There’s an old adage about music having the charms to soothe a savage breast. Local animal shelters in recent years have taken that to heart and use the latest technology to solve problems of stress and anxiety in their kennels.
“It’s soothing and calming,” said Barbara Spillane, the enrichment director at the Saratoga County Animal Shelter in Ballston Spa, about the iCalmPet devices that play classical music.
There are about 20 of these portable players, which the Friends of the Saratoga County Animal Shelter purchased, that are scattered about the facility, each with a focus on cat, dog, or people sound therapy. The device comes as a small cannister with a microchip of what the manufacturer calls “bioacoustically-designed music” of up to three hours of selections by such composers as Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven or C.P.E. Bach, an informational booklet, and a cable that allows for connection to Bluetooth, MP3 players or laptops, which can be recharged to extend listening time for all day.
Spillane had known about using classical music to alleviate animal stress about seven years ago, she said, when she worked at another shelter that used the CDs “Through a Dog’s Ear.” These discs came out around 2008 and used music that provided simple slow melodic lines played on a stringed instrument, little rhythmic complexity, sometimes a burst of a trumpet-like sound and water sounds.
Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Science was also recommending music to calm shelter dogs as it reduced their nervous shaking, barking, and respiratory and heart rates. Shelters routinely had also always used various aromatherapy methods or such things as fake fish tanks or putting a cat’s perch near a window where it could see birds, or a variety of toys for dogs to divert their attention.
“Anything to alleviate fear, dogs biting, boredom or give them something to do with their paws,” Spillane said.
Since the addition of the iCalmPet devices, however, she can walk into one of the kennels at night and all is quiet. And even at the front desk, there’s one for the staff because it can get pretty hectic at times, she said.
“These are awesome products,” Spillane said.
The science behind these type of products has been well tested. In 2015, David Teie, a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Great Britain, teamed up with animal scientists to analyze how music could affect cats. Among their discoveries: It was known that each tone in music has its own frequency, but it was the low tones that were the most pleasing; consistent, repeatable rhythmic patterns calmed; and long melodic lines found typically in classical music were settling. Add a few sounds cats connected to like purring, a bird chirp, or crickets and the animals relaxed.
Teie decided to write his own music and put out a CD called “Music for Cats.” A typical tune has a few phrases of low cello, a bit of a guitar, some purring, harmonic sighs and some chucking sounds.
Further research was done in 2019 at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine to compare silence, cat music, and classical music to alleviate stress in a kennel setting and at veterinarian visits. Twenty five healthy cats of both sexes up to 10 years of age were screened. They discovered cat music topped the list with classical music not far behind.
The article, which appeared last year in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, caught Jessica Bukovinsky’s eye. She’s the training and behavior manager at the Animal Protective Foundation in Glenville.
“We’d always had CDs of mood music for cats or used white noise machines in the shelter,” she said. “And we played music by David Teie.”
A bit of scoping to find current devices that could yield a more comprehensive approach to reducing stress led her to a product called Echo Dot through Amazon Music, similar to the Alexa technology. The shelter put out a request in August to see if anyone could purchase one and they got eight Echo Dots and they’ve made a huge difference.
“The animals like a set routine to know what to expect, especially for the kittens,” she said. “We can play whatever we like — any type of music. And we can program it to play, for instance, a lullaby at 4 p.m. and it’s a blend of piano, harp and strings; or soothing sounds, or for a dog that needs to hear a voice.”
The iCalm products are, however, big at the James A. Brennan Memorial Humane Society in Mayfield where Scott Fettinger, one of the animal technicians, works.
“We have speakers on both sides of the aisles in the kennels that are linked and in the large cat enclosure,” he said. “I’ve worked here for five years and this ambient classical music, some with upbeat songs, breaks up the silence. It does seem to help.”
They also work at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands. With up to 100 dogs and 200 cats, anything that can relieve stress improves matters.
“I’ve been here fifteen years and the iCalm products definitely calm them,” said Nancy Haynes, the director of behavioral enrichment. “They help drown out the noise of the shelters, especially for the cats.”
The shelter has always done aromatherapy, had volunteers read books to the dogs, used YouTubes of bird sounds and used music CDs like “Through a Dog’s Ear.” But the discs would wear out, she said. Even better, the iCalm music can be put through smartphones so technicians can play the music as they go from one kennel to the next.
“The animals love it,” Haynes said.