Pet Sounds: Music is Dropping for Dogs and Cats
Veterinarians and music industry vets are teaming up to curate therapeutic pet playlists.
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There comes a time in any pet owner’s life when they must ask: Does my dog really and truly like Mötorhead? Are they as happy as they look when “Ace of Spades” comes on? Or are they just happy I seem so happy to hear it? In today’s tense and hyper-connected homes, these questions aren’t as idle as they might sound.
Though most of us live in a constant stream of algorithm-sourced digital audio, we misunderstand music’s effect on its furrier, passive consumers. Major companies that make gestures towards pet-friendly music seem to be a bit confused on the issue as well. Launching its Pet Playlist feature two years ago, Spotify shared results of a study that found, among other highly scientific data points, that 71% of pet owners play music for their pets; one in five named them after a musician (Elvis, Bowie, Ozzy); and, tellingly, 55% think their pet likes the same kind of music they do. Yet I doubt my iguana, Phil, loves his specially-formulated Spotify playlist for two reasons: 1) its selections are based on my answers to questions about him; and 2) dude’s an iguana. There are now over 20 years of research on music and (warm-blooded) animals’ well-being, which has found its way into more appropriate products.
Dr. Lisa Radosta, one of 90 veterinary behaviorists in the world, became an advisor to Zoundz Music for Pets, whose founder is a music-business veteran, through career-long efforts in treating animal anxiety. “What I like about Zoundz is that they took science that’s already published and jumped off from it to create species specific music,” says Dr. Radosta. With its Harmony Project, Zoundz produces music for animal shelters, which is where the earliest studies like this took place.
“Classical music is better than pop and other genres, but audiobooks are even better.”
— Dr. Lisa Radosta, Zounds Music for Pets
“At first, they compared shelter dogs’ behavior when exposed to heavy metal, classical music, and no music,” Dr. Radosta recalls. “They found dogs sleeping better to classical music. Then they began collecting more physical data — heart rate variability, cortisol levels in saliva — and found that classical music is better than pop and other genres, but that audiobooks, where someone’s reading, is even better.” Since then, 10 or more studies have monitored these physical parameters in police dogs, shelter dogs, home dogs, along with dogs and cats in veterinary settings.
One study of cats undergoing surgery found that when the cats wore noise-canceling headphones — one set with classical music, one without — those with classical music needed less anesthesia. In vet settings, studies found relatively little effect on the animals but distinct effects on their owners. “If you’re a calmer pet parent, you’ll parent better,” says Dr. Radosta, who though she uses Zoundz Sounds for Pets in her clinic now used classical music there 20 years prior. “Because, number one, it calms the pet parents. And number two, it calms the doctors — although I did have one doctor who was really annoyed by the music.”
There’s accounting for human taste — though Zoundz tracks seem to hew to tonal instrumentals befitting a meditative ad for Capital One — Dr. Radosta advises something stronger to mitigate disruptive noise at home. “Whether it’s fireworks, thunder, or something the dog’s phobic about, use white noise, brown noise, or other ambient sounds,” she says. The next frontier, says Dr. Radosta, is not shelters, clinics, or operating rooms, but species beyond dogs and cats. “Right now, we in the animal behavior world are most interested in species-specific music,” she says. “Whether or not these different tracks with music best-suited to that animal in that environment have benefits. And there’s evidence that they do.”
Janet Marlow, M.A. is certain they do. Author and animal sound behaviorist, Marlow came to this field from a purely musical background, a self-described “fifth-generation” heir to classical music’s famed Spivakovsky family of virtuosos. Born in London, Marlow was raised in New York and enjoyed a decades-long recording and performing career as a soloist on the uniquely resonant 10-string acoustic guitar. “My ear has always been drawn to the magic of sound and resonance,” she says. “So it was natural to appreciate the acute hearing of animals.” Also a lifelong pet lover, she’d noticed how soothed her dogs and cats seemed during her practice sessions and, prompted by grief at losing one, began exploring animals’ music response, eventually founding Pet Acoustics to create species-specific music.
“I started experimenting once digital composing came along in writing music that wasn't for human hearing, music that requires depth and spatial conceptualization and dynamics. I began research into certain frequencies that agitated my dogs and cats, certain frequencies and decibel levels that calmed them. I spent several years composing, testing, grabbing veterinarians, anybody I could to test the music, and the results were phenomenal.” With Pet Acoustics, Marlow now composes acoustic and digital music along with the trademarked speakers calibrated to, variously, canine, feline, equine, and avian listeners.
“Dogs and cats prefer long, sustained phrases. Sort of, ‘Just put me in that canoe on that gentle river and I’m gone and dreaming for the next few hours.’”
— Janet Marlow, Pet Acoustics
These tracks reduce those sonic triggers common to human listening — very high or low frequencies, excessive dynamics, sudden percussive shifts — and work in the comfort zone of these different animals’ auditory hardware. “Pressure in the ear determines their behavioral response to sound,” Marlow says. “Dogs hear twice as much as humans, cats three times as much." That is some 65,000 hertz compared to our 20,000. They also listen at one or two feet from the ground, a world of vibrations and resonance that simply doesn’t make it to our ears.
“Dogs and cats prefer long, sustained phrases,” Marlow says. “Sort of, ‘Just put me in that canoe on that gentle river and I’m gone and dreaming for the next few hours.’” She says that horses prefer more rhythmic sounds. “Short melodic phrases,” says Marlow, who reports seeing them move in their stalls to her music. “Very strong rhythms, in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time.” Although she leaves iguanas to Spotify, Marlow has found a surprisingly responsive audience for her avian music. “Birds are actually the most musical of all four,” Marlow found. Composers from Respighi to Bruckner, Beethoven, Bartok, and Paul McCartney wrote work inspired by bird songs, but birds themselves can actually languish without the musical sounds they make and receive. “They get very attached to their owners through conversations, and without it, loneliness creates neurosis.”
While both Pet Acoustics and Zounds for Pets strive to soothe anxious animals with music tailored to their biology, from what I’ve been able to hear they both run to gentle, acoustic instrumentals comfortably in the human easy-listening space. Marlow says she makes “the most biometrically proven pet music in the world.” But it’s still geared to those four types of animals that are most closely bonded to humans. “The music has to appeal to humans — You can’t have a John Cage work, even in a good frequency, and expect humans to play it 10 hours a day.” There may be some animal-centric deep cuts out there, but pets are, by definition, part of our listening demographic. “We converse with our pets, and they require a certain human parameter to whatever we give them.”
Do they like it because we do; are they becalmed by our calm? Recent science says our bond is even more telepathic than we’d realized. “Emotional contagion is real,” Dr. Radosta says. “Realer than we thought even five years ago. I don’t mean social facilitation. I mean, a dog or cat’s automatic adoption of our emotional state. I wouldn’t have said that five years ago because I’m so worried about people misunderstanding their pets. It’s one of the major causes of relinquishment, euthanasia. Misunderstanding what this dog or cat is, what it’s capable of.”
Many in the animal space are moving away from anthropomorphic projection, into the actual sensory experience of the animals themselves. “Animals often become our entertainment,” Marlow reflects. But when it comes to their health, well being, and needs, she recommends moving beyond the superficial — listening not just to them, but like them. “Personally, I feel that the best thing going for humans these days will be an evolutionary understanding of animals. If we understand them, we will better understand ourselves.”
Chris Norris is a writer, reporter, author, and longtime companion to West Highland terrier Gus, recently departed but intensely loved. Chris Norris is has written for The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, GQ, Details, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He lives in New York City with his wife and 10-year-old son.