Does Music Matter to Animals?
Osborne the cat went out for a stroll one evening 25 years ago that changed the course of his person’s musical career.
Recording artist Janet Marlow let her 15-year-old cat Osborn out for his usual walkabout in her backyard Connecticut woods.
He didn’t return.
After a two-day search, she found him badly injured and rushed him to her veterinarian.
Marlow spent the next five days returning to the hospital’s ICU unit to sing to Osborn. “You could see in his eyes how grateful he was for the soothing energy of me singing. Sadly, he passed.”
“I could not stop asking myself questions about how sound and music affect animals,” Marlow recalls. “Osborn changed the direction of my musical life.”
How does hearing music affect an animal’s body and allow them to release muscle tension?
Does Music Affect Animals?
As a performer, Marlow was keenly aware of how acoustics affected people. She saw how it affected her animals, too. “As I practiced for my performances, my dogs and cats, no matter where they were in the house, would gravitate to my instruments and my singing. They would lay down and be soothed.”
She spent the next three years collecting scientific data on the hearing ranges of animals and how sound affects animal behavior.
As the digital age dawned, Marlow began composing music in her studio. She developed a deeper understanding of the range and dynamics of sound based on the hearing ranges of dogs and cats. She wanted to write music for dogs and cats but realized she could not compose music for them the same way she wrote it for people.
Dogs hear twice as wide a range of frequencies as humans and at four times further a distance.
They hear way more sounds than humans do.
People love their dogs, Marlow says. We lavish them with love, touch, the right food, a special bed, and the safety of their home. Her passion to educate has brought an additional level of care, a hearing environment for behavioral calm.
Then they go to work and leave their pets alone for the day. That can trigger separation anxiety. We can’t control the rumble of delivery trucks, thunderstorms rolling through, the high-frequency whine of appliances, or noises outside the windows that stress our pets.
Marlow says we can help relieve that anxiety by changing the dog’s sonic environment.
Filling a room with soothing, science-based music changes the energy there to help an animal stay calm amid stress triggers.
Marlow learned to modify her original music for a dog’s hearing level comfort. She learned which instruments calmed animals more than others. Osborn’s vet volunteered her clinic as a testing ground, and the testing supported Maarlow’s vision for helping animals through acoustics.
Marlow made a career shift and began composing music specifically designed for the ears of dogs, cats, horses, and birds. In 1997, she invented a method of digitally modifying frequency and decibel content in music and is now credited for creating species-specific music for animals.
Modifying the Sonic Environment
In 2009, Marlow started Pet Acoustics to bring the benefits of music to animals. One of her innovations, a sonic stress relief collar, comes loaded with music chosen to help dogs with phobias about thunderstorms, fireworks, street noises, and other disturbing sounds.
Marlow relates the story of an apartment dwelling customer whose small rescue dog was disturbed by the footfalls of a much larger dog that moved into the apartment above. Her dog panicked just hearing the new neighbor’s toenails clicking on the hardwood floors.
She bought a calming collar to help her dog’s anxiety.
When the dogs finally met in the hallway, the music emitted by the smaller dog’s collar (inaudible to the human ear) calmed the neighbor, too.
“I’ve spent the last 25 years happily educating pet parents and veterinarians on how important it is to give attention to animal hearing,” she says.
Sound, Marlow points out, is an invisible force that affects animal behavior daily.
Since its early beginnings, music therapy for animals has spread far and wide. You can now find YouTube videos of soothing music created not only for dogs but also for cats, horses, and pocket pets like hamsters.
Studies Prove the Music’s Effects
The Department of Horse Breeding and Use, University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, approached Marlow and asked her to provide equine music for a study on young Arabian racehorses in training.
The study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, followed 120 horses over a period of 2 years. One group received music therapy using Marlow’s equine compositions, another received massage therapy, and a third group received no stress therapy.
Both music and equine massage proved to be winners in reducing training stress and in track earnings when horses received the therapies for at least 2 to 3 months compared to control horses that received none.
Cats benefit from music therapy, too. While dogs take in twice as many sonic stimuli as people, cats go them one better.
Cats hear three times as many frequencies as humans.
“A balanced environment is extremely important for a cat,” Marlow says. Cats in an agitating sonic environment often develop stress behaviors that can, in turn, lead to physical problems.”
In 2020 Marlow partnered with pet biometrics tracking company PetPace to conduct a study on how music affected cats. They found feline-specific music strongly influenced both cat physiology and behavior.
Significantly, cats had lower pulse rates and higher heart rate variability, biometric indicators for the calmer behavior they observed, when music using the best frequencies for cats filled the environment.
Sound Therapy to the Rescue
Veterinarians regularly contact Marlow with testimonials to the positive effect of her music on their clients as it plays in their office spaces and kennels. Now Marlow is on a crusade to help rescue shelters incorporate music into their environments and lower stress levels.
“The sentiment of rescuing an animal begins with a burning desire that one’s heart is called to do,” she writes in her blog. “I know so many stories of people who, once they decide to adopt, will search and search until they find their beloved companion, myself included.
“It’s a journey of goodness and love.”
So how could she make that journey better for rescue animals?
Marlow collaborated with composer and sound engineer William Johnson of Beats By Make on a rap music video. Rescue, Rescue is posted on Marlow’s Pet Acoustics blog, YouTube, and multiple music streaming platforms.
Marlow hopes people will share the video to inspire more pet adoptions for rescue animals.
To offer an incentive to support rescue groups, Marlowe offers a discount at her site for anyone who buys a Pet Acoustics product to donate to a shelter or foster home (or veterinarian’s office). She believes that music can help both the animals and the people working in any stressful environment.
What Does Your Dog Hear Now?
As yet another part of her mission to bring sonic harmony into more animals’ lives, Marlow offers a free hearing evaluation for dogs on Pet Acoustic’s blog. (Disclaimer: our dog Jenni took part in the beta testing for this canine hearing test. She did very well, thank you.)
While any dog can have a hearing deficit, Marlow notes that hearing evaluations for puppies and seniors are particularly important.
Her simple test checks a dog’s response to three different frequency levels. While not intended as a medical evaluation for deafness, one caregiver participating in the beta test noted no change in her dog’s reaction to the varying frequencies. She decided to have her dog’s hearing checked by her veterinarian.
Humans can’t hear the higher frequencies that dogs do. So, Marlow overlaid nature sounds on the dog frequencies to help the human participants doing the test.
How do you know whether your dog hears the sounds in the test? After watching your dog or cat over the years, you notice everything about them, Marlow says.
“Just watch their ears,” she advises. “It’s all in the ears.”
Bonnie Kreitler is a writer and animal addict who creates content to help fellow animal addicts create better and better relationships with the critters in their lives.
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