It has become quite popular to recommend music as a method of reducing the stress and anxiety of dogs in environments likely to be stressful for them, such as veterinary hospitals and shelters. I’ve reviewed the evidence concerning the effects of music in dogs (1, 2), and in general it is intriguing but not yet very convincing. Some studies show some potential effects, others don’t. Most studies have a significant degree of subjectivity to their measures of effect, and there is little consistency to what music is used and how it is presented. Overall, it is unlikely that playing music in veterinary settings does any harm, but it is unclear whether it does any good.
A new study has recently been published which adds a bit of evidence to this debate.
Engler WJ. Bain M. Effect of different types of classical music played at a veterinary hospital on dog behavior and owner satisfaction. J Amer Vet Med Assoc. 2017;251(2);195-200.
This study looked at healthy dogs and those with non-urgent medical problems seen at the community practice service of a veterinary college. In brief, the study randomly assigned dogs to be examined in rooms with classical music, the same music modified by a private company that claims to make it more appealing or effective for dogs, and no music at all. Owners and veterinarians then evaluated the level of anxiety, anxiety-related behaviors, and aggression in the dogs. Obviously, the study was not blinded since everyone participating was aware of whether or not music was playing.
The study was clearly negative, finding no differences between the three groups in any measure of anxiety or aggression. This lack of difference between the treatment groups held for both subjective behavioral measures and for objective measures such as temperature and heart rate. The only statistically significant difference identified was that owners felt their dogs were less anxious in the examination room than in the waiting room (regardless of whether music was played) and that owners were more satisfied with their visit when the original classical music was played than with the modified music or no music at all.
Certainly, no single study is ever the last word on any complex medical subject, and while this was a well-designed experiment, like all clinical research it has limitations. Direct comparison with other studies is difficult due to the differences in music choice, study population, study conditions, and many other factors. Nevertheless, this study does weaken the already tentative and inconsistent support for significant anti-anxiety benefits in dogs from the playing of music in veterinary settings.
Of course, both owners and clinicians liked the classical music, which may be reason enough to play it in this type of setting. Reducing human anxiety and improving client satisfaction are appropriate goals for environmental manipulation in the veterinary clinic. And as the authors suggest, improvement in the anxiety of canine patients could possibly be achieved through reducing the anxiety of their owners, regardless of whether the music has any direct benefits to the canine patients. Still, it is important to recognize that such intervention may effect people in one way and dogs in another (or not at all), and we have to be wary of assuming our patients will benefit simply because we like it. We also have to be mindful of the caregiver placebo effect, especially with unblinded studies of interventions with subjectively measured effects.
There were a couple of other interesting tidbits in the paper. One unsurprising finding was that owners rated their dogs’ anxiety significantly higher than the veterinarians did. Owners obviously have a more personal stake in their dogs’ reactions to the veterinary environment and are likely more sensitive and negatively affected by signs of anxiety in their pets than veterinarians, who likely view a certain amount of anxiety as normal for the situation and not a cause for concern.
The paper also illustrated how difficult it is for researchers not to put the most positive possible spin on the results of their study. This was a well-designed and reported study, and the authors deserve great credit for publishing and fully reporting negative results. Negative studies are critical to an accurate, balanced understanding of the effect of treatments, yet they are often not published, due to bias on the part of researchers and journals. As a result, the literature often presents an inaccurately positive view of medical treatments.
In this paper though the data clearly showed no difference between any of the groups (and hence no effect of the music, except on owner satisfaction), the authors still began the discussion with the claim, “Results of the present study indicated that the playing of classical music in veterinary examination rooms had some positive effects on both dogs and their owners.” Anyone reading only the discussion section (as busy clinicians often do) would come away with the misconception that the study show benefits to music in terms of reduced anxiety even though it actually showed no effect at all.
This paper adds a small piece of evidence to the overall subject of the effect of music on anxiety and behavior in dogs in the veterinary setting. The existing evidence is weak and inconsistent, so no clear conclusion can be drawn. In this study, there was no sign of any effect of classical music or the same music digitally altered with the goal of reducing stress in dogs. The question remains open, and definitive claims for or against the potential effects of music in this situation are not justified.