House cats often appear aloof and indifferent toward their human companions. It’s pretty hard to get a cat to show emotion or get excited about much. This seeming apathy, however, may be genetically programmed and cats may have more definite likes and dislikes than we thought.
A recent Internet report asked if cats might, in fact, have definite musical tastes. Now they probably don’t like or even approve of Cat Stevens or Cat Cora, but early studies indicate cats may have definite musical preferences. Remember, not all of us humans like the same musical styles and certainly not all cats will respond favorably to a recent study published in the journal, Applied Animal Behavior Sciences. It seems that cats and other animals prefer “species appropriate music” and no that doesn’t include Cat Scratch Fever.
What kind of music do cats like?
Robbie Gonzalez of i09.com reports that researchers found, in order for music to catch and perhaps hold the attention of an animal, “It must be in the frequency range and with similar tempos to those used in natural communication by each species.” It is possible that feline-appropriate music might mimic the rhythmic and tonal qualities of a purr or a kitten suckling at its mother's teat. Almost like a lullaby!
I know my own cat has no interest in my sort of music and in fact sometimes seems distressed when I listen to music. Feline appropriate music, the tune, the researchers write, "has a pulse related to purring of 1380 beats per minute with melodic sliding frequencies covering 44% of the sample" (sliding frequencies are found in a variety of cat vocalizations, but aren't commonly found in human speech)1.
"Cats showed a significant preference for and interest in species-appropriate music compared with human music1." Expressions of approval included purring and orienting the head toward, moving toward, rubbing against or sniffing the speaker from which the music was emanating. "The results suggest novel and more appropriate ways for using music as auditory enrichment for nonhuman animals," the researchers concluded1.
I decided to test the theory with my own culturally deprived cat, Ritz. Ritz showed no response to a number of musical offerings from my collection. In fact he got up and walked away. But when I played examples of “feline appropriate music” he rubbed on the speaker with his face and pressed his face against my computer.
Scientists have developed what they say is the first species-specific music for domestic cats by replicating sounds like purrs and meows to create original music2. Listen to samples of the music they are creating. At the very least these studies give you a chance to experiment with your cats at home.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
- Gonzalez, Robbie. "You Can Play This Music For Your Cat (And Your Cat May Actually Like It)." Io9.com. 04 Mar. 2015. Web.
- Moss, Laura. "Scientists Make Music for Cats." Mother Nature Network. 27 Feb. Web.
Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other
Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other
Ryan Shank-Rowe, 9, takes part in a therapeutic riding program at Little Full Cry Farm in Clifton, Va., last month. Maggie Starbard/NPR hide caption
Those of us who own pets know they make us happy. But a growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can also make us healthy, or healthier.
That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.
Take Viola, or Vi for short. The retired guide dog is the resident canine at the Children's Inn on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The inn is where families stay when their children are undergoing experimental therapies at NIH.
Vi, a chunky yellow Labrador retriever with a perpetually wagging tail, greets families as they come downstairs in the morning and as they return from treatment in the afternoon. She can even be "checked out" for a walk around the bucolic NIH grounds.
Thelma Balmaceda, age, 4, pets Viola, the resident canine at the Children's Inn on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Families stay at the inn when their children are undergoing experimental therapies at NIH. Melissa Forsyth/NPR hide caption
"There really isn't a day when she doesn't brighten the spirits of a kid at the inn. And an adult. And a staff member," says Meredith Daly, the inn's spokeswoman.
But Vi may well be doing more than just bringing smiles to the faces of stressed-out parents and children. Dogs like Vi have helped launch an entirely new field of medical research over the past three decades or so.
The use of pets in medical settings actually dates back more than 150 years, says Aubrey Fine, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State Polytechnic University. "One could even look at Florence Nightingale recognizing that animals provided a level of social support in the institutional care of the mentally ill," says Fine, who has written several books on the human-animal bond.
But it was only in the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings for that bond.
One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn't. Another early study found that petting one's own dog could reduce blood pressure.
More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people's level of the hormone oxytocin.
"That is very beneficial for us," says Johnson. "Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting." Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.
But Johnson says it may also have longer-term human health benefits. "Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body's ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier."
Animals can also act as therapists themselves or facilitate therapy — even when they're not dogs or cats.
For example, psychologist Fine, who works with troubled children, uses dogs in his practice — and also a cockatoo and even a bearded dragon named Tweedle.
"One of the things that's always been known is that the animals help a clinician go under the radar of a child's consciousness, because the child is much more at ease and seems to be much more willing to reveal," he says.
