Whether you’re rocking out to your favorite car jam or playing relaxing classical for home study or relaxation, music has a profound effect on mood. It can pump us up, calm us down, inspire us, help us celebrate, or comfort us in grief. But what about our furry home companions—how does the music we play affect our cats and dogs?
A Bit of Science
First, it’s important to understand that the hearing of cats and dogs is profoundly more sensitive than our own. For example, a healthy person with good hearing can perceive frequencies as high as 20,000 hertz. Any higher frequencies are inaudible to us. Dogs, however, can hear frequencies as high as 40,000 hertz, and can detect a sound at 4 times the distance compared with people. Cats, even more amazingly, can hear sound frequencies as high as 64,000 hertz.
And not only are our pet able to her sounds we cannot, they react to sound differently. Most human music is based on familiar rhythms (such the human heart or the slap of waves on a beach), and most of our music (human speech) resides in the frequencies between 80 and 180 hertz. So, the way they communicate (in terms of the sound frequencies we use) differs greatly from how our pets hear and process sound.
Cats and Music
Cats, as you may suspect, have presented a bit of a riddle to scientists who’ve attempted to determine their musical preferences. One thing investigators seem to agree on is that cats do not like loud music. However, in tests, cats didn’t seem to show any affection for any specific genre—classical, rock, soft rock, reggae, country, etc.
So why is it so difficult to determine cats’ musical preferences? Part of the answer may be that, unlike dogs, cats do not typically vocalize as a way to communicate with each other. Nor do they communicate in packs (like wolves or coyotes). So determining what role music plays in the emotional lives of cats has been more challenging and continues to be an area of ongoing investigation.
Dogs and Music
Canine history can trace its path back to wild ancestral dogs living and hunting in packs. This social aspect of dog behavior seems to have had an effect on the way dogs perceive and process music. We’ve all seen the Youtube videos of pet owners encouraging their dogs to howl. What’s striking is that music is often playing in these clips, suggesting that music creates a prompt, or at least a favorable environment to encourage dogs to vocalize.
Pack behavior gives us some clues as to why this works. If you’ve ever been camping and listened to the distant sound of wolves or coyotes, you’ve probably noticed how their howls seem to key around a specific tone. That’s because dogs, unlike cats, can discern pitch. And more importantly, they can alter their vocalizations to a specific pitch (as when howling together). This ability gives dogs and humans a unique shared characteristic—we each make “musical” vocalizations based on our own communication. It is believed that this is why humans and dogs are able to bond through music.
This ability to communicate through non-spoken language has helped dogs and humans form a unique bond. Music can be a useful tool to help calm our dogs when they’re anxious, and can also be used as a training aid to reinforce desired behaviors.
Music and Your Pet
If you’re a pet owner, you can try a simple experiment at home. Try playing different genres of music (at low volume) for your pets and observe how they react. Do some genres produce agitation while others encourage calm? By determining your pet’s music preferences, you can select playlists that encourage your pet to stay calm while you’re away from home, settle your pet during a thunderstorm, or just play some good cuddling music.
Editor’s Note: Ever wonder how your dog recognizes human commands? A 2016 study sheds lights on a dog’s ability to process human speech.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.