How do cats react to music?

We remain unsure about domestic cats’ reaction to music. More than 30 years ago, the great Dr. Desmond Morris said that domestic cats react idiosyncratically to the sound of music. What he was saying is that each individual cat reacts in their own way to human music because at that time no one had written ‘cat music’.

The picture some 30 years later is still unclear. Some authors are positive about it while others are sceptical. On the internet today, Purina states that music can make cats happy. The author states, “all the evidence points to the fact that cats do like music”.

How do cats react to music?
How do cats react to music? We are unsure. Image: MikeB
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

I’m not as confident. I am not as confident about whether domestic cats like certain types of music or sounds or simply respond to certain types of music and sounds. Responding to either human or cat music does not mean that the cat is enjoying it. Humans listen to music for one reason: pleasure.

Veterinary clinic

A couple of fairly recent studies point to the fact that music can alleviate stress in a domestic cat. For example, one study (2019) looked at the effects of music on behaviour and stress in domestic cats in a veterinary clinic. The conclusions were that listening to ‘cat music’ before during and after a physical examination was linked to lower stress.

They concluded that “cat-specific music may benefit cats by decreasing the stress levels and increasing the quality of care in veterinary clinical settings.”

Link to the study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612X19828131

Anesthesia

A further study (2016) looked at the effect of music on cats under general anaesthetic, an inherently dangerous procedure for domestic cats.

In this experiment, the results suggested “that cats under general anaesthesia are likely to perform auditory sensory stimuli processing” leading to a conclusion that “the use of music in the surgical theatre may contribute to allowing a reduced anaesthetic dose, minimising undesirable side effects and thus promoting patient safety.”

A modest success therefore using music to improve patient safety in the veterinary clinic when under general anaesthetic. Good news but are any vets using music?

Link to the study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1098612X15575778

Dr. Desmond Morris in his book CATLORE

Dr. Morris’s book was published in 1987; a time when there was less knowledge about the effect of music on domestic cats. However, it appears that there hasn’t been an awful lot of progress since then, perhaps because of two reasons (a) this knowledge is not vital in terms of the relationship between humans and cats and (b) it is almost impossible to probe into the minds of domestic cats and decide what they are thinking at any one time.

Dr. Morris made the following findings in his book:

  • Some cats show no interest in music.
  • Some cats adore it.
  • Some cats detest it!
  • It’s hard, therefore, to make sense of what is going on.
  • The French writer Theophile Gautier lived with a cat who would listen attentively to the singers who accompanied him when he played the piano. However, the high notes produced an unhappy response. Dr. Morris deduced that the high notes probably reminded Gautier’s cat of feline distress as the cat would reach out with his paw and try to close the singer’s mouth. Every time the singer sang the note of high A his cat responded in the same way.
  • Another Frenchman found that his cat threw themselves “into uncontrollable convulsions” in reaction to a certain sequence of notes. But a second cat also present jumped up and sat on the piano and listened intently to the music. Idiosyncratic indeed.
  • The composer Henry Sanguet found that his cat, Cody, became “ecstatic when it heard Debussy being played on the piano”. The cat would roll around the carpet and leap onto the piano and then onto the pianist’s lap. Note: there is a well-known video on the internet of a man playing the piano with his cat on his lap adoring the whole performance. The video is a picture of mutual love.
  • In the 1930s, a couple of doctors by the names of Morin and Bachrach found that the note of E of the fourth octave caused cats to defecate! And the adult ones became sexually excited. High notes caused the cats to become agitated. Note: defecation might have been a fear response.
  • I would like to add a further comment about that last point. We know that certain sounds can cause auditory reflex seizures (audiogenic reflex seizures) in domestic cats. These are normally quite high-pitched sounds such as the crinkling of aluminium foil. There may be a link here to the agitation caused by high musical notes.
  • Dr. Morris concluded that in every case, cats don’t enjoy music as humans do for the quality of the sound and the emotions that they elicit but relate to the music as if they are cries from other cats. They are converting the music into feline sounds i.e. forms of communication.
  • For example, the meowing of a distress kitten has a particular pitch which will match a particular note in music causing an adult cat to be disturbed and respond accordingly, particularly if they are female. That’s why Gautier’s cats touched the mouths of singers. They were trying to help in their own way.
  • Dr. Morris surmised that the convulsions and sexual excitement of cats to music were “no more than erotic responses to sounds that remind felines of the courtship tones of the species”. My comment here is that if these were genuine convulsions, they may have been seizures caused by an auditory reflex seizure as mentioned.
  • Domestic cats might relate to very high-pitched musical notes as squeals of pain causing a natural panic reaction in the listening cat.
  • He does not believe that cats have a musical sense. He regards that as a myth and has decided that all they are doing is “responding to selected notes according to their own instinctive system of sound signals”. Each individual cat responds in their own way and some particular musical notes trigger parental feelings and others trigger sexual ones or a desire to self-protect.

When people say that domestic cats respond to cat music and not human music it may be because the cat music creates frequencies and pitch which sound like domestic cat vocalisations and therefore, they prick up their ears and listen. It does not mean that they are enjoying it but simply responding to sounds that they know.

What do you think? Do you have personal experience of your cat enjoying music.

Veterinary clinics should have custom-made cat and dog music playing in the background

Blind Cat Hugs Smartphone Playing Piano Music

5 thoughts on “How do cats react to music?”

  1. It could be a coincidence, but my two youngest cats (9 months currently) show great fascination when my phone rings, playing music. (My ringtones are different songs.) They are siblings and approach the phone with interest and grab at it even when I pick it up as long as it is ringing. Some of the slightly older ones show a mild interest by approaching the phone but not touching it. Most are indifferent.

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  2. My experience with over thirteen cats is that they all like music, and find it relaxing, unless it is heavy metal or music with high frequencies.

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