Horses have also become popular therapists for people with disabilities.
"The beauty of the horse is that it can be therapeutic in so many different ways," says Breeanna Bornhorst, executive director of the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program in Clifton, Va. "Some of our riders might benefit from the connection and the relationship-building with the horse and with their environment. Other riders maybe will benefit physically, from the movements, and build that core strength, and body awareness and muscle memory."
On a recent day, one of the therapeutic riding program's instructors — speech therapist Cathy Coleman — worked one on one with 9-year-old Ryan Shank-Rowe, who has autism.
Well, not really one on one. The co-therapist in this session was a speckled pony named Happy.
Cathy Coleman is a speech pathologist for the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. She uses a horse named Happy in her therapy sessions with 9-year-old Ryan Shank-Rowe, who has autism. Maggie Starbard/NPR hide caption
"Walk on" said Ryan, and Happy obediently did. "Excellent," Coleman replied.
As the session progressed, Ryan made Happy trot, weave in and out of poles, and he even rode bareback, all the while answering Coleman's questions and keeping up a continual back-and-forth chatter.
Coleman says she used to see Ryan in a more formal office environment. But since he started horseback riding, his speech has actually improved.
"I get greater engagement, greater alertness, more language, more processing, all those things," she says. "Plus, he's just really good at it."
And Ryan's mother, Donna Shank, says the riding has helped with more than just his speech.
"It's helped his following directions, some really core life skills about getting dressed and balance — which really translate to a lot of safety issues, too."
But not all the research is focused on the humans. "We want to know how the animals are benefiting from the exchange," says Johnson of the University of Missouri.
Much of Johnson's research, for example, has focused on the value of dog-walking by studying volunteers who walk dogs at animal shelters. She even wrote a book, Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.
Those programs have clearly helped people get healthier, she says. Not only do they increase their exercise while they're walking the dogs, "but it increases their awareness, so that they exercise more during the week."
But it turns out the program was also helping the dogs.
"What we found was that they were significantly more likely to be adopted if they were in the dog-walking group," she says, thanks to the additional exercise and socialization they were getting.
Johnson is now working on a new project with likely benefits for dogs and humans. Military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are providing shelter dogs with basic obedience training.
And while it's still early in the research, she says, one thing seems pretty clear: "Helping the animals is helping the veterans to readjust to being at home."
Now the research is getting an even bigger scientific boost.
The National Institutes of Health, with funding from pet food giant Mars Inc., recently created a federal research program to study human-animal interaction. The program, operated through the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, offers scientists research grants to study the impact of animals on child development, in physical and psychological therapeutic treatments, and on the effects of animals on public health, including their ability to reduce or prevent disease.
Johnson says it's critical to establish the scientific foundation for the premise that animals are good for people, even if that seems obvious.
"The last thing we want is for an entire field to be based on warm fuzzy feelings and not on scientific data," she says. "So it's very important that now the NIH is focused on this . and it is helping scientists across the country like myself to be able to do our research."
Petflix and chill: does your dog need a streaming service?
The attention economy has turned its eye to a new audience: household pets
Is animal entertainment a good idea or a cynical ploy to get pet owners to spend more time and money on their devices? Photograph: Kei Uesugi/Getty Images
Is animal entertainment a good idea or a cynical ploy to get pet owners to spend more time and money on their devices? Photograph: Kei Uesugi/Getty Images
Last modified on Wed 22 Jan 2020 16.31 GMT
Has it ever occurred to you that your dog might like to watch television? Or that maybe your cat could be into music?
Spotify has just announced that it will design a special playlist specifically for your dog, cat or hamster. You simply log in, answer a few questions about your pet’s personality (whether they’re relaxed or energetic shy or friendly), upload a picture and wait while the app scans your existing music catalogue to curate a playlist.
When I request something bespoke for my dog, Bert, Spotify gives us a mellow line-up of Elbow, Laura Marling and Jose Gonzalez. As it plays, Bert simply goes to sleep, letting his thick pink tongue hang out one side of his mouth. This is either because he’s lulled by the gentle pop, or because he is, as ever, extremely lazy. I know it’s the latter, but I let the songs play, charmed by the idea that he might enjoy them, while recognising that I’m allowing Spotify to capitalise on my indefatigable love for my dog.
