Author: Zuniga, Nancy

What Do the Animals Hear?

Last month at the campout in Turlock, we brought along our young cat Vern, who was suffering from what turned out to be an incurable illness. That illness claimed his life last Monday, but we’ll always have fond memories and photos of Vern enjoying a bluegrass jam that we hosted at our home shortly before he became ill. While our other cats ran and hid under the bed until the last picker had gone home, Vern (named for Vern Williams) impressed our guests by stepping out into the middle of the jam, checking out the instruments, and even sitting on my knee as I played the mandolin. (Talk about a balancing act!) I have a great photo of Kelvin Gregory leaning forward as if serenading Vern as the little orange tabby sat atop our TV, enjoying the music. By the time the spring campout came around, Vern was already quite ill. We took him along with us because we couldn’t leave him alone unattended, and the little guy happily adapted to the steady stream of pickers and singers around our campsite. Sitting on a low folding chair, the bluegrass-loving cat took it all in, unfazed by the twang of banjos or thumping of a doghouse bass.

Vern wasn’t the first of my pets to respond to the sound of a bluegrass instrument. At the time my son was taking fiddle lessons years ago, we had a cat named Colette who came running from wherever she happened to be in the house the instant Jesse began to play his fiddle. Colette would then sit on the bed and purr happily while Jesse played “Soldier’s Joy” and “Bile Them Cabbage Down.” When a call of “Here, kitty, kitty” failed to bring Colette into a room, all I had to do was take out the fiddle and draw the bow across the strings, and she would quickly emerge from her hiding place.

I have a video on YouTube of our late cat Lalo who was recovering from a fractured leg (I don’t seem to have very good luck with orange cats) sitting in the middle of a bluegrass jam in Turlock in 2008, surrounded by a large group of pickers playing “Liza Jane.” ( ). Lalo can be seen in the video appearing quite content to listen to the music.

Not to leave the canines out, dogs and bluegrass music seem to be a natural combination. In most any jamming situation where pets are allowed, dogs seem to be right at home. Some, like Ed Heiss' famous dog “Pup” might even perform onstage ( but most are content to just hang around the jam site. To be honest, I get the impression that some dogs, like some humans, attend jams more for the social aspect than for the music. Even so, I have heard the occasional dog join in on vocals.

With nearly seven-million hits on YouTube (, Nora the Piano-Playing cat is perhaps one of the most well known four-legged musicians around. I don’t know how Nora would respond to bluegrass music, but her fascination with the piano has made her a world-wide celebrity. Someone should give that cat a banjo!

Another music-loving pet who has earned celebrity is Frosty the Dancing Cockatoo ( who seems to be a big fan of Ray Charles. One can only speculate on what dance moves Frosty might be inspired to perform if she heard the Infamous Stringdusters.

A lot of people have observed that certain types of music can have a calming effect on animals, much as they do on humans, while more frenetic music can produce excitement or agitation. The hearing of many animal species is considerably more sensitive than that of human ears, but can animals actually interpret what they hear as music? I’m wondering if a love for music in general, or certain types of music in particular, might be genetically ingrained in some animals just as it seems to be in some humans. This weekend is the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival, and well-behaved pets are welcome. This presents a good opportunity to find out if your dog or cat might enjoy some good music, or perhaps even participate in a jam. We're bringing along our dog Pen (named after Uncle Pen) and perhaps our cat Curly (so-named because of his curly tail...but I'm sure he's a fan of Curly Seckler and Curly Ray Cline). Hope to see you and your four-legged buddies there!

Posted:  5/5/2011

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