Excessive vocalisation in cats

Is your cat a “talker?” Cats use vocalisations such as meowing to communicate with us - this is how they communicate with us about everything from pain to interactions to loneliness. Some cats vocalise excessively, keeping their owners up at night and generally increasing stress in the household. Read on to learn more about what your cat is saying when he “talks” to you.

Why do cats meow?

Cats meow as a form of communication. While some are more “talkative” than others, each cat is trying to communicate something specific to their needs. They may be expressing emotions such as happiness, stress, fear, playfulness or loneliness. There are at least 16 different cat vocalisations. Some are made with the mouth open and then closing as the cat makes the sound (eg meow). Some are made with the mouth closed (eg purr). Some are made with the mouth held open for a long period (eg hiss). Some vocalisations such as meowing are almost always made when the cat wants attention. Some like hissing are more clearly defensive signals. Finally, sounds like purring while most often associated with situations in which the cat desires social contact, can also be heard in situations where the cat is scared such as at the veterinary surgery.

Why is my cat meowing so much?

When your cat’s behaviour changes or becomes excessive, the first thing to do is make an appointment with your cat’s vet. Your cat could be painful, hungry, uncomfortable, thirsty or stressed. Endocrine, orthopaedic, neoplastic (cancerous) and metabolic disease can cause excessive vocalisation in cats. Your vet will do a physical examination and possibly recommend testing. If your vet says that your cat is healthy, you can treat the meowing as a behaviour problem. Very often, owners reinforce (eg pet, feed,or play with) their cats when they meow. This can be a perpetuating factor leading to excessive vocalisation. For example, if your cat meows and you feed it, it is very likely to meow in the future when hungry. Once meowing has been effective many times, if by chance you do not feed it quickly after it meows, your cat is likely to meow longer and louder to get your attention. Why not? It has always worked before. Maybe you did not hear it? Anyone who has lived with a cat knows how persistent cats can be and how quickly meowing can become excessive.   

What do I do when my cat’s meowing becomes excessive?

If your cat has been deemed healthy by your vet, you can begin trying to alter his behaviour through environmental changes and behaviour modification. First, try to find out what your cat is trying to tell you. Think about the times that it has meowed in the past. What did you do in response? Did you open the door for it to go out? Did you feed it? Maybe you took out its favourite toy? If you can think of times when you responded as above, you have reinforced your cat’s behaviour. If that is the case, start by ignoring the meowing. Try not to respond to it at all. Leave the room if you have to do so.

Next, reinforce your cat when it is quiet. If it stops meowing for a couple of seconds, give your cat what it is looking for. This is an essential step to stopping your cat’s excessive meowing. 

For those cats who are meowing for attention or food, make sure that the environment is enriched with lots of things to do and safe access to a screened-in porch or sunroom. If your cat is meowing around mealtime, try using an automatic feeder which feeds your cat on a timer. You can also leave food available in toys throughout the day. Removing yourself from the food-cat equation will reduce food-related meowing.

Think about your environment next. Has your schedule changed? Maybe your cat used to have access to the room with the best window for watching birds, but now is kept out of that room. Maybe he used to sleep with you and now the bedroom door is closed. Those types of events cause our cats stress leading in some cases to excessive vocalisation. If that describes your cat, try to decrease stress through environmental enrichment (eg toys, hiding spaces, cat trees, high resting spaces, several feeding and watering stations). In addition, try to give it what it had before (eg a great view of the window) in another room so that your cat feels satisfied.

How can I prevent excessive vocalisation?

The best way to prevent excessive vocalisation is to keep from reinforcing your cat when it vocalises. Those cute kitten mews turn into adult cat howling so make sure not to reinforce any vocalisations that you do not want to continue.

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