The author’s dog, Bert, who fell asleep to his Spotify playlist. Photograph: Kate Leaver
Meanwhile, Amazon Prime now offers TV shows made specifically for dogs, cats and other animals. If you type in “TV for pets”, one of the first results to come up is a 28-minute film called Chipmunk Versus Corn Cob, which has mostly five-star reviews. It is simply footage of a chipmunk devouring his chosen yellow snack in the outdoors. There are other options: songbirds, squirrels, raccoons and a documentary called The Dog Rescuers starring comedian Alan Davies. When I play the trailer for Reality TV for Dogs, which is a series of portraits set to a cacophony of barking, my dog gets up, sprints to the front door and howls at the beasts he imagines are on the other side. He certainly doesn’t understand that he’s meant to sit down and watch the television – which begs the question, does any dog?
Is animal entertainment actually a good idea? Or is it a cynical ploy to get pet owners to spend more time and money on their devices?
Dr Kate Mornement, an applied animal behaviourist from Pets Behaving Badly, confirms that some animals do like sound and moving images. “Whether cats and dogs enjoy it or not often comes down to individual preference and personality. Many cats love to hunt and stalk the animals they see – mice, fish – on the screen. Conversely, some dogs become scared and anxious of animals they see on TV and may bark excessively when they see them.” I can attest to this one: Bert is furious whenever he hears an animal on television. So really, the popularity of these new services in your household will depend very much on your pet’s temperament.
“Playing classical music while you’re away may help with mild separation anxiety in dogs by promoting relaxation,” says Mornement. Her recommendation is in line with a 2012 study, which found playing classical music to kennelled dogs tended to result in more time spent sleeping. “Leaving the TV on can also assist by providing some entertainment for dogs and cats who enjoy watching TV,” Mornement adds.
If they don’t, it could be actively disruptive. “My advice would be to test and see if your pet enjoys music or the TV and only leave it playing if you’ve noticed a positive impact on your pet.”
Stephen Fenech, the editor of Tech Guide, says that Spotify and Amazon are tapping into a potentially lucrative niche. “It’s a clever move to get us to increase our spend on content. The pet industry is massive in Australia so it’s no surprise tech companies try and take advantage of our love of pets by marketing products and services for cats and dogs. And many willing owners are happy to spend their money thinking it will benefit their pets.”
Bert’s reviews are in: he’s either indifferent or irate. That doesn’t mean I won’t play his personalised playlist sometimes, just in case.
Kate Leaver is the author of Good Dog, out through HarperCollins on 20 April.
The Power of Pets
Health Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions
Nothing compares to the joy of coming home to a loyal companion. The unconditional love of a pet can do more than keep you company. Pets may also decrease stress, improve heart health, and even help children with their emotional and social skills.
An estimated 68% of U.S. households have a pet. But who benefits from an animal? And which type of pet brings health benefits?
Over the past 10 years, NIH has partnered with the Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition to answer questions like these by funding research studies.
Scientists are looking at what the potential physical and mental health benefits are for different animals—from fish to guinea pigs to dogs and cats.
Possible Health Effects
Research on human-animal interactions is still relatively new. Some studies have shown positive health effects, but the results have been mixed.
Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood.
The NIH/Mars Partnership is funding a range of studies focused on the relationships we have with animals. For example, researchers are looking into how animals might influence child development. They’re studying animal interactions with kids who have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other conditions.
“There’s not one answer about how a pet can help somebody with a specific condition,” explains Dr. Layla Esposito, who oversees NIH’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program. “Is your goal to increase physical activity? Then you might benefit from owning a dog. You have to walk a dog several times a day and you’re going to increase physical activity. If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness. So there’s no one type fits all.”
NIH is funding large-scale surveys to find out the range of pets people live with and how their relationships with their pets relate to health.
“We’re trying to tap into the subjective quality of the relationship with the animal—that part of the bond that people feel with animals—and how that translates into some of the health benefits,” explains Dr. James Griffin, a child development expert at NIH.
Animals Helping People
Animals can serve as a source of comfort and support. Therapy dogs are especially good at this. They’re sometimes brought into hospitals or nursing homes to help reduce patients’ stress and anxiety.
“Dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “Their attention is focused on the person all the time.”
Berger works with people who have cancer and terminal illnesses. She teaches them about mindfulness to help decrease stress and manage pain.
“The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” Berger says. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People kind of have to learn it. Animals do this innately.”
Researchers are studying the safety of bringing animals into hospital settings because animals may expose people to more germs. A current study is looking at the safety of bringing dogs to visit children with cancer, Esposito says. Scientists will be testing the children’s hands to see if there are dangerous levels of germs transferred from the dog after the visit.
