“Do they never go to sleep?” —Mowgli, The Jungle Book
I’VE HAD MANY CLIENTS WHO CAME TO ME SAYING THEY HAD NOT had a good night’s sleep in years because of middle-of-the-night meowing. Others were about to be evicted because of their cats’ nonstop or early morning meowing. Some are simply dumbfounded that their cat can consistently beat a 6:30 A.M. alarm clock by meowing at 6:28 A.M. The excessive-meowing consult has become my favorite over the years because I can so profoundly change the lives of the cat owner and the cat. Finally able to get some rest, they say I’ve added ten years to their lives, helped them keep their apartments (and their jobs, now that they’re no longer so sleep deprived that they can’t function), and even saved their marriages.
The most common meowing complaint I hear has to do with the early morning wake-up call, the most popular time being in the most wee of hours of three to five A.M. Even with your head buried under a pillow, that meow can sound like an airplane during takeoff. The cat will relentlessly try to pass himself off as a rooster until you show signs of waking up to give him attention or feed him. Why? Maybe his hunting clock has been set to go off around dawn. (But it can be reset to evening, as I will explain.) Or maybe he was aroused by some commotion nearby. Cats have excellent hearing and can hear rats’ high-pitched calls and even (according to one recent study of tickled rats) rats’ giggling, not to mention outside cats in the midst of territorial fisticuffs, and mice or squirrels in your attic or behind your walls. These are among the many possible reasons your cat could be meowing (or yowling—making an even louder and more insistent sound) excessively or at inappropriate times.
The original cause might also be a medical issue. I’ve seen quite a few diabetic cats who ate continually yet were still unsatisfied and feeling hungry: I’m eating and it’s not working! If your cat is geriatric and has both increased her meowing and reversed her day and night behaviors, she may have feline cognitive dysfunction (a fancy way of saying she may be senile). Given how many medical problems can contribute to excessive meowing, it’s very important to have your cat fully checked out—with blood work, urinalysis, and any other diagnostic testing your vet might recommend.
Health issues that could cause a cat to meow excessively include diabetes, thyroid issues, arthritis, an impacted or full anal gland, tooth pain, or any other kind of pain.
Besides health issues, the situations leading to excessive vocalization, in approximately descending order of likelihood, are:
• a hunting clock that is set for morning instead of evening
• separation anxiety
• cat trained by you to meow to get what he wants (a problem that can be involved in many of the other issues in this list)
• pent-up energy or emotion needing to be released (boring or stressful environment)
• change in environment (e.g., after a move)
• change in schedule (yours or his)
• loss of family member
• meowing has become a self-rewarding habit and just feels good!
• a cat that is just naturally more vocal than others
• a talkative owner may have a more talkative cat
• the cat had been living outdoors and has been brought to live in the house
• the cat is in heat—in which case the yowling will be temporary but will recur periodically for as long as she remains unspayed
Interestingly enough, meowing is a form of communication that is mainly directed at us. Adult cats rarely choose vocalization to communicate with other cats, and when they do it’s usually to communicate fear or aggressive intent. Cats communicate with one another primarily by way of scent marking and body language. But being the most vocal of all species, we humans respond most readily to vocalization, so cats who live with people have learned that meowing is the best way to communicate with us and get us to pay attention to their wants and needs. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that many domestic cats have evolved a sort of purring (or gurgling) meow that seems specifically targeted at humans, who apparently find it hard to resist. When in Alexandria, do as the Egyptians do. Not only do cats speak to us, but they listen, too. Cats can learn the meanings of certain words, especially if the words are associated with things they like, such as food, treats, or various activities they enjoy. Of course our tone can be just as important as our words in communicating our meaning.
If at all possible, you should try to find out why your cat is meowing, so that if there is any environmental stressor involved, or medical issues, you will be able to address it. However, even if you’re not sure why your cat is meowing, the techniques in the C.A.T. plan will eliminate or dramatically decrease excessive vocalizations. The sooner you start on these techniques, the better, because you want to prevent him from rehearsing the meowing behavior over an extended period of time, creating a habit that will be harder to eliminate.
C.A.T. Plan for Excessive Meowing
CEASE the Unwanted Behavior
Drug therapy is usually not necessary. Consider medication only if you’ve followed all of the instructions below and the meowing or yowling continues.
Daytime or Nighttime Vocalization—No Reaction
Most cat owners unwittingly cause or exacerbate their cats’ excessive vocalization by reacting to it, usually with some form of attention. No matter what, do not give your cat any response when he meows. Do not tell him “No!” If it’s nighttime, do not even roll over in bed. Nothing. Do not even dream about him. Never, never pick him up, not even to put him in another room—the pick-up is a reward, never mind the subsequent banishment. If your cat meows at five in the morning and you get up, you have just trained your cat to meow at five in the morning. The same is true if he meows and you feed him. The worst thing you could do would be to let your cat meow for thirty minutes and then react. If you give in after a half an hour, you have successfully taught your cat to meow for up to half an hour. See? Cats are trainable.
They can even train you!
