For decades, many well-meaning pet owners have turned on radios, televisions and other devices to provide background noise when an animal was to be left alone for long periods of time. The usual motivating factor was concern for the animal and the belief that voices, music and other auditory input would be soothing or comforting to the pets when their humans couldn’t be with them. Ground-breaking research into animal responses to sound has shown this to be an area where humans imposed their own needs onto animals; what is soothing or comforting to us is not the same for our furred and feathered friends. That same research is offering alternatives, designed to appeal to and meet the distinct auditory needs of various species.
“We are learning how complex animals truly are,” explains Janet Marlow, sound behaviorist, internationally known composer and founder of Washington Depot-based Pet Acoustics Inc. Because animals’ hearing is so acute, it is their most important sense and has the most profound effect on a pet’s life experience, Marlow says. She was awakened to this connection when her cat Osborn was dying in the ICU of the veterinary hospital; she went every day to sing to him. “The experience of being with Osborn changed the direction of my life passion toward the understanding of how animals hear and why music has such a profound effect,” she says.
Sound as a Stress Trigger
Dogs, cats and horses hear frequency ranges both much higher and much lower than humans are capable of hearing. This is not news; it has been known for some time. What is new, however, is the understanding about how the sounds they hear impact the animals.
Humans have aural perspective, meaning we hear in a 360-degree circle—the height and depth of all the sounds. We aurally perceive the rustling of leaves in the trees, a breeze rushing past your ears, birds chirping nearby and, in contrast, the quiet of stillness. We are able to identify sounds as they occur and our reactions to these sounds are appropriate based on how we identify the sound source in the perspective of our environment.
In contrast, dog, cat and horse hearing is much more acute but lacking the same kind of spatial localization as humans, known as psychoacoustic juxtaposition. This causes animals to react to the sound source without being able to analyze what it is—this phenomenon also occurs in people who suffer from post-traumatic stress.
As our pets live in non-nature environments for the most part, their instinctive reactions to extreme sounds often manifests as behavioral responses such as stress, anxiety or aggression. A dog, cat or horse will hear shots or jarring sounds at loud unexpected volumes at a greater intensity than humans. Sound is a profound stress trigger for animals. Anyone who has witnessed a terrified dog during a fireworks show or thunderstorm has observed this reaction. Since they lack any context for the loud, threatening noise they are hearing, they seek to flee or fight, depending on the animaland situation.
“All animals are seeking balance,” Marlow explains. “Tone, frequency and vibration are the auditory triggers an animal uses to know if their environment is safe or not. We can listen to high energy music and think it’s great, but it’s probably not having the same effect on the animals in your house.”
Marlow, a life-long musician raised by parents who were also world-class musicians, describes music as the core of her being and understanding of life. The research and resulting years of work that led to formation of her company, Pet Acoustics, were born of the deep passion she has for both music and animals. Since 2003, she has been observing and clinically testing the results of music in easy-to-use products to calm dogs, cats and horses.
Understanding that sound was a trigger for intense stress in animals was a revelation to Marlow; she committed to determining what qualities in music would guarantee positive, calming results for each species. She gathered university studies and research about animals, worked with various organizations to develop and execute clinical trials, and obtained vet approvals for her work along the way.
Marlow continues to develop sonic-modifying products and music where the frequency and decibel levels achieve the best desired effect in the particular animal. She has learned that dogs and cats respond positively to long-sustained tones and non-jarring volumes for states of rest, eliminating high frequency content. Horses, in contrast, prefer an alto range and shorter, melodic phrases with rhythmic patterns (reminiscent of their own hoofbeats). She never inserts percussion or the human voice in her compositions, relying instead on instruments such as guitar, harp, violin and flute, among others.
In 2014, after years of research and testing, Pet Acoustics released a series of products called Pet Tunes, which are Bluetooth speakers pre-loaded with special frequency modified music for dogs, cats, horses and birds. The speakers are helping pet owners, veterinarians, groomers, shelters and kennels make a positive difference in pets’ lives. A newer product is a calming collar that has speakers built directly into a collar for ease of use and immediacy during thunderstorms, fireworks and noise phobias. The product results are repeatable and calm pets within five minutes of listening, Marlow says.
Dale Krier of Creature Comforts mobile veterinary service in Sherman has this to say about Pet Acoustics: “Pet Tunes has changed how I practice veterinary medicine. I incorporate the music in every aspect of what I do. I try music first and drugs second to help deal with pets’ anxiety issues.”
Being able to bring science-based music to animals was, and still is, a new field. Marlow continues to work to raise awareness through workshops, books and television appearances while closer to home, she recently donated 200 units to Ridgefield Operation for Animal Rescue to ease the stress of the shelter animals. She envisions a world where the understanding of easing the stress of animals and reducing behavioral issues can be natural and highly effective through development of the correct sonic environment.
“The more we understand about our pets, the more we can know ourselves,” Marlow says. “Follow the trail of the animal into the human heart and you will find a better world.”