Dogs may also aid in the classroom. One study found that dogs can help children with ADHD focus their attention. Researchers enrolled two groups of children diagnosed with ADHD into 12-week group therapy sessions. The first group of kids read to a therapy dog once a week for 30 minutes. The second group read to puppets that looked like dogs.
Kids who read to the real animals showed better social skills and more sharing, cooperation, and volunteering. They also had fewer behavioral problems.
Another study found that children with autism spectrum disorder were calmer while playing with guinea pigs in the classroom. When the children spent 10 minutes in a supervised group playtime with guinea pigs, their anxiety levels dropped. The children also had better social interactions and were more engaged with their peers. The researchers suggest that the animals offered unconditional acceptance, making them a calm comfort to the children.
“Animals can become a way of building a bridge for those social interactions,” Griffin says. He adds that researchers are trying to better understand these effects and who they might help.
Animals may help you in other unexpected ways. A recent study showed that caring for fish helped teens with diabetes better manage their disease. Researchers had a group of teens with type 1 diabetes care for a pet fish twice a day by feeding and checking water levels. The caretaking routine also included changing the tank water each week. This was paired with the children reviewing their blood glucose (blood sugar) logs with parents.
Researchers tracked how consistently these teens checked their blood glucose. Compared with teens who weren’t given a fish to care for, fish-keeping teens were more disciplined about checking their own blood glucose levels, which is essential for maintaining their health.
While pets may bring a wide range of health benefits, an animal may not work for everyone. Recent studies suggest that early exposure to pets may help protect young children from developing allergies and asthma. But for people who are allergic to certain animals, having pets in the home can do more harm than good.
Helping Each Other
Pets also bring new responsibilities. Knowing how to care for and feed an animal is part of owning a pet. NIH/Mars funds studies looking into the effects of human-animal interactions for both the pet and the person.
Remember that animals can feel stressed and fatigued, too. It’s important for kids to be able to recognize signs of stress in their pet and know when not to approach. Animal bites can cause serious harm.
“Dog bite prevention is certainly an issue parents need to consider, especially for young children who don’t always know the boundaries of what’s appropriate to do with a dog,” Esposito explains.
Researchers will continue to explore the many health effects of having a pet. “We’re trying to find out what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s safe—for both the humans and the animals,” Esposito says.
Why Kids With Pets Are Better Off
When I was a kid, a pet changed my life. It was not our family’s lovable mutt Frisky, or even Murphy, my pet duck. No, it was a four-foot yellow rat snake named Fred I got for three bucks when I was 13. He lived in a cage in my bedroom. I was transfixed by his enigmatic stare, alien beauty, and ability to swallow a mouse. I was hooked. Within a year, I had a menagerie of scaly creepy-crawlies. And while other kids were rocking out to the Beatles and the Stones, I was learning the Latin names of snakes and devouring books on reptile behavior and ecology. In retrospect, Fred turned out to be the metaphorical gateway drug that led me to pursue a Ph.D. in animal behavior and to eventually publish papers on topics like the love songs of alligators and the personalities of baby garter snakes.
While some of my early pets were unusual, companion animals play major roles in the lives of many children. Indeed, in her 2008 book The Powerful Bond Between People and Pets, psychologist Elizabeth Anderson wrote, “Nothing less than alchemy is involved when animals and children get together, and the resulting magic has healing properties that work well.”
But is it generally true that pets are linked to the psychological well-being of children? Yes, according to an excellent review of 22 studies of the impact of companion animals on child development. While some of the findings are mixed, the authors concluded that growing up with pets is linked to higher self-esteem, cognitive development, and social skills.
Are Pets Linked to Positive Child Development?
What is it about living with pets that makes kids better off? The authors of the review suggest several possibilities. These include the impact of pets on reducing stress, providing social support and companionship, and improving children's communication skills. But a new study suggests a different answer, and I expect the results will be controversial.
The research, which will appear in the September 2017 issue of the journal Anthrozoös, was conducted by a group of high-powered statisticians from the RAND Corporation. All of the members of the research team had pets or grew up with pets, and they anticipated that their analyses would demonstrate the positive impact of companion animals on child development. To answer these questions, the investigators turned to a large existing data set, the California Health Interview Survey. This is an ongoing project that assesses the health and well-being of Californians. For the survey, telephone interviews are conducted with randomly selected adults, adolescents, and parents of children under 11. In addition to information on health and behavior, the survey includes items related to socioeconomic status and demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, and sex. In the 2003 administration, participants were also asked whether their household included a cat, a dog, or both. (In this earlier post, I described another recent publication in which RAND researchers used this data set to study differences between adults who did and did not keep pets.)
