Over the roughly 13 years I have been writing this blog, I have covered quite a few different topics, though with all I have maintained the central theme of evaluating claims about pet health from a science-based perspective. Part of this perspective is keeping track of the changing evidence as new research results become available. This can be tough as the number of topics, and the volume of evidence, grows over such a long period.
Today, I am returning briefly to a topic I previously covered in 2015 and twice in 2017 (A and B). As often proves to be the case, my conclusions have remained relatively unchanged, though this is one area in which I began with, and have maintained, some cautious optimism.
While it is very likely some kinds of music can be beneficial to our pets and veterinary patients under some circumstances, the devil is, as usual, in the details, and we don’t know much about the details yet. It is reasonable to experiment with music in veterinary environments, especially with more quiet, instrumental genres, but we must try to develop objective measures of the effect to be sure we are not imply wasting our effort or, even worse, actually adding stress for our patients.
On balance, then, I think it is possible that music might have some benefits for dogs in stressful circumstances, such as boarding kennels, hospitals, and shelters, but this is by no means clearly proven. The risk is also likely quite low, so there is probably little harm in using quiet music for this purpose so long as it is not substituted for other, more comprehensive approaches to reducing stress and anxiety.
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.
My reason for revisiting the topic now is that I have run across a systematic review looking at al the available evidence up through 2019.
Lindig AM, McGreevy PD, Crean AJ. Musical Dogs: A Review of the Influence of Auditory Enrichment on Canine Health and Behavior. Animals. 2020; 10(1):127.
Systematic reviews are incredibly useful as they provide a comprehensive evaluation of the available scientific literature with an explicit focus on evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the available evidence. They are never, of course, completely without bias, and they can often be frustrating since they rarely allow definitive conclusions or a high level of confidence in a particular interpretation of the evidence. But having such a review gives us a reasonable chance of getting a good overview of the subject and the evidence.
The conclusions of this review track pretty well with my own assessments in the past:
Interest in the use of music therapy as a behavioral enrichment tool in veterinary medicine is growing. Indeed, an industry has formed around the development of ‘dog music’, which has been purposely designed to relax dogs. Despite enthusiastic uptake of the idea, there is little empirical evidence supporting the design of such tools… As a general observation, animals appear less stressed or anxious when exposed to classical music than to control conditions. [This review] also acknowledges that this field is relatively under-researched, and more rigorous studies must be conducted before species-specific recommendations can be made. Such studies must reflect individuals’ and species’ preferences for different genres and songs, taking care to avoid habituation.
The best we can say about the value of music for dogs is that a few studies have shown short-term changes in behavior and some physiologic measurements that suggest quiet genres of music, such as classical, may have a calming effect on some dogs in some circumstances. Sounds specifically designed for dogs don’t’ seem to have any more effect than classical music. These short-term effects may wane with repeated exposure to the same music. And there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of music exposure, the potential health effects, and the importance of breed and individual differences or preferences.