Disruptive Crying and Meowing in Cats
Excessive vocalization refers to uncontrollable, excessive meowing or crying, often occurring at inappropriate times of the night or day. Such vocalization can be due to pain, illness, cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or may be related to a decline in hearing in senior pets.
CDS is often associated with night waking, during which excessive vocalization occurs. Excessive meowing may also be related to behavioral conditions, which may be controlled by behavior modification training.
Cat breeds that are naturally high energy may be prone to excess meowing. Oriental cat breeds, like the Siamese, may be more prone to excessive vocalization. Intact cats, both male and female, are also very vocal during estrus and mating.
Symptoms and Types
- Night vocalizations in senior age cats
- Vocalization during breeding and estrus in cats
- Excessive mewing in high energy cats
- Vocalization caused by pain or illness
- Vocalization disruptive to owners or others
- Medical: disease, pain, CDS
- Anxiety or conflict
- Social or attention-seeking behavior that is reinforced by verbal commands or return of owner to room
- Distress vocalization (e.g. yowling or whining)– often due to separation from mother, family, social group or owner; may be a grieving behavior
- Growling may be associated with antagonistic displays (not just confined to dogs, also occurs with cats)
- Mating, sexual behavior
- Breed – genetic characteristics
If the increased vocalization is out of the ordinary for your cat, you will want to have health problems ruled out before considering behavior modification. Your veterinarian can perform a full medical work-up, including a chemical blood profile, complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis and electrolyte panel, along with a complete physical exam. Possible incidents that might have led to this condition will also be considered, and a thorough history of your cat's behavioral health leading up to the symptoms will be taken into account.
It is critical to rule out a non-behavioral, physical cause of the vocalization first. Imaging can be helpful for ruling out medical/neurological disorders, and BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) testing can be done if auditory decline is suspected.
A plan must be created which is customized to suit your cat and your personal living conditions, your household, and the type of problem, being sure to attempt to resolve the underlying cause before behavioral modifications are begun.
Do not reinforce the vocalization. This means not picking your cat up when it is meowing, but also includes not punishing the behavior, which is still regarded as attention. Instead, positively reward your cat when it is calm and quiet and lead by example by remaining calm as well. Also, counter-condition your cat to calm down when stimulated. Training your cat to be quiet on command will be the priority.
To prevent your cat from becoming accustomed to the attention received by barking or crying, a quiet response can be reinforced using disruptive devices such as alarms or water sprayers. Becoming more attentive to the triggers that cause your cat to meow excessively will help you to distract your cat before it becomes excited or anxious.
Medications might be indicated if there is real anxiety, conflict, excessive responsiveness to stimuli or a compulsive disorder:
- Benzodiazepines on a short-term or as-needed basis when situations of anxiety might be expected or for inducing sleep
- Sedatives may be effective for tranquilizing the cat prior to exposure to stimuli (e.g., car rides, fireworks), but will not decrease anxiety
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCA) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for long-term therapy for excessive and chronic anxiety, combined with behavior modification can be useful for some cats
- SSRIs or clomipramine may help when combined with behavior therapy for compulsive disorders.
Living and Management
You may need to return with your cat to the veterinarian or to a behavior specialist to modify the program based on your cat's particular response. Obedience training and quiet command training are often effective in cats. Cats should be habituated and socialized to a variety of stimuli and environments throughout development, including to other people and pets. This desensitizes the cat to novel experiences, reducing anxiety, and over-excitation.