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For Stressed-Out Pets, Play Mozart Or Jane Austen

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

News flash to pet owners — dogs and cats don’t like metal, pop, reggae, or most other music genres you might be playing around the house.

Our furry companions generally want to be nearby, and they can’t tell us when our music hurts their sensitive ears. A growing body of research shows that they generally prefer sounds that are lower, slower and void of any screaming.

Charles Snowdon, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies animal behavior, said people should seek out more suitable music for their pets.

“Calming music is typically harmonic, it has longer notes rather than a lot of short, abrupt notes — staccato sounds are very arousing,” he said. “We also know that long, descending frequencies are typically more calming than upwardly going frequencies …  And dissonant sounds or harsh sounds tend to be associated with fear or aggression.”

Customized listening for pets is a growing industry. There are lots of pet-specific musical albums designed to keep dogs and cats calm when their owners are away, or when there are stressful events going on, such as parties and fireworks.

And it's not just dogs and cats — a 2001 study out of the United Kingdom found that milk production went up by as much as 3 percent when cows listened to slow tunes, including R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Water," rather than faster songs.

At the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe, program manager Emily Holmes said she plays both pet-specific classical music and animal-themed audio books at the shelter.

She plays the selections for about an hour in the morning and in the afternoon — busy times when the dogs and cats might be stressed from interacting with visitors.

On a recent winter morning, a handful of cats were lounging on play structures as Tchaikovsky’s "Triste in G Minor" floated through the kennel.

“All of that sound, all of that external stimulus can really be stressful to the animals when they’re already in a kind of stressful situation being in a shelter,” she said.

The music Holmes plays is arranged by Lisa Spector, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist who now creates dog-and cat -specific classical albums from her Northern California home. She’s donated her music to 1,500 animal shelters worldwide.

She said people can significantly improve their pets’ health and well-being by protecting them from stressful sounds

“We bring our pets into our environment because we love them, and we want them to adjust and we expect them to adjust,” she said. “But sometimes we have to make adjustments for them.”

Her albums, “Through a Dog’s Ear” and “Through a Cat’s Ear”, feature classical music that she has rearranged with slower tempos, lower frequencies and fewer patterns that might excite animals.

Spector said pet owners should start by introducing the music in the animals’ space during calm, happy times to help them form a positive association.

Then, they can try playing the music when they’re leaving the house or during other stressful events. Spector works with a company called iCalm Pet, which creates special portable speakers for animals.

She said people should keep an eye on their dogs during listening times.

“Notice your dog, and notice are they on alert?," she asked. "Notice their behavior, and if you hear snoring when the music starts, that’s a pretty good sign.”

This summer, Amazon launched Audible for Dogs - a collection of audiobooks with the tone, energy and consistency recommended for canine ears. Current selections include “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen,  “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah, and “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein.

Multiple studies have compared pets’ reactions to different music genres (they like classical best), but few have pitted music against audiobooks. One 2015 study did find that audiobooks were more likely than music to decrease fidgeting and pacing in dogs.

But Spector isn't so sure about recorded human readings. 

“It could work on some dogs, but I think it’ a little risky,” she said. “If [dogs] have had a negative reaction to someone in their past that has a similar voice range, or sounds like a voice of someone who neglected or abused them… there’s an association that may not be so positive, whereas that’s never happened with the music.”

Snowdon says audiobooks should work similarly to music, as long as the tone is calm and consistent, without any sudden or dramatic interruptions.

The animals do react to the intonation contour of speech," he said. "So if I go quick, sharp -  'Can you get it? Let’s go!' Animals as well as human infants respond to that by becoming more active and more aroused. And if I use slow speech that descends in pitch….  that's calming and it slows them down, gets them more relaxed.”

Holmes at the Humane Society said the animals really do calm down when she puts on both the music and the audiobooks.

“We’ve done some more animal themed, like Charlotte’s Web, and now that we’re getting into the holiday season we’re going to maybe play a Christmas Carol or something like that.”

A Pet-Friendly Playlist

Interested in seeing how your pet would respond to music more to their taste? iCalmDog has an album of pet-friendly songs you can try out

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