Mews: Do cats prefer cat-appropriate music to human music?

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We’re always looking for ways to improve our cats’ wellbeing, and a recent article has suggested that music composed specifically for cats is something that could enrich our cats’ lives. The paper, which was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, concluded that cats prefer the species-appropriate music to human music and the authors propose that it has the potential to be used for managing cats in shelters, improving enrichment and reducing separation anxiety. But should we all start playing our cats specially designed music and expect much happier cats? Let’s taker a closer look at the science behind their conclusions.

What is species-appropriate music?

Different species have evolved to use different sounds to communicate, which can vary in many ways including pitch and tempo. It has therefore been proposed that music will be most meaningful for an animal if it is in the same frequency range and with similar tempo as that used in the animals’ natural communication. With this in mind, the authors in the study composed two pieces of music (a sample of which can be found here) specifically for cats with the purpose of creating a calming effect by using pitches and tempos based on friendly vocalisations; they also incorporated features to make the music interesting to cats.

Who participated in the study?

The study involved 47 pet cats of varying breeds, aged from 5 months of age to 19 years of age.

How did the study take place?

Two speakers were set up in the cats’ homes with one speaker playing the cat-specific music and one playing the human music.

The authors recorded the cats’ behaviours, which they classified as ‘orient/approach’ or ‘avoidant/fearful’. ‘Orient/approach’ behaviours included moving the head towards the speaker, movement towards the speaker, rubbing against the speaker, sniffing the speaker and purring. ‘Avoidant/fearful’ behaviours included leaving the room, their fur sticking up, growling, hissing and an arched back.

During the study, the order in which the cat and human music were played out of each speaker was swapped – this is good scientific practice as this reduces the effect of other factors in the room. Cats are a territorial species and so their environment and the resources within it are very important to them. So within the context of the study, what could have been recorded as a cat moving towards a speaker, and so an ‘orient/approach’ behaviour, could in fact have been a cat moving to go past the speaker to where there is a resource, such as food or a scratching post. By swapping the order, the effect of this resource on the difference between the types of music is reduced.

Although we know the cat music and human music were played from different speakers, it is not clear if each piece of music was played individually or if the cat music and human music were played together, one out of each speaker. If it is the latter, this is set up like a preference test. Preference tests are often used in animal welfare studies, and involve an animal being given free access to multiple types of a resource to see which they go to the quickest or most often and thus prefer; for example, a preference test could be carried out with two types of litter by offering these in two litter trays side by side and seeing which one the cat uses and thus prefers. However, a preference test is unlikely to work for music as both pieces of music can be heard at the same time, and so rather than showing how the cats respond to each individual piece of music, their behaviour will be a response to the two pieces of music combined.

The methodology also states that in some cases multiple cats were present during the study – the exact numbers aren’t provided but it appears to be a large proportion. Having multiple cats present has the potential to greatly influence the results of the study, as the cats’ behaviours will have been influenced by each other. Cats may guard, block or intimidate other cats (see information about multi-cat households here) and so if one cat was sitting in front of a speaker this may have affected how the other cat responds to the speaker and its surrounding area.

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What were the results?

The study found that there were significantly more ‘orient and approach’ behaviours to the cat-specific music than for the human music and that the cats performed these behaviours sooner for the cat-specific music. On first read, this sounds quite exciting but when you delve into the numbers you get a different picture – the number of times ‘orient and approach’ behaviours performed was very small, with a median of 1.5 times for cat-specific music and 0.25 times for human music. A cat orientating towards a speaker, however, does not necessarily mean it found the music appealing; the cat may just be moving to see where the music is coming from. In addition, the time it took for the cats to perform the first ‘orient and approach’ behaviour was long, with 110 seconds for cat music and 172 seconds for human music.

