Music offers noteworthy benefits to dogs and cats

Music isn’t just for us! Research shows that certain melodies can have a profoundly calming effect on our animal companions.

You’re probably familiar with songs that feature animals in their lyrics — Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”, for example. Music of all kinds entertains, inspires, relaxes and uplifts us. And it can affect our dogs and cats in similar ways. You can even find arrangements written for animals, and not just about them! Let’s discover how music can enhance your own dog or cat’s well-being.

Now hear this!

First, it’s important to note that our furry friends process sound somewhat differently than we do. Human society is largely sight- and touch-focused. Even our language reflects this tendency, infused as it is with common phrases like “hands on” and “good to see you”. Domesticated dogs and cats, conversely, are renowned for their strong sense of hearing. While age and health status play a role in an animal’s hearing, they’re generally quite sensitive to audio input. According to Louisiana State University, felines can hear sounds ranging from roughly 45 Hz to as high as 64,000 Hz, while most canines can detect sounds from approximately 67 Hz to 45,000 Hz.

For comparison purposes, The Scientist and Engineer’s Guide to Digital Signal Processing suggests that the hearing range for humans normally falls between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, but that our ears are most attuned to sounds between 1 kHz and 4 kHz. This means animals are often picking up audio subtleties we’re not sensing at all. It also implies that people and their dogs or cats likely have different definitions of “loud”. Any music cranked to jarring volumes could startle or even terrify certain animals. As the American Kennel Club notes, booming noises like thunder and fireworks can have a similar effect.

But considering the way dogs and cats rely on their sense of hearing, it’s reasonable to wonder about the potential benefits of music at more controlled decibel levels. After all, science has already uncovered the profound wellness benefits of music for humans, ranging from stress reduction to pain management. Animal researchers have recognized this thought-provoking data and launched several investigations of their own.

Certain sounds help balance the nervous system

Ever run across those audio sound therapies called Through a Dog’s Ear? Apparently, they’re more than just pretty melodies for pups. These comforting arrangements reflect the groundbreaking research of Dr. Alfred Tomatis. His work as a French otolaryngologist suggested that sound can help balance and stabilize the nervous system. But Dr. Tomatis also maintained that the sound must be appropriate for the subject who’s listening.

In 2003, concert pianist Lisa Spector took these observations to heart when she teamed up with psychoacoustic expert Joshua Leeds to create animal-specific music collections. Clinical testing eventually led to the iCalmPet product line, which includes Through a Dog’s Ear and Through a Cat’s Ear (icalmpets.com)

What types of tunes are most appropriate for dogs?

  • A 2012 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior provides some telling clues. It was led by Lori Kogan, a licensed psychologist and professor of clinical sciences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. Over a four-month window, Kogan and her team played several different types of music for 117 dogs in a shelter environment. Each selection was played for 45 minutes, followed by a 15-minute control interval of silence. During the exposures, canine behavior was documented every five minutes. Kogan found that the dogs were more apt to sleep, and less inclined to bark, when classical music was playing. Conversely, heavy metal was associated with a greater incidence of physical tremors, a common sign of canine agitation.
  • Similar research conducted by Deborah Wells, a psychologist at Queen’s University Belfast, demonstrated that canines evidently can subliminally distinguish between various musical genres. Her findings once again showed that shelter dogs became more relaxed when hearing classical selections. Conversely, heavy metal seemed to prompt more unsettled behaviors. Wells discovered that several other animal species demonstrated this same reactions.
  • A study by applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, originally published in Perspectives in Ethology, went beyond musical genres to examine actual note length and quality. McConnell ultimately found that canine motor activity escalated noticeably whenever short rapid-fire notes were played. Conversely, both working dogs and horses appeared calmer when hearing long, sustained notes.

This research suggests that rousing classical selections like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” wouldn’t fit into the calming category any more than heavy metal would. Rather, as McConnell’s study in particular shows, it suggests that continuous notes and pure tones are a better choice. Such music seems to impact the canine nervous system in beneficial ways, rather than overtaxing it.

Compositions for cats

How do these principles apply to the notoriously finicky feline temperament? Early insights were provided through research with primates. Charles Snowdon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with composer and National Symphony Orchestra cellist David Teie in 2009. Their study, originally published in Biology Letters, found that cotton-top tamarin monkeys barely reacted to any type of human music. However, when Teie wrote tunes using natural tamarin vocal patterns and pitches, the monkeys visibly responded.

Snowdon and Teie wondered if the notes and rhythms of popular “people tunes” might also fall outside the acoustic inclinations of felines. So they set about creating songs that reflected the tempos and frequencies cats commonly use to communicate.

Armed with these custom-tailored compositions, the researchers visited 47 homes and invited each family cat to listen. For contrast, they also played standard human classical arrangements. The results, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2015, showed that cats express significantly stronger interest in species-appropriate music as compared to human music. Kitties hearing the customized tunes were more likely to stroll toward the speaker, and some even rubbed against it. Overall, younger and older felines seemed to have the most favorable reactions. One key takeaway? Cats may find tempos matching their resting respiratory rate most appealing and/or soothing. Based on these striking results, Teie eventually began selling feline-friendly arrangements on his Music for Cats website.

While all these findings are certainly intriguing, how can they be applied day-to-day? Many animal parents are already using pet-customized arrangements to calm their furry friends, at home and in the car. But perhaps the research holds particular promise for shelters and veterinary hospitals, where animals are often stressed and anxious.

Striking a chord with shelters

Music has been shown to help calm animals in shelter environments. Clearly, Wells and Kogan were already thinking along these lines when they chose to study shelter dogs. And many of these facilities seem to be tuning in to the benefits.

Kristen Funk, executive director of the Chicagoland-based Naperville Area Humane Society, notes that her team actively incorporates calming melodies on a regular basis. “We utilize music at the shelter each day during our quiet time hour,” she explains. “We play music throughout the shelter, and turn out the lights to let the cats and dogs decompress. We also incorporate scents with the music to enhance the experience for the animals.”

Similarly, Ohio-based holistic veterinarian Dr. Pamela Fisher wants organizations everywhere to know about the therapeutic benefits of music for shelter animals. She founded a non-profit called the Rescue Animal Mp3 Project, which shares free music-loaded Mp3 players with shelters and sanctuaries. According to the website, arrangements are now playing in over 1,390 shelters across the US, comforting more than 160,000 homeless animals.

These promising applications imply that the study of music for animals has a long and harmonious future ahead of it. Relaxed and contented cats and dogs are happier and healthier. It’s amazing to think that music can make such a remarkable difference. As the iCalmPet website states:  “Music for the enhancement of animal function is both a growing science, and valuable art form.”