Is music part of your treatment plan?

How music can massage the mind and help your pet patients relax

Music is happening all around us—on our smartphones, in the doctor’s office, in movies and on football fields. Depending on its tone, tempo and pattern, music can activate pleasure centers of the brain, or induce emotional states laced with fear, tension, aggression or sadness.

The power of music to alter brain processing has fascinated teams of researchers across the globe, including those involved in work on pediatric and adolescent brain development, maladaptive psychological states, and maintenance of healthy brain function during our later years.

Can music make you smarter? Yes.2 Furthermore, lifelong musicianship strengthens cognitive flexibility, working memory and processing speed, according to functional brain scans comparing activity in musicians to that of non-musicians.3 In fact, music has the capacity to bolster brain function from childhood to old age.

While all this is good information from an academic standpoint, what mattered most to me at 1 a.m. several months ago was whether music could calm my new puppy’s nearly incessant whine when left alone. Fortunately, I had prior experience with the calming value of one brand of music therapy from the folks at BioAcoustic Research and Development.

I was familiar with using their relaxing recordings in the clinic and thought the recordings might be applicable here. I knew the puppy didn’t want food, didn’t need to potty and resisted being held. He seemed confused about the new surroundings after spending days in the intensive care unit, having been surrendered by a pet store due to his profound illness. But now he was doing well, other than the puppy whine when I left the room.

In my desperation to calm him and now me, I turned to BioAcoustic’s online samples and within minutes my new dog was quiet and dozing. Even though I’d performed research on music therapy in cats and had utilized music therapy for years clinically, I was yet again amazed by the speed and effectiveness of the artfully produced sounds, based on classical standards. It was as though the music was massaging his mind, comforting his baby brain in a swaddle of softly soothing sounds.

I was relieved that this nonchemical, completely safe “treatment” for anxiety had such rapid and dramatic effects. I used it over the next several days as he adjusted to his new home. I found the effects fairly repeatable and still profound.

This made me curious about the progress in music therapy research, especially for anxiety and other psychological states. In fact, what I learned was that professional music therapists work more often with people who have behavioral or emotional problems than those in any other single population. Its diverse mechanisms of action engage “multiple areas of the brain, both subcortical (including the medial geniculate body in the thalamus and the amygdala) and cortical (such as the left and right primary auditory cortex).”

… what mattered most to me at 1 a.m. several months ago was whether music could calm my new puppy’s nearly incessant whine when left alone.

Specifically, a study on children undergoing placement of an intravenous catheter found less pain and distress not only in the patients themselves but also parents and health care providers who’d been caring for the children.5 Sleep-disturbed pregnant woman who listed to music such as lullabies, classical and “crystal baby” enjoyed better sleep quality and lowered stress and anxiety that those who did not.6 Psychological benefits were found with burn patients who listened to calming music during dressing changes.7 

But is there any evidence that music therapy works for non-humans? Yes. A 2015 paper published in Physiology & Behavior studied kenneled dogs, noting that they became more relaxed when listening to classical music.8 This work built on previous findings that kenneled dogs exposed to classical music slept more and vocalized less than when they were exposed to other types of music or silence.9 Of note for those clinics and shelters that allow staff to “rock out” to heavy metal while they clean cages and floors, this type of “music” caused kenneled dogs to shake more, indicating psychologic discomfort.

What about cats? Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, psychology department as well as the University of Maryland School of Music evaluated whether cats would prefer human- or feline-“appropriate” music.10 For test stimuli, they exposed cats to three-minute segments of two compositions written especially for cats that included sounds they thought would interest them. These auditory stimuli included rapid pulses similar to purring (1,380 beats per minute) or suckling (250 beats per minute) along with melodic sliding frequencies, similar to typical cat vocalizations, though they omitted frequency intervals that were associated with fear and threat sounds made by cats.

The control (human) music was selected as exemplary diatonic-based pieces that have the pulse, meter, bass lines, melodies and harmonies that humans find pleasant, including Gabriel Fauré’s “Elegie” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Air on a G String.” Cats exhibited more orientation toward and approach responses to the music designed specifically for them than to that developed for humans.

These data resonated with previous work by the authors in primates (cotton-top tamarins) that revealed a lack of response to human music but appropriate responses to music composed in the frequency range and tempo common to their vocal communication style. Notably, another study had indicated that tamarins preferred silence to both Mozart and heavy metal.11 

While it may be true that animals display more interest and approaches to sound collages that include species-appropriate features, does that mean they are more relaxed? No. While auditory enrichment most likely should be tailored to the species in question, entrainment of physiologic responses happens by means of hard-wired neurologic circuitry. For example, cats undergoing general anesthesia displayed autonomic changes based on the type of music played.12 Their respiratory rate and pupillary diameter showed lower values when exposed to classical music, whereas they displayed intermediate levels to pop music and highest to heavy metal. That is, autonomic arousal increased as one moved from classical to popular to heavy metal music.

The authors concluded: “The results suggest that cats under general anesthesia are likely to perform auditory sensory stimuli processing. The exposure to music induces respiratory rate and pupillary diameter variations modulated by the genre of music and is associated with autonomic nervous system activity. The use of music in the surgical theater may contribute to allowing a reduced anesthetic dose, minimizing undesirable side effects and thus promoting patient safety.”

Now, what’s more important—your grooving to Ozzy Osbourne while you spay, or safeguarding your patient’s autonomic nervous system status as she relaxes even more deeply to Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedies?”


  1. Vuilleumier P and Trost W. Music and emotions: from enchantment to entrainment. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2015; 1337:212-222.
  2. Zuk J, Benjamin C, Kenyon A, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians. PLoS ONE. 2014; 9(6):e99868. Doi:10:1371/journal.pone.0099868.
  3. Zuk J, Benjamin C, Kenyon A, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians. PLoS ONE. 2014; 9(6):e99868. Doi:10:1371/journal.pone.0099868.
  4. Yinger OS and Gooding L. Music therapy and music medicine for children and adolescents. Child Adolesc Psychiatric Clin N Am. 2014; 23:535-553.
  5. Hartling L, Newton AS, Liang Y, et al. Music to reduce pain and distress in the pediatric emergency department. A randomized trial. JAMA Pediatr. 2013; 167(9):826-835.
  6. Liu Y-H, Lee CCS, Yu C-H, et al. Effects of music listening on stress, anxiety, and sleep quality for sleep-disturbed pregnant women. Women & Health. 2015. DOI: 10.1080/03630242.2015.1088116.
  7. Tan X, Yowler CJ, Super DM, et al. The efficacy of music therapy protocols for decreasing pain, anxiety, and muscle tension levels during burn dressing changes: a prospective randomized crossover trial. J Burn Care Res. 2010; 31:590-597.
  8. Bowman A, Dowell FJ, and Evans NP. ‘Four Seasons’ in an animal rescue centre;  classical music reduces environmental stress in kenneled dogs. Physiology Behavior.2015; 143:70-82.
  9. Kogan LR, Schoenfeld-Tacher R, and Simon AA. Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2012; 7:268-275.
  10. Snowdon CT, Teie D, and Savage M. Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2015:166:106-111.
  11. McDermott, J., Hauser, M.D., 2007. Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music altogether. Cognition 104, 654–668.
  12. Mira F, Costa A, Mendes E, et al. Influence of music and its genres on respiratory rate and pupil diameter variations in cats under general anaesthesia: contribution to promoting patient safety. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2015. Doi: 10.1177/1098612X15575778.

Dr. Robinson, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University and is president and CEO of OneHealth SIM Studio, a continuing education company in Fort Collins, Colo. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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