Music and cats - always a good idea

By Frania Shelley-Grielen, All rights reserved

Classical music with its soothing melodic tones and harmonies is now more readily accepted in pet care as being a positive for the animals that get to listen but is it really? The answer may be “yes”, “no” and “it depends on what kind.” In addition to being able to observe a positive impact, it makes sense that the right sort of classical music needs to be played from the animal perspective to be effective. Soothing music may have a universal component for all species. Factors such as lower pitch and regular tempo are typically associated with more pleasant music while high pitched and irregular tempo are usually perceived as disturbing.

A study on the sort of music cats prefer by researchers, Charles T. Snowdon, David Teie and Megan Savage addresses cat specific music by testing how well cats respond to music created to cater to what the researchers believed the cats would like to be listening to. Drs.’ Snowdon, Teie and Savage composed pieces of music that were in cat frequency ranges and compared the cats’ responses to music in human frequency range. Of course, for any of this to matter the animal in question needs to be able to hear it. And it is with the hearing of things that most animals aside from humans are listening at frequencies we are not aware of. Humans hear in an approximate range of 64-23,000 hertz (which is a measurement of the cycles per second of a particular sound wave) compared to dogs who hear in an approximate range of 67-45,000 hertz and cats, who beat out both species, hearing in an approximate range of 45-64,0000.

When looking at the sensory capacities of other animals it is vitally important to know that the measurements we are working with are all educated guesswork on our parts with significantly huge gaps missing in our knowledge. We need to remember that when we have tried to determine the range of an animal’s hearing we cannot ask the animal what it hears and receive a response. We never definitively know. We first train hungry animals to respond to a sound by rewarding them with food and measure which sounds they respond to. In fact, we cannot know what they are actually hearing only what levels they respond to in our tests. It’s an important distinction and a valuable one to remember in the work we do with animals.

The researchers also added in what they thought would evoke a friendly response in the cats using purring or the sucking sounds cats make when nursing to regulate tempo. The human music used for comparison, pieces generally perceived as pleasing to people (Faure’s Elegie and Bach’s Air on a G String), had tempos similar to the human resting pulse rate, which is intimated, may contribute to its relaxing qualities. It is confusing why the researchers choose purring and sucking as tempos to set their “cat music” to rather than cat resting pulse rate, especially as the cat music is compared to human music set to a tempo of the human resting pulse rate. The cat’s resting pulse rate is 120-140 beats per minute as compared to a human’s which is 60-100 beats per minute.

The researchers found the study cats responded significantly more actively and positively to the cat music with younger cats in the study showing an even greater response. Positive responses were listed as turning the head toward the speaker where the music was coming from, rubbing against it, sniffing and purring.

It is also vitally important in the work we do looking at animals that we look at behavior in contexts that are salient for the animals in question. The cat music study here begins with positing a relevant range of what a cat can hear as a starting point for what music might be more or less meaningful and perhaps loses focus by mixing in tempos of sounds made during comfort behaviors, like nursing and purring. When the cats in question respond positively to the music (again, worth noting that more of the younger cats in question respond) it is difficult if not impossible to parse out what the cats are in fact responding to the tempo of the purring or nursing sounds or the frequency or otherwise. In a separate study on dogs, Patricia Simonet, recorded the sounds dogs make when “laughing” at play, a particular in and out pant. Dr. Simonet then played the dog laugh recording as background noise in various shelter environments and found similar impacts, with results showing the shelter dogs demonstrating positive behavior responses to the sounds.

Whether it is studying animals, working with them or living with them it is of great importance for us to always remember that other species perceive the world we share together in sometimes markedly different ways even as we may be sharing the same physical spaces. Paying close attention to how our animals react to their environments in the ways we have come to learn are positive or negative for them continue to be the most telling for us as to how they “feel” about them.

In my own work I recommend the use of classical music, specifically classical music found on the radio. Radio stations mostly play music for background effect, so arias and discordant pieces are often ruled out. Radio stations also have dulcet toned announcers softly speaking about the music, an added bonus for pets.

Classical music continues to have value for cats and other animals and this is most demonstrated by the behaviors they present to the appropriate music. On a recent visit to a dog daycare I found the manager listening to a classical radio station and asked if he was playing the music to soothe the dogs. “No, “he told me “I like it but I do notice that the dogs are much calmer when the radio is on.”

The behavior tells, we just need to be clear what it is telling.

Snowdon, C.T., Teie, D., Savage, M. (2015). Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 166, 106-111.

Simonet, P., Versteeg, D., Storie, D. (2005) Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related behavior in shelter dogs. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Environmental Enrichment July 31 – August 5, 2005.

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