Calming pheromones could decrease animal aggression

James Cook University researchers have discovered that naturally occurring pheromones may minimise stress-related aggression in African wild dogs; which could eventually be harnessed to control such behaviour in other animals – possibly including humans.

JCU scientist Dr Damien Paris said Dog Appeasing Pheromones (DAP) are fatty acids secreted from the skin by lactating female dogs, and are known to induce a calming effect in domestic puppies.

The African wild dog is highly endangered with a complex pack structure easily disrupted during conservation or medical interventions, leading to acute stress and intra-pack fighting.

“To help the species, we wanted to develop a technique to minimise stress and aggression within packs during essential immobilisations. Our collaborators, Professors Patrick Pageat and Alessandro Cozzi (Research Institute in Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology), hypothesized that appeasing pheromones could be the solution, and provided the team with DAP to test whether it could positively affect the hormones and behaviour of wild dogs,” he said.

In a double-blinded study, Dr Paris and PhD student Dr Femke Van den Berghe from JCU’s Gamete and Embryology (GAME) Laboratory and Professor Zoltan Sarnyai from the Psychiatric Neuroscience Laboratory, compared the hormones and behaviour of 23 male African wild dogs from 4 DAP-treated packs versus 4 placebo-treated packs after immobilisation for health assessment – a situation dogs generally find very stressful.

In collaboration with an international team (below), the researchers found that testosterone did not rise and certain types of dominant and submissive behaviours decreased during reintroduction in DAP-treated packs.

“Dominant behaviour and aggression are strongly linked to testosterone in many species. From these results, we conclude that DAP appears to reduce the factors leading to aggression and may be a useful tool to manage new pack formation or temporary pack separation in this species,” said Dr Van den Berghe.

The researchers now plan to isolate African wild dog-specific appeasing pheromone to enhance its beneficial effect.

“If we succeed, it’s quite possible that such an approach could be applicable to other socially complex species including other wild canines, primates or even humans,” said Dr Paris.

The JCU team worked with international experts: Associate Professor Monique Paris and Bart Vlamings (Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals); Professors Robert Millar and Andre Ganswindt (Centre for Neuroendocrinology and Mammal Research Institute respectively, University of Pretoria); and Professors Patrick Pageat and Alessandro Cozzi (Research Institute in Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology).

The work, funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, has just been published and is freely available in the scientific journal PLOS ONE (doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212551).

Images: here.

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