To study the impact of pets on children, the researchers used the responses from households with at least one child between the ages of 5 and 11. Parents were asked a series of questions related to their children’s physical and mental health. Data from 5,191 children were included in the study 2,236 lived in homes with a dog or cat, and 2,955 lived in households that did not include any animals.
Pet-Owning Kids Are Generally Better Off
As expected, the researchers found that children living with pets were generally better off than children who did not have a pet. Children raised in families with pets were reported by their parents to:
- have better general health
- be more obedient
- be more physically active
- be less moody
- have fewer behavior problems
- have fewer learning problems
Interestingly, as shown in this graph, children with pets were more likely to have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity.
The pattern of generally better physical and mental health among pet-owning kids was true for children living with cats and with dogs. So, it would be easy for us to conclude that pets are good for kids.
However, that conclusion would be wrong.
Pet Ownership and Social Class
The problem is that homes with and without pets were different in many ways other than the presence of an animal. For example, the researchers found that kids with pets were:
- less likely to be on free school lunch programs
- less likely to be from households that moved frequently
- more likely to have parents who spoke English
- more likely to be white rather than African-American, Hispanic, or Asian
- more likely to have parents born in the United States
- more likely to live in a house rather than an apartment
- more likely to have parents who were in good health
In short, children in homes with dogs or cats were wealthier and had a host of socioeconomic factors on their side. Could these advantages be the real explanation for the apparent relationship between pet ownership and improved health and well-being in children?
To answer this question, the RAND researchers turned to a sophisticated statistical technique called the “double robust regression approach.” Here is a brief description from their report: “We obtained a double robust estimate of exposure effect by adjusting for all covariates used in the propensity score model in our regression model, weighted by the propensity score weights.”
If you don’t understand any of this, don’t worry: You just need to know that this method of analysis enabled the researchers to examine the effects of pet ownership that remained after adjusting for 20 demographic and socioeconomic differences between households with and without pets.
What they found can be explained in a simple sentence:
Virtually all differences between pet-owning and non-pet-owning kids disappeared when factors such as race, homeownership, parental health, and wealth were taken into account.
This includes differences in the rates of ADD/ADHD. In short, the analysis showed that kids with pets are better off — but not because they have companion animals. It’s because they are likely to come from more prosperous homes and not to be members of minority groups.
When Research Gets Personal
When I read this report, I realized that these findings applied to me. I was raised in a solidly middle-class suburb where practically every family had a well-kept lawn and a dog. Unlike many kids today, I had a stable home and parents who were amazingly tolerant of my scaly animal friends. Indeed, my father constructed cages for Fred and my other snakes and lizards, and my mother did not complain about my menagerie, even the time she had to get me out of my high-school English class to retrieve an escaped king snake she stumbled upon while vacuuming the living room. Sure, my siblings and I had pets, as did all our friends. But we also had lots of advantages that less well-off children lacked.
I find the argument that the health and psychological benefits of pet-keeping to children are largely attributable to differences in wealth and social class convincing. Ironically, the researchers are less sure. In an e-mail to me, Dr. Layla Parast wrote:
"We all were truly surprised by the results, and unlike other work that we do at RAND (on, for example, health insurance or hospital performance, etc.), we had a very personal and emotional investment in this topic."
She pointed out that the data set did not have information on how long pets lived in the households, and thus they could not check for possible long-term effects of pets on kids. As she added:
"Perhaps if we could measure that, we would see something different. I feel like I can see the positive effects of interactions with animals on my 2-year-old son: it helps him learn kindness and compassion, to the point where he tries to hug and feed every animal we see — including a skunk and raccoon in our backyard."
My wife Mary Jean agrees with her. She correctly pointed out to me that during his years of adolescent angst, our yellow lab Tsali was one of our son’s major sources of comfort and psychological support.
It's hard to argue with that.
Post Script: Some studies have linked pets to reduced rates of asthma in children. The RAND study found no differences in asthma rates in kids with and without dogs or cats.
Hal Herzog is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals.
Miles, J.N.V, Parast, L., Babey, S.H., Griffin, B.A., & Saunders, J.M. (in press). A propensity-score weighted population-based study of the health benefits of dogs and cats on children. Anthrozoös.
Purewal, R., Christley, R., Kordas, K., Joinson, C., Meints, K., Gee, N., & Westgarth, C. (2017). Companion animals and child/adolescent development: a systematic review of the evidence. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(3), 234.