Humans have a deep emotional connection to music, so it makes sense that we assume other mammals – especially our pets who seem so emotionally connected to us – might have a similar response.
Although dogs and cats have different behaviors and reactions to stimuli than humans, they also react to stressful situations – like going to the vet, being around unfamiliar animals, or undergoing surgery – in understandable and predictable ways. Researchers are looking at how music can impact animals, especially our pets, so we can help them experience less stress in unfamiliar environments.
Cats, Dogs, and Humans in Stressful Situations
A 2013 review of research found that music could impact pets’ preoperative anxiety, reducing the need for sedatives. Studies in humans have led to the Mozart Effect, largely because Mozart’s music and its effects on the human brain has been studied more than other composers’ work. This has led to Mozart being used in animal studies as well.
Mozart’s piano sonatas were played to rat pups who were about two weeks old, and this was found to accelerate learning in the animals. Music played to chicks before they hatched was found to increase neuron density in the hippocampus, which could improve spatial learning as they grew.
It is important to note that genre plays a huge role in both animal and human response to music, but animals also respond more to tempo, cadence, and beat of music within a genre. It has also been found that animals respond better to certain amounts of silence per day, with music turned off overnight at a minimum.
Below are some examples of music’s impact on dogs, cats, and their humans.
Veterinary settings: Humans and animals interact in complex ways during veterinary visits, as one paper points out. Overall, music has a positive effect on reducing anxiety and stress in humans, and it has some similar impact on both cats and dogs.
A study on music in a veterinarian setting, though, found that clinicians did not perceive the same levels of stress in animals as their clients did, suggesting that the clients were also stressed about their animal’s health. Music played in a vet office can reduce the stress on the human owner, which in turn reduces stress on the pet. Music may confer fewer direct benefits to animals compared to humans. Some kinds of music did improve client satisfaction with the clinic based on how they perceived their pet’s stress.
Kennels: Although there are several practical and safety reasons why both dogs and cats must be kept in kennels at certain points, the experience of being in an enclosed space, especially with other unfamiliar animals, can be deeply distressing. Many kennels try to find ways to reduce unpredictable noise and unfamiliar smells for animals in kennels because high levels of noise can greatly increase the animal’s stress.One study involving 117 dogs in kennels examined activity level, body shaking, and vocalization as signs of the dogs’ distress. The researchers played classical music, heavy metal, and classical music altered specifically for the dogs’ hearing range. Classical music was found to reduce vocalizations and to relax the dogs enough that they spent more time sleeping. Heavy metal, in contrast, increased body shaking, which is a behavior indicating nervousness.
Another study of dogs in kennels examined their cortisol levels in their saliva, heart-rate variability, and behavior. One group was kenneled in silence while the test group had classical music playing from about 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The study found that auditory stimulation during the one-week test slowed heart rate and reduced nervous behaviors, although there was inconsistent impact in the measurements of cortisol levels in the dogs’ saliva.
A related study on dogs and kennel stress involved different genres of music. Although dogs were believed to respond best to classical music, they were also found to get used to that kind of auditory stimulation so the effects on reducing stress would go away over time. Researchers alternated soft rock, Motown, pop, reggae, and classical to determine if the dogs responded better to one genre than the others or if increasing the variety of auditory stimulation continued to reduce stress in the dogs. The dogs tended to bark more when auditory stimulation stopped, but there was less impact on barking between genres of music. Soft rock and reggae were associated with faster heart rate, suggesting higher levels of stress, and there were lower heart rates reported for Motown, classical, and pop.
Interestingly, while the dogs listened to soft rock, urinary cortisol levels rose, similarly to the second period of silence following the first round of auditory enrichment. However, during the five-day study, auditory enrichment was found to be generally stress-reducing in the animals compared to silence.
A further study of kenneled dogs and stress levels employed all kinds of music, along with audiobooks, to find which auditory stimulation worked best to reduce stress in the animals. Researchers used audiobooks, classical music, pop music, songs designed specifically for dogs, and no control over the sound environment. Dogs in the study were exposed to each of these for about two hours per day with a two-day gap between each genre exposure. The study found that audiobooks, moreso than music, led to more resting behaviors in dogs and less vigilant behavior while standing or sitting. The audiobooks were believed to create more potential audio enrichment in the environment for the dogs compared to any genre of music.
Sedation and surgery: A 2015 examination of sedation in cats reported that felines experience reduced stress and better surgical outcomes when listening to music, especially classical music. The survey looked at 12 female cats who had undergone routine neutering surgery, measuring breathing and pupil diameter at different points during their anesthesia. Some cats were exposed to silence, some experienced string music, some listened to a pop song, and some listened to heavy metal.
The cats who listened to classical string music were more relaxed, with slower respiration and smaller pupil diameter. Pop music produced intermediate levels of stress, and heavy metal produced higher levels of stress. The researchers concluded that playing classical music for cats during routine operations could reduce the amount of anesthesia needed.
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Using Music for Animals
Helping our furry friends can take different paths, depending on the role you have in the animal’s life. Certainly, veterinarians can tailor playlists in their offices to soothe cats and dogs waiting on a routine physical, a diagnosis of a sudden illness, or animals awaiting surgery. Kennels that rehome animals can play music for some hours of the day to soothe all the pets who have to live close together for a short time.
Pet owners can make their homes friendlier to their furry loved ones too. New animals may be soothed by classical music while their new owner is gone. Introducing an older pet to a new pet can cause stress, so keeping their minds occupied with music or an audiobook may help.
Composers are now creating tracks specifically designed for the auditory ranges and preferences of cats and dogs. While our pets may not react exactly the same way to music that we do, we can use music as a tool to ease their stress.
- Music as Medicine: It Doesn’t Have to Be Mozart. (January 28, 2014). Veterinary Practice News.
- Turning the Page on Music in Shelters. (January 26, 2017). ASPCA.
- Effects of Different Types of Classical Music at a Veterinary Hospital on the Behavior of Pets & Owner Satisfaction. (August 2016). American Humane Society.
- Behavioral Effects of Auditory Stimulation on Kenneled Dogs. (October 2012). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
- ‘Four Seasons’ in an Animal Rescue Centre; Classical Music Reduces Environmental Stress in Kennelled Dogs. (May 1, 2015). Physiology & Behavior.
- The Effect of Different Genres of Music on the Stress Levels of Kennelled Dogs’. (March 15, 2017). Physiology & Behavior.
- The Effects of Audiobooks on the Behaviour of Dogs at a Rehoming Kennels. (January 2016). Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
- Cats Relax to the Sound of Music. (March 30, 2015). Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.