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When you leave the house, you might be tempted to turn on the radio or TV to keep your furry friend company. But does this really do anything?

March 13, 2015

Many pet owners will tell you their bundle of fur is like family. So there's no shame in feeling just a little guilty when you have to leave yours behind, whether it be for a quick errand or night on the town. (The adorable drooping face and sad eyes don't make it any easier.)

You might be tempted to try an age-old trick: turning on the radio or TV to keep your furry friend company. Turns out, though, neither may produce sounds he'll actually enjoy. Cats, for instance, just aren't that into human music (the classical kind at least), according to new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study, recently published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, compared how 47 felines responded to two different types of music at home, the first being classical melodies from the human world and the second dubbed "cat music." That would be music composed specifically to appeal to cats using a particular pitch and tempo.

"Their normal communication is at a much higher frequency range than humans," says Charles Snowdown, PhD, the study's lead author and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So the study's two "cat songs," created by University of Maryland composer David Teie, are an octave higher than regular human speech or singing voices, Snowdon says. Plus, the songs were formatted to match tempos cats might enjoy, such as purring and the sucking noises made during nursing.

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Snowdon and his former student, Megan Savage, played four sets of sounds for the cats, including two classical songs and two cat songs. The pair found that the kitties showed more positive behavior (like purring and rubbing against the speaker) when listening to the music created for them versus the human music. And they reacted to the cat music about a minute sooner, too.

Though the researchers aren't exactly certain how cats might respond to other musical genres like rock or country, one thing is clear. "From the cats' perspective, they really don't care about classical music," Snowdon says.

And what about dogs' preferences? Those would be much trickier to pinpoint.

"We chose cats [for the study] in part because they are fairly homogenous in body size," Snowdon says. "Dogs range in size and voice, so we're not sure whether there would be a universal music created for them or whether it would be different for each breed." (Small doggies make noises that sound very different than big ones.)

Still, entertainment isn't a total wash for pets. Some dogs with separation anxiety may respond well to radio music or TV noise if used as a safety cue. "The whole idea is to get them to like something that doesn't remind them of you," says Jeff Werber, a licensed veterinarian and founder of Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles.

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To spot separation anxiety in your pooch, look for behavior problems such as destructive chewing, howling, or urinating without cause. Then, start by training Fido to associate the radio or TV with positive things, such as a treat or praise (you can also use a word or action as a safety cue, he says). "Now the dog is getting rewarded for listening to music and it's taking attention away from you," Werber says. The more you do that, eventually your lonesome pup will learn to keep his cool when you're gone. Before you go, be sure to hide anything he could link back to you, like a toy you often play catch with, then turn on the radio or TV.

This trick is especially great if your dog already likes sitting in front of the tube (dogs CAN see what's on the screen, according to Werber), but it's not guaranteed to win over every furball. In that case, you could try investing in soothing tunes for canines, like the Through a Dog's Ear music series, he says. You could also set out a toy with hidden pockets for treats to keep your animal busy, Werber suggests.

Cats, on the other hand, may not need a safety cue to feel better about being alone. "Cats have more natural instincts that allow them to find ways to take care of themselves," Werber says.

That said, there are still little things you can do to keep your cat distracted and happy, Werber says, such as setting out a maze of treats or buying a diffuser like Feliway ($25; amazon.com) which sprays natural pheromones in the air to reduce your cat's stress levels. Lucky for your feline, the cat music used in Snowdon's study is also available to purchase ($1.29 per song) through the composer's website MusicForCats.com. So even kitties can have their own jam session while you're out.

The important thing to remember is that human music may not always be the answer to help your pet feel better when you're away. "To assume that just putting on a classical music station will calm your animal may not be the case," Snowdon says. "We know very little about what animals really like, and we hope people start thinking more carefully about that."

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