Can music heal animals?

In human beings, music has been found to ease depression, lower blood pressure, and reduce the need for pain medication after surgery. It makes sense that animals would also benefit from the healing and stress-reducing effects of music.

Certified music practitioner Karen Johnson explains how she broadened her audience from human to animal listeners. “Before I ever worked as a music practitioner, I was a greyhound owner. I couldn’t help but notice how the dogs responded to the sound of my clarinet: deep sighs, stretching and rolling as if wanting to absorb more of the sound, and always seeking out the source of the music whenever I played.”

Her experience parallels the work of Austrian veterinary behaviorist Dr. Hermann Bubna-Littitz, who recorded the behavior of cats in an open room, with and without music, over a four-day period. He found the animals came closer to the speakers when there was music playing, and showed less aggressive behavior than when there was no music. He recommends music based on the rhythm of the animal’s own heartbeat when it is relaxed.

Discs for your dog – and cat

You can experiment with your own CDs to see which ones your animals respond to most positively, or choose from the growing number of albums created especially for dogs, cats and other animals.

Composer Sharon Howarth-Russell of The Musical Rainbow designs music to create specific effects in animals. Her CD Pet Ease relieves anxiety, Infinite Mind helps dogs focus on obedience training, while Sea Magic helps with nausea and car sickness.

Sharon’s music has been tested on elderly or brain-injured humans, and on students with learning disabilities. These subjects found they could focus more on tasks and also saw their memory improve, perhaps because their brain waves were altered by the recordings. Instead of exhibiting only beta wave activity—the normal waking function—their brains showed delta waves as well. Delta is the deep-sleep rhythm that is hard to reach when we are stressed; a lack of delta sleep leads to forgetfulness, stress, confusion, and slow healing.

Fido-friendly frequencies

Some musicians draw on the ability of dogs and cats to hear sounds across a wider range of frequencies than we can. A dog can hear sounds from 67 to 45,000 Hz, and a cat’s range is even greater at 45 to 64,000 Hz. In contrast, our human ears are limited to frequencies between 64 and 23,000 Hz.

The Music Sales Group offers recordings by composer Hiroki Sakaguchi, who adds sounds at “pet-friendly” frequencies only animals can hear. Their CDs, Cat Naps and Dog Daze, will sound like Japanese New Age music to you, but you’ll never know what they sound like to your dog or cat because your ears won’t be able to pick up those frequencies.

Composer Janet Marlow’s recordings eliminate sub-low and ultra-high frequencies. “For an animal, very low frequencies such as kick-drums or sequenced bass lines, can easily generate a fight-or-flight response,” she says. “The vibrations that these produce are indistinguishable from a car, train, bus, truck, galloping horse, or a big human coming near them.”

Try different styles

Most of the music being marketed for animals is either classical or New Age. This doesn’t mean you have to give up listening to your favorite rock music, hip-hop, or experimental jazz, although you might try turning down the volume if your animals seem nervous or irritable when you play your favorite sounds. If you live in a space too small for your animals to get away from the music, consider using headphones.

On the other hand, you might discover that your animals respond positively to some of your favorite tunes. Rescued cats in a shelter where I volunteer seem to like 1940s swing—they don’t cry for food when the music is playing, giving me time to clean their cages before they eat. I once had a very gentle, shy cat who loved to lie by the speakers when I played a shakuhachi flute tape; his tail would lightly waft and flick in time with the notes.

So expose your dog or cat a choice of styles and artists—you may find that Billie Holiday is perfect for keeping the peace with a new animal in the house, while Willie Nelson perks up your dog in the car. Or it could be that his favorite music is you softly singing “What’s New, Pussycat?” as you stroke him to sleep.