obvious or much more subtle. Often, a combination of stress indicators occur at the same time. There are common signs of stress to look out for, which include:
- Low body posture or curving the body
- Tucking the tail
- Excessive vocalisations
- Excessive panting
Some of the more subtle signs include:
- Lip and nose licking
- Narrowing of the eyes
- Avoiding eye contact
- Tense forehead and ears
The authors suggested that such a small change in barking intensity was difficult to interpret as being beneficial to welfare. There was also a lack of support from other stress indicators to suggest that DAP reduced stress related behaviour in this particular study.
Although research in the field has methodological limitations that make it challenging to determine pheromones true effectiveness, there are other factors that influence efficacy, especially in relation to kennelled dogs. Previous studies have reported large individual variations in behaviour (Hubrecht, 1995 and Titulaer et al. 2013). Also temperament (Jones and Gosling, 2005) and coping style (Stephen and Ledger, 2005), which can be attributed to genetic factors such as breed and sex (Serpell and Hsu, 2005) and to environmental factors such as experience (Appleby & Plujimakers, 2003), rearing environment (Harvey et al. 2016), and neuter status can all impact how an individual dog perceives stimuli and should be considered when evaluating research findings.
These indicators may occur for a number of reasons and in different contexts, therefore it is recommended to seek advice and help from a qualified Behaviourist or Vet if your dog shows signs of a behavioural problem or stress. If you do need to approach, handle or treat a stressed dog, there are ways you can potentially help reduce stress:
- DO allow the dog to settle and relax before you approach and prior to handling them.
- DO train the dog to ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’, you can use these cues with rewards when the dog is calm.
- DO approach the dog from the side, crouch down and reach down and under the dog.
- DO move quietly and try to remain calm and relaxed.
- DO stop approaching or handling the dog if it shows signs of stress and give them more time and space until signs of stress disappear and before you try and approach them again.
- DON’T use direct eye contact.
- DON’T lean over the dog.
- DON’T use a head on approach.
- DON’T approach or handle the dog in noisy and busy environments.
- DON’T use force and minimise the use of restraint.
Application of Pheromones:
DAP can be easily applied both in the indoor and outdoor environment. In an indoor environment, DAP can be applied through using an Adaptil(R) diffuser. You simply plug the diffuser into an electrical socket in the room where the dog spends most of their time, switch it on and leave it (the product takes up to 24 hours to dissipate into the environment and for any effects to be seen). For a portable alternative, an Adaptil(R) collar can be fitted on the dog or a spray can be used if the dog is anxious in an outside environment (for example, on walks, in a pet carrier or in the car).
- No prescription is needed.
- There are no known side effects.
- Easy to use.
- Species-specific – does not affect other species in the home e.g. cats, humans.
- Flexible use - indoor and outdoor environments and for re-occurring or specific situations.
- The diffuser needs to be switched on continuously and replaced with a refill every 30 days, so longer term use can be expensive and needs to factored into cost. Similarly, the collar lasts 4 weeks.
- If used in a large room, multiple diffusers may be needed (the diffuser covers an area of up to 70m2, according to manufacturer guidelines).
- The diffuser needs to be plugged in with an open space around it to work (not behind doors or furniture) so tricky room layouts need to be considered.
- The collar is less effective in wet or windy conditions.
- The collar needs to be correctly fitted and not too loose in order to release the pheromones. The collar should fit snuggly and should be in contact with the dogs skin (two fingers should be able to slide under the collar when fastened).
- The spray should not be directly applied to the dog and needs re-applying every 4-5 hours, waiting time of 15 minutes before the dog is exposed to the environment.
So should we use DAP?
The research to date that investigates the efficacy of dog appeasing pheromones suggests that the product has some success in relieving stress in dogs although this may be dependent on factors such as temperament and coping style. Research suggests DAP should be used in combination with a behavioural modification programme and stressful environments should contain places to hide for the product to be most effective in reducing stress in dogs. DAP products are easy to implement, are a drug-free alternative and there are no known side effects although products need to be bought regularly for longer term use which can be costly.
It is important to note that, with any behaviour modification, DAP isn’t a quick fix. A change in behaviour is not always seen and sometimes the problem may not always be rectified. As behavioural problems can also be caused by medical issues, it is always advisable to have the dog thoroughly checked by a Vet before implementing a behavioural modification programme.
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Broach, D., & Dunham, A. E. (2016). Evaluation of a pheromone collar on canine behaviors during transition from foster homes to a training kennel in juvenile Military Working Dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 41-51.
Harvey, N.D., Craigon, P.J., Blythe, S.A., England, G.C.W., Asher, L. (2016). Social rearing environment influences dog behavioral development. J. Vet. Behav. 16, 13e21.
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Animal Welfare Research and Knowledge Exchange Arena,
University Centre Hartpury,
Hartpury, Glos, GL19 3BE