Cat Behavior Problems: Vocalization

Why does my cat persistently cry?

Cats use vocalization to communicate. At least 20 different vocalizations of cats have been described. Each sound is used to communicate a unique message that would easily be understood by another cat. Behavior experts have studied and attempted to loosely translate cat vocalizations, but communication is complex, especially when the messages are being sent from one species to another! One thing is certain—if your cat is vocalizing, he has something to say and expects you will understand.

"...if your cat is vocalizing, he has something to say and expects you will understand."

How can I tell what my cat’s vocalization means?

You probably notice that your cat makes different sounds in different contexts. For example, the sound that your cat makes when there is no food in the dish (possibly a loud meow) will be different from the sound that he makes when you are about to place the filled dish down (probably a soft chirp or trill). You may also observe that when making certain vocalizations, your cat’s body moves in a particular way. Many of the most intense sounds may be accompanied by a flicking tail, for instance. Try to observe your cat carefully and you will soon be able to loosely translate his messages.

Why does my cat get louder and louder when I respond?

It is not possible for a person, even a cat behavior expert, to be completely accurate when translating a cat’s vocalization. Sometimes, your cat may be trying to communicate a specific want or need, yet you may ‘guess’ wrong. You may think your cat is asking for food when he is really asking for an ear scratch or a toy. This misinterpretation can trigger frustration, which in turn causes your cat to turn up the volume of the meow.

Do some cats vocalize more than others?

Though any individual cat may be vocal, some breeds of cats, particularly Oriental cats and, most notably, Siamese, may be genetically predisposed to being talkative. Also, cats that are intact (not spayed or neutered) vocalize as they attempt to find mates.

Can vocalizing be a sign of a more serious problem?

If your cat has always been quiet and only recently begun to vocalize, there may be an underlying physical or behavioral disorder. If your cat is painful, getting up to a favorite sleeping spot may be difficult and your cat may vocalize while seeking an alternative place to rest. The first thing to do is have your cat examined by your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may recommend laboratory testing to screen for hormonal or metabolic diseases. For example, cats that have an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) can show signs of restlessness and increased vocalization.

Excessive vocalization can also reflect an underlying behavioral disorder. Cats that are anxious, such as cats experiencing social stress related to another cat, may vocalize while seeking a safe place to sleep. Sometimes, cats that are afraid of noises, such as thunder, vocalize to express their fear. For cats older than eight years of age, nighttime wakefulness with vocalization can be a sign of cognitive decline. If your cat is vocalizing excessively, and particularly if this is new, a veterinary behaviorist should evaluate your cat to find the reason for the behavior. An accurate diagnosis is important so that you and your cat can be comfortable.

What can be done to prevent undesirable vocalization?

"It is best to avoid a cycle of reinforcement from the outset."

It is best to avoid a cycle of reinforcement from the outset. Unless you are concerned your cat is in distress, it is best to refrain from interacting with your cat in response to any unwanted vocalization. A simple “I’m a little busy right now” can be used. Any further attention will reinforce the behavior. If your cat learns that you reliably respond to meows when you are awake, he could expect you to respond even when you are asleep. When you do not react, your cat might experience frustration and begin to meow louder and louder and you may not get a good night’s sleep. Of course, make sure your cat always has enough food and water and a clean litter box. Most important, provide plenty of enrichment, including social enrichment without being asked!

Is there any specific treatment for nighttime vocalization?

First, any underlying illness, including medical and behavioral disorders, should be identified and treated. If your healthy cat is keeping you up at night, add opportunities for activities during the daytime. This enrichment can include opportunities to hunt for food by using food toys and hidden plates, increased access to novel toys, and plenty of interactive social play that is initiated by you, not driven by your cat’s demands.

If your enrichment keeps your cat active during the day but he continues to be playful at night, set up a kitty hunt by hiding food and toys to keep your cat busy while you sleep. If your cat sleeps through most of the night but wakes very early for food, try an automatic feeder and set the timer to go off just before your cat is likely to begin asking for breakfast.

"...try an automatic feeder and set the timer to go off just before your cat is likely to begin asking for breakfast."

Will it help if I lock my cat out of my bedroom?

Some cats, particularly cats that vocalize to solicit an interaction or food, only vocalize when they have you in sight and will sleep through the night when closed out of the bedroom. However, there are other cats that will become very distressed when left behind a closed door. Whether you decide to let your cat sleep in your room or to keep your door closed, be sure to provide a very comfortable sleeping spot based on your cat’s preferences. Your cat may appreciate a raised perch cushioned with a soft fleece or a cozy covered bed.

Is there medication that can help?

Many safe medications are available to treat cats with underlying behavioral disorders, which is why an accurate assessment is so important. Medication should not be used alone—a treatment program should include behavior modification, enrichment, and a management strategy. In some cases, because some behavior programs take time to be fully effective, a temporary short-acting medication, such as trazodone (Desyrel®, Oleptro®), may be prescribed to help your cat sleep better.

Should I punish my cat for vocalizing?

Punishment is not an appropriate solution for managing vocalization in cats. First, punishment can lead to fear and anxiety. Your cat may become frightened of you even if you try to deliver the punishment from a remote location. Second, punishment causes frustration because it does not address the cat’s motivation for vocalizing.

"Punishment is not an appropriate solution for managing vocalization in cats."

Will neutering help?

Neutering can help with vocalization that is related to seeking a mate. If your female cat vocalizes mainly during her estrus cycles, or if your male cat directs his vocalization toward other cats near the window or in conjunction with other sexual behavior such as mounting, then spaying/neutering may be curative. Other types of vocalizations may not be affected by neutering.