By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
Common causes of excessive vocalization such as howling or loud meowing in cats include medical issues, attention seeking, stress, grief, boredom, feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome, and breed tendency.
If a formerly quiet cat has begun crying or howling plaintively, the cause is likely a medical problem. Cats tend to be stoic, and often don’t show symptoms until an illness has become quite severe. In such cases, the howling is caused by physical and psychological distress.
When howling behaviour comes on suddenly, consult a veterinarian as soon as possible. Medical problems should be ruled out before attributing the behaviour to other causes, particularly if the cat is eating or drinking more than usual or has begun having accidents outside the litter box. Older cats are prone to kidney disease and hyperthyroidism, both of which may cause howling.
Many cats learn that talking results in feeding, affection, or some other sort of interaction. A cat that is desperate for attention may yell just to get a reaction, even if it’s a negative one.
If owners wish to discourage chattiness, they should not pay the cat any attention (positive or negative) while the cat is vocalizing but spend plenty of quality time with the cat when he’s being quiet. Ignoring him when he’s being noisy will send a strong message that howling won’t get him what he wants.
Stress or Grieving
Some cats howl due to the anxiety caused by major changes, such as moving house or adding a new person or pet to the household. The loss of a person or animal that the cat loved may also cause howling in response to grief. In either case, provide plenty of positive attention and try to keep other aspects of the cat’s life as consistent as possible, maintaining the usual routines and avoiding imposing additional changes. Many owners find that using a cat pheromone product such as Feliway has a calming effect.
Boredom and Restlessness
Indoor cats can easily grow bored and restless without sufficient opportunities to exercise, and a formerly outdoor cat that has been brought inside may be particularly frustrated. To reduce howling caused by boredom, restlessness, or the desire to be outdoors:
- Have pets spayed or neutered to eliminate the biological urge to roam (this will also prevent yowling as a mate-seeking behaviour).
- Engage in regular play sessions that enable the cat to practice his hunting behaviours – tiring him out with play in the daytime is particularly useful with a cat that tends to be noisy at night.
- Leave solo toys such as catnip mice lying around for him to play with on his own.
- Harness train the cat and take him for walks.
- Provide some entertainment, such as a fish tank or a screened-in window with a view of a bird feeder.
- Grow some cat grass and catnip indoors.
- Hide treats around the house so that the cat can engage in a scavenger hunt that satisfies his natural hunting urges.
- Provide lots of attention and affection when the cat is quiet (but ignore him when he howls).
- If the cat is alone for long periods of time in the day or night, consider having a friend or relative pop by to provide some attention, as he may be howling out of loneliness as well as boredom.
Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Like people, some cats suffer a cognitive decline as they get older, developing a condition much like Alzheimer’s disease. In this case, the howling results from confusion and disorientation. A cat with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) may howl because he feels anxious due to this confusion, or because he’s looking for others in the household and can’t find them.
Also known as feline dementia, CDS can impair a cat’s sleep cycle, which may increase the likelihood of night-time vocalization and restlessness. Loss of hearing or vision in older cats may also contribute to howling.
Another reason why cats that suffer from CDS may be more inclined to vocalize at night is that they feel particularly anxious about being separated from their loved ones, who become inaccessible to the cat when they fall asleep.
As older cats are also prone to a variety of other medical conditions, a full check-up is required to rule out illness before assuming that the problem is dementia. A veterinarian may also prescribe medication in the case of severe anxiety.
Once medical problems have been ruled out, strategies for calming the cat at night include using a pheromone product such as Feliway and applying similar strategies as those used for cats that are bored or restless, such as increasing daytime activity and providing entertainment.
Talkative Cat Breeds
Siamese cats (and many breeds derived from the Siamese), tend to be more talkative by nature. In the case of naturally chatty breeds, if there have been no changes in vocalization (loudness, frequency, etc.), talking is unlikely to indicate a problem.
- ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist. (2009). “Meowing and Yowling,” “Behavior Problems in Older Cats,” and “Enriching Your Cat’s Life.” ASPCABehavior.org.
- Sacramento SPCA. (2008). “Your Talkative Cat.” SSPCA.org.
- Sueda, K., DVM., Best Friends Animal Society. (n.d.). “The Talkative Cat.” BestFriends.org.