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A Playlist For Nervous Cats

Can Music Help Your Pet’s Body/Mind/Spirit Connection?

Getty/David_Bodescu

Parent to a nervous cat? Body-Mind-Spirit connection isn't just for the humans—help your cat cultivate its inner peace through music.

Deacon is the epitome of a nervous cat. Separated early from his littermates and perhaps reached for one too many times by gregarious would-be-adopters, Deacon had a hard time settling into our home. Then, delightfully, I found him curled up with our crazy ginger cat Max. After a rocky start, it looked like we had the makings of FFFs―Feline Friends Forever.

And then Max died in a dreadful accident. Hearts broken, we did exactly what I caution people not to do. My husband and I rushed down to the shelter and brought home the first cat that showered us with attention. On his paperwork, his name appeared as Booger―crossed out and replaced by Bub―perhaps a sign of what was to come. A well-meaning volunteer queried, “Are you sure? He’s special needs.” I replied curtly, “So am I.” And that settled that. Bub was loaded into our car, so nervous he lost control of his bowels just a few minutes into the ride to his new home.

[Read more about dealing with the grief of losing a pet in “Laced With Grace”]

My relationship with Bub is a complicated one. I adore him. And I get angry at him often. I know, I’m not supposed to say this―it might hurt my street cred as an animal chaplain. But, alas, Bub can be quite a bully. Especially to Deacon, who seems to truly just want to be loved by this creature of his own kind—instead of sat on, the collateral damage of displays of territorialism. Yet, I vowed not to let Bub become one of the many cats surrendered to shelters each year due to buyer’s remorse.

Thus, Buba-ji has become my greatest teacher—and a great inspiration for exploring pet wellness. Weekly reiki has helped us all. So has learning more about the signs that cat bodies reveal. As lockdown restrictions lift, I’ve been wondering what we can do to radiate calmness in the home when we aren’t there. Perhaps 24/7 broadcasting Spotify’s Pet Therapy Music for Deep Relaxation of Cats and Dogs?

Many studies have shown the positive effects of music on humans—reducing agitation, improving sleep, decreasing stress, and improving motor and cognitive function in stroke patients. These findings are probably not surprising to many of us who have experienced music’s effect on our own states of mind.

But, what about our animal companions? A report published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery suggests music can be helpful for them as well. During the study, cats were given three different auditory stimuli tests―silence, classical music, and cat-specific music—two weeks apart. During each exam, the feline’s stress level and ease of handling were measured both before and after audio exposure. Results showed that cat-specific music before or during physical exams could be beneficial. And even classical music worked—though not as effectively.

So, what exactly is cat-specific music? Squeaking mice and squirrels? Flapping bird wings? “The thought and musical design behind composing cat-specific music was based on the idea that the development of the emotional centers in the brain of the cat occur shortly after birth, during the nursing stage. Because purring and suckling sounds are common in this developmental stage, these sounds are layered into tempos and frequencies used in feline vocalization to create cat-specific music,” the report’s authors explained.

And there’s good news for nervous cats. You can get the exact selection used in testing, “Scooter Bere’s Aria,” right on Youtube. It’s important to note that the study concedes merely playing the song on repeat isn’t ideal. (I suspect for the same reason repeating a song over and over before bed doesn’t result in fast sleep—acclimation and habituation.) Luckily, composer and performer David Teie has created an entire album playlist: Music for Cats. Likewise, studies have shown that music is effective in reducing stress and increasing calmness in dogs, too, using classical music.

These studies beg this question for the spiritually-minded: If we are filling our wellness spas, meditation centers, churches, and other houses of worship with music designed to benefit our bodies, minds, and spirits, isn’t it time to extend that practice beyond humans—to shelters, kennels, animal hospitals, and so on?

To answer this question, I went looking for examples of animals, music, and spirituality in my birth religion—Christianity―to shore up my claim. Amusingly, although I was taught plentiful cute songs about animals and their relationship to God in Sunday School, squabbles about what kind of music is appropriate for spiritual use has been raging for millennia.

As early Christianity sought to distinguish itself from local music-loving religions (aka “pagans”) and Jewish communities, religious leaders dictated precisely what was appropriate for adherents. Arguments continued until the topic exploded during the Protestant reformations. Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli straight-up banned music entirely from churches in Zurich. John Calvin was a bit laxer, suggesting the Psalms were ok―as long as they were sung in unison, without any instruments. On the flip side, Martin Luther endorsed music, declaring, “Any who remain unaffected are clodhoppers indeed and are fit to hear only the words of dung-poets and the music of pigs.”

Of course, with all due respect to his enthusiasm, I take issue with Luther’s belittling of pigs. Animal researchers suggest that pigs may be smarter than our beloved cats and dogs. And while a piglet oink may not be as pleasant to our ears as a kitten purr or puppy bark, it turns out that even pigs benefit from the sound of music.

Consequently, Deacon, Bub, and I are eschewing theologians. Instead, we are exploring our relationship to music with playlists hopping from “Scooter Bere’s Aria” to The Cure’s “The Love Cats” to the very obvious “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.” Our very favorite find―“Duetto buffo di due Gatti”―is soon headed beyond our doors, as I extend animals further into my spiritual community’s liturgy. Drawing on an operatic work by Gioachino Rossini, the song’s title translates to “Humorous Duet for Cats.” Playful and immediately joy-inducing, the lyrics are based entirely on a single word: miau.

Read more from Sarah Bowen on animals in “Animal Mystics.”