The authors then go onto say that these results demonstrate that the cat-specific music was attractive to cats. However, not all of the behaviours in the ‘orient and approach’ category necessarily convey a positive emotional state. For example, a cat may orient its head towards a sound that startled it, it is fearful of or that creates anxiety, or the cat simply might want to gain more information about without feeling particularly positive or negative towards it. Collecting more detailed information, including the cats’ body language, would be needed to gain a better picture of the underlying emotional state of the animal when the music is played. The music would also need to be played several times in order to determine how the cats are affected by it over time.

What can we take from this? 

  • So far it’s not conclusive whether cats prefer, or actually enjoy, cat-specific music. The results of the study were that the cats performed more ‘orient and approach’ behaviours for the cat-specific music and performed them sooner, but the numbers of these behaviours were very small, not all of the behaviours necessarily showed a positive emotional state and the results are also likely to have been largely affected by the presence of other cats.
  • The authors suggest that species-appropriate music has the potential for improving enrichment and managing cats at shelters; however, at this stage we would certainly need further evidence before these claims can be met. Research would also need to be carried out into the effect of music that is played over longer periods of time. 

The work of International Cat Care

  • It is important to provide enrichment to cats – particularly if they are kept exclusively indoors or are in an enclosed environment such as at a cattery, homing centre or while at the vets – in order to optimise their emotional wellbeing. We at International Cat Care have a range of information on our website about enrichment, such as playing with your cat and how to choose and use a scratching post. We also produce a free monthly e-magazine, Intelligent Cat Care, which contains in-depth cat health, behaviour and welfare information; to sign up visit icatcare.org/about-us/magazine

International Cat Care will continue to provide you with interpretations and summaries of the latest cat science studies – objectively critiqued and intelligently communicated to you by dedicated cat-loving feline scientists, professionals and veterinarians.

Reference for the study:

Snowdon CT, Teie D and Savage M. Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2015; 166: 106–111.

About International Cat Care:
International Cat Care
International Cat Care works to create a world in which ‘all cats, owned and unowned, are treated with care, compassion and understanding’ International Cat Care is a charity with the vision of a world where all cats, owned and unowned, are treated with care, compassion, and understanding. We work closely with the veterinary profession through our veterinary division, the International Society of Feline Medicine. All our work is reliant on donations and legacies.

Founded in 1958, we are a respected authority on feline health and best practice, working with owners, vets and other professionals around the world.
Registered Charity – 1117342
www.icatcare.org
info@icatcare.org

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I am the feline behaviour specialist at feline charity ‘International Cat Care’. We are about engaging, educating and empowering people throughout the world to improve the health and welfare of cats by sharing advice, training and passion.
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11 thoughts on “Mews: Do cats prefer cat-appropriate music to human music?

  1. I really like your critical approach to this study. Studies in general should be approached critically (something you cannot expect from papers anymore, sadly!)

  2. Kara loved Freddie Mercury’s voice, if she heard it she’d stop and listen. Bohemian Rhapsody was her favourite. MM hated anything with whistling, and electronic ‘dance’ music, both used to freak her out. 🐱

  3. Two of my three cats were looking around after I started the sample music although I don’t know if that means they liked it or not. They might had just seen or heard something outside as they continued to be on “alert” after the music stopped. Considering that different humans are interested in extremely different music, I wonder if cats are the same and this only matters to some of them.

  4. Perhaps it will lead to a tolerance of thunder or fireworks for felines. Hopefully, they will do something similar for dogs. Hubby found a 9 hour recording of rain to help dogs with thunder issues. The idea is to play it in the background all the time as it gradually builds up in volume as it introduces gentle rolls of thunder and then loud claps. Maggie fell asleep for the first hour, but when we used it when it mattered, there was no relief to her trembling. We find the gentle rainfall relaxing as we do anyway, but haven’t heard the full 9 hours yet.

  5. Thanks for the good analysis of the study and its results. The article also reminded me of our family’s first cat, who used to sit right in front of the speakers when we played our rock music albums, years ago. We always knew what *her* preference was, at any rate.

  6. Wonderful research and the idea about music that is similar to the cat’s communication rhythm and tone makes a lot of sense…just like human mewsic… purr from Katie Kat and Katie Kitty Too.

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