by Jean Duddy, DVM
Did you know that cats like humans have several types of meows or cries? Determining which type of vocalization can help us interpret what your cat is trying to tell us. Since people describe the same cry the different ways, video is often helpful for figuring out what our feline friends are trying to tell us.
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 sound most owners are concerned with is the long drawn out cries that seem to get louder and longer at night. These cries do indicate some form of distress (perceived or real). Crying also varies with breed and even cat to cat.
Since many types of crying are normal for our cats, the focus of this article is the kitty that suddenly starts to yowl.
If yowling starts or progresses, have your cat checked by your veterinarian. There are many normal reasons for yowling, such as the mating ritual. But there are other medical conditions that can cause this sound, and your cat may be trying to tell you something. Help your veterinarian by keeping a diary of when the crying is occurring and what the cat is doing.
Some aging considerations such as decreasing vision and hearing can cause crying. Using a night light can help decrease disorientation they may feel if they wake up in the middle of the night. Providing a bed time ritual too so they sleep in a familiar place each night can decrease anxiety and make sleep time better for all in the house.
Your veterinarian first will need to rule out medical causes, especially in the older cat. Anything that causes discomfort or pain can also cause vocalization. That includes arthritis, bladder infections, diarrhea, or even constipation. Your veterinarian also will look for certain diseases such as hyperthyroidism, hypertension, or cognitive dysfunction that are known to cause increase crying. If any of these conditions are found, they need to be treated and then if the crying continues we need to consider behavioral issues.
Things such as arthritis have both medical treatment and environmental changes that are needed. Be sure it is easy to get on furniture (using ramps or stairs), being sure the litter box is accessible in both location and ability to get in and out. The location is very important because if it is too far away or too difficult to get to; a cat may start eliminating outside the box. An older cat may cry at the top of the basement stairs because the litter box is down in the basement and the cat is painful going up and down stairs. The type of box is important too. If it is painful for your cat to climb into the box, that may initiate some crying. Be sure it is an open area with one side of the box low enough that the cat can just walk into the box.
If medical concerns have been ruled out, then it is important to figure out what your cat is trying to tell you. Some examples of when and why cats cry are:
- Greeting you when you come home. Hard to stop but not usually something that lasts long. And when you think about it, it is a nice thing.
- Wants food (begging). Be careful not to reinforce this behavior by feeding them when they beg. You want to reward them when not meowing at you. If it is during the middle of the night you can consider first moving the evening meal to just before going to bed and an automatic feeder to pop up at the time they usually start crying.
- Loneliness. There has been a lot written lately about environmental enrichment. The importance of having things to keep your cat occupied and entertained. Interactive toys, bird feeders at a window or rotating multiple toys are some of the things we can do to help with alone time. Another cat in some cases may help. But keep in mind, a second cat will not take the place of interaction with their human. You will have two cats that both need interactive time.
- Attention seeking also goes along with loneliness. Play time every day is important whether you are home all day long or at work. Cats will cry to initiate playtime. Here again be careful not to reinforce the crying association with playing. Leave or hold off play until they are settled and then initiate play time. Cats need exercise daily too. Once tired they will be more likely to settle down.
- Stress is a large factor and unfortunately we can’t always figure out why our cats are stressed. Some stressors are obvious, a move to another home, a new pet or illness or loss of a companion (human or animal). Other stressors can be an animal coming up to the window or door and we never see them. If stress is suspected sometimes some investigating will be needed. During that time offer some reassurance to the cat. Other things such as pheromone (ex, Feliway®) may help. Even some medications may be prescribed to help.
If your kitty is meowing more than before, start keeping some notes. You live with your cat and know them much better than anyone. The next step is a check-up and then work with your veterinarian and together you may be able to help with the crying.
For more information, contact Angell’s Internal Medicine service at 617-541-5186 or firstname.lastname@example.org.