Daytime Vocalization—The Snub of the Queen
If your cat meows when you’re in the same room, leave. His mother did the same when he did something undesirable, and he still remembers it. (If he follows you, go to another room and shut the door behind you.) Return only after he has ceased his meowing for a full three seconds. Over time, your cat will get the idea that meowing leads to the immediate withdrawal of your presence and the end of any chance of receiving attention from you—and that when he is quiet he can enjoy your presence again.
I must warn you that when you withdraw your attention, your cat’s meowing may increase temporarily. If this happens, you will know that you were definitely reinforcing the meowing. Now he’s acting as if you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’ and he’s trying his hardest to get the old familiar response out of you. He may even hit upon ingenious solutions like knocking over the bedside lamp or dragging books from their shelves. But stick to my plan. He’ll stop.
If your cat typically meows at particular times or in particular places that you have learned to identify, you can anticipate the meowing and distract him with a toy or other activity before he starts it. Use the toy or activity to lure him away from the area where he usually meows. But be sure not to bring the toy after he begins, because then it becomes a reward for meowing. Battery-operated or hand-maneuvered toys can provide him with a release for the pent-up tension or emotion that can lead to excessive vocalization. You can also offer your cat a box filled with toys and catnip, or food puzzles to engage his mind.
If you’re able, free-feed your cat to reduce any meowing for food. If you feed your cat on a schedule:
• then, for daytime vocalization, put the food down before he starts meowing. Do not wait until he begins asking (and asking) for food or he’ll draw the clever causal connection that you are manipulable by meowing. If it’s feasible, you might consider having your cat rely on a timed feeder instead of you. Timed feeders have been a boon for many of my clients whose cats once crowed like roosters.
• and he meows in the middle of the night or early in the morning, make sure he has a chance to eat something before he goes to bed, preferably right after playtime.
Take a good look at your cat’s feeding schedule. Is he getting fed enough food, often enough, throughout the day? Meowing can be a normal response to hunger. If you are not free-feeding, or making food available at all times (see Chapter 5), you should feed your cat several times a day. Use a timed feeder to dispense the food.
A Nice Place to Sleep
Make sure you have addressed the problem of outside cats or rodents. Deterrents (see Chapter 9) are the best way to discourage outside cats from coming around.
Should you confine your cat for nighttime or predawn vocalization? In short—no! Many people try to resolve the problem by confining the cat in a room of the house (or, to avoid possible destruction, a kitty playpen or crate) where they can’t hear him. If they can’t get the cat far enough away, they play music or white noise to cover the most insistent meowing. These attempted solutions will only keep you from hearing your cat’s meow. Except under circumstances too rare to be worth mentioning, they won’t stop the meowing, or eliminate the source of any distress your cat is feeling.
If you turn down the heat at night, make sure you provide your cat with a warm place to sleep, or a heated cat bed. This can be critical for older cats.
ATTRACT the Cat to a New Behavior
Accentuate the Positive
If your cat likes to be brushed, talked to, or played with, or to receive treats, give him what he likes, but only when he isn’t meowing. Cats learn by experience and they will repeat behaviors that give positive outcomes. For added insurance, try clicker training to reward positive behavior, as described in Appendix A.
Reset the Time Clock
If your cat is vocalizing only at night or in the early morning, then, in addition to all of the above, you may need to reset his internal clock for evening instead of morning. To do a reset, complete a ten- to thirty-minute prey sequence every night about a half hour before you go to bed, for two to four weeks. After the playtime, feed your cat something. It can be a few treats or his regular food. If one of his feedings is normally in the afternoon or early evening, save a portion of that food for playtime right before bed. (See Chapter 5 for more on how to complete a prey sequence.) You’ll usually see consistent results with this technique after about two weeks. I’ve had clients report results in just a few days. With some cats, you may need to continue the prey sequences every so often to continue the good behavior.
TRANSFORM the Territory
Most cats sleep a good chunk of the day, but if you have a job that keeps you out of the house most of the day, you have no idea how much your cat is sleeping. Your cat may be meowing only or largely because he’s bored out of his wits. He meows to release pent-up catness. The solution is to provide him with stimulating daytime activities to keep him up during the day and give him dark rings around his eyes by nightfall. I recommend more play of any kind. Throw balls for your cat, wake him up during the day, or even get another cat to keep him on his toes. Clients tell me that after putting in place daily workouts for their cats, their roles became reversed, and it was the clients who, in the mornings, woke up the cats, who were as dead to the world as teenagers. (See Chapter 5 for a full explanation of how to create a more stimulating environment.) I particularly recommend toys that you rotate in and out of use every day, climbing perches, window perches, food or treat puzzles, and tunnels. My cats really like battery-operated toys . Cats can spend a good hour on any of these toys. More playtime and mental exertion during the day can mean more sleep time during the night and wee hours of the morning.
Next, review your cat’s environment for stressors. Can he easily get to all of his important resources? Is another cat blocking his access to a litter box or feeding area? Increasing and spreading out important resources throughout the home can be critical to decreasing the anxiety that may be leading to his excessive vocalizations. Pheromone products in spray and plug-in form can also help reduce anxiety-based meowing (see Chapter 5).