Since the early recognition that sound can influence human moods and health, people have wondered whether music therapy can be effective on pets, in particular on dogs and cats.
With a varying degree of success, music therapy is widely used for humans: starting from the ability to alleviate stress and increase work productivity and ending with the treatment of serious medical conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, tumors and anorexia.
In recent decades, pets have started to receive audio-stimulation to increase their wellbeing, behavior and even health. But is this just another snake oil product or is music therapy a reasonable approach to dealing with the problems of dogs and cats? Let’s find out.
How music therapy works?
With a wide range of applications and different varieties of music, it is hard to generalize the complexity of music therapy. Even so, it is suggested there are four main ways in which music can and does interact with our bodies:
- Entertainment. Music entertains us. We dance, sing along, tap out the rhythm and do other kinds of mood-boosting things while listening to music. In general, being in a good mood is beneficial for our health, but we won’t dive deeper into this for the sake of this article.
- Blocking of noises. Sudden noises alert us; the lack of such noises calm us. This property has an evolutionary benefit: sudden noises usually convey important message in nature but not so much in the modern world, where we are surrounded by meaningless noises. In such circumstances, our stress response is kept on “stand-by” at all times for no particular benefit to our survival. Smooth background music can block distant noises, giving a break to our stress hormones.
- Pattern recognition in our brain. Our brain is efficient at recognizing things and sorting them in categories such as known, unknown, friendly, dangerous and others. We can distinguish music by rhythm, tempo, genre and instrument, etc., and our mind labels these unconsciously. At first glance, listening gives our brain a task, which, under normal conditions, is a good thing. On a deeper level, it also gives us peace of mind because most music pieces we can think of our brain will recognize as at least subtly familiar and will label them as safe.
- Physical influence of sound waves. Sound is a wave of air particles that also initiates fluctuations in our ear membrane, body, internal organs and cells. Specific applications on specific organs are each worth standalone research and require separating facts from fiction, but at this point we must assume that this effect is at least possible in both positive and negative ways.
Does music affect cats and dogs?
The above mentioned are all good theories, and likely they all play their part in music therapy. But the question remains: Do they apply to cats and dogs, too?
Well, pure logic tells us that, at some level, it should. There is no reason why blocking sudden noises and the physical interaction of sound waves would act differently on animals than humans, keeping up the debate of whether it is good or bad. Pattern recognition and entertainment are less obvious because they require some cognitive abilities, although pets do have at least some of these.
What does science say? There have been number of studies of cats and dogs, mostly on dogs, that measure how different kinds of music influence behavior. In one study with kenneled dogs, scientists found that several pieces of classical music made dogs calmer—they slept more and barked less. Ironically, one piece of music had no effect whatsoever, despite that it had been specifically composed to calm dogs.
Similar studies have also come to the conclusion that music can calm pets and not only conscious ones. Another study observed a decrease in respiratory rates and pupil diameters (signs of reduced stress) in cats under general anesthesia during surgery. And why stop with pets? The link between playing music in farms and higher milk production has not only been tested but put into practice in many farms.
Does all music work equally?
There isn’t much doubt that music can have a calming effect on cats, dogs and other animals. The question still remains: What kind of music works and what doesn’t?
IMPORTANT: Many studies have found a link between music and the relaxation of pets—a good prerequisite for improved health. However, music therapy for treating certain medical conditions has been poorly researched, and it must not be used as a substitute for professional veterinary treatment.
In general, most studies have found that classical music is the most relaxing for animals, whereas pop music and random music has little to no effect. Heavy metal, on the contrary, is observed to have a negative effect in studies such as those mentioned above.
In defense of metalheads, those studies could have examined different variety of metal music because there indeed are songs that are subtly calmer than Slayer’s “Angel of Death.” In a similar sense, it also must be mentioned that not all pieces gave positive results. For example, the Blue Danube Waltz was less successful when compared to a control of no music at all. And since a large amount of classical music has been used to build moods in theater plays and operas, we can be sure to find compositions that will increase nervousness in dogs and cats.
The fact is, that, regardless of genre, the most success you can expect is from music that is calm with no sudden changes in rhythm and slower beats per minute. With conditions like these, it just happens that you will likely succeed when you choose a classical music CD.
Can you use music to calm you dog or cat?
We think you should try and and see if this works for yourself. Leaving music on during the day is a good way to calm your pet, and we have suggested it before to soothe anxiety and stress in cats.
We also don’t see problems in using music as a complementary therapy while your dog recovers from illness or surgery, though your primary source of advice must be a veterinarian.
The good news is that you do not even need to buy anything. YouTube and streaming services are loaded with classical music and music composed specifically for pets’ ears. There is also a list of products designed to deliver music to pets, though we don’t think they are mandatory.
Of course, if you buy a CD of Peer Gynt or Lohengrin, you are joining an elite club of classical music lovers and can create benefit for your pet’s and your own wellbeing in the process.