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When Clients Ask: ‘Why is my cat crying?’

duddyby Jean Duddy, DVM

“Why is my cat crying?” This is a common question that comes in many forms.  It may be a simple question during an annual exam or it may be a distraught owner at the end of their rope because they are not getting any sleep.  There are many answers and to help our clients we need to try to understand what is going on with the cat.

cat 1Cats like humans have several types of meows or cries.  Determining which type of vocalization will help us interpret what the cat is trying to tell us.  One recommendation is to have the client videotape the kitty crying and note when it occurs.  This can take some of the guess work out of interpreting the many descriptions for cat cries out there.  The generic “meow” can mean almost anything.  While “chirps or trills” may be a queen trying to get her kittens to follow or a cat trying to get their human to follow them.  “Chattering” is that cackling sound that cats make while watching birds or other animals at the window.  Growling and hissing are sounds that tend to speak for themselves and warn us not to touch them.  But the sounds most owners are concerned with are the long drawn out cries that seem to get even louder and longer at night.  These cries do indicate some form of distress (perceived or real).  They can be due to either medical or behavior causes.  The cat that suddenly starts yowling may progress to the point where it is interfering with the human-animal bond.  This should be evaluated the same way any other medical issue would be.

History is important (any detail from an owner is important):

  • Is the crying new or has the cat always cried?
  • What does the cry sound like?
  • When is the crying occurring (time and during what activities)?
  • Is there anything that helps stop the crying?
  • Does the cat have any medical issues?

cat 2A physical exam and possibly some basic laboratory testing will help with many of these.  Common medical conditions to keep on our list of differentials:

  • Deafness (seems to be one of the most common reasons, the cat is looking for reassurance).
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Hypertension
  • Blindness
  • Brain tumor
  • Cognitive Dysfunction
  • Pain : many conditions can cause discomfort or overt pain which may cause cats to cry out.
    • Trauma
    • Arthritis
    • Cystitis (or other causes of straining such as bladder stones, masses, etc.)
    • Constipation (or other causes of straining such as colon poylps, etc.)
    • Diarrhea

Medical conditions need to be treated appropriately and then the yowling can be re-evaluated.  If the yowling is still there; look for additional medical issues that need to be treated.  Many times it is good home care in addition to medication.

Decreased hearing (or vision) can be helped by adding night lights and creating evening routines to keep the anxiety of these cats down to a minimum.  These cats can easily become disoriented, especially at night.  Yowling is a way for the cat to seek reassurance.

Arthritis can cause a number of signs, crying or even retreating from normal routines.  Besides the medications to treat this condition, be sure the environment is as comfortable as possible.  Use ramps or stairs up to furniture, be sure access to the litterbox and food bowls is easy.  Central location of the litterbox is just as important as the ability to get into it (low walls).

Once we have treated or ruled out medical conditions, our focus moves to the environment and changes in the cat’s routine.  History is key.  Has the cat moved into a new home, any new animal or human moved in or out?  Are there animals coming up to a window or porch and causing anxiety?  Has the owner changed job routines (e.g., now leaving the home but worked at home before)?  Much of this yowling is seeking reassurance.

Much has been written about environmental enrichment which is important for all cats to keep them occupied during the times the owner is not engaged with them.  This is very important.  Cats may also yowl due to boredom and desire for attention.  Even though cats are not pack animals, they do not like being alone for long periods of time.  Much has been written over the last several years regarding environmental enrichment.  How interactive environments are important for both medical and emotional wellbeing of the cat.  Using things like interactive toys, perching areas, and rotating play routines can help.  But one important factor is to teach the client that cats need exercise too.  A tired cat is more likely to sleep than yowl.

Other cats will seek food with yowling.  This is the cat that screams when their owner walks into the kitchen.  It is important to be sure the cat is getting adequate nutrition and not crying because it is not getting enough calories.  If calories are adequate, it is important to help clients avoid reinforcing this behavior.  Distraction techniques during the yowling and then feeding when quiet are recommended.

A crying cat can bring even the most dedicated cat owner to the brink of insanity.  Many conditions will not be cured overnight and many medical issues become behavioral with time. It is important to take the time to work through each possible cause to maintain health as well as the human animal bond.

For more information, contact Angell’s Internal Medicine service at 617-541-5186 or


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