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What’s in a Meow?
by David F. Kramer
Few things touch the heart of a cat lover more than those first few mews of a newborn kitten. In reality, however, the language of the cat has much more to do with humans than with cats. Over the course of thousands of years of domestication, the modern cat has turned the humble meow into a unique way of communicating with its people, rather than with other cats. This employment of exclusive human-feline communication is indeed a thing of mystery.
“Cats communicate to each other through body language, body positioning, scent marking, and facial expression, as well as through purrs, chirps, hisses and howls. Rarely do they meow around and to each other when people aren’t present,” says certified cat behavior consultant and Cat Coach Marilyn Krieger. “Meows are reserved for people—they communicate a cat’s state of mind and emotions. They also convey needs, such as wanting to be fed, petted, or let in or out.”
So, pet owners are the true masters of the meow. With all of this meowing business meant just for us, you’d think we’d be happier to hear from our cats on the regular. But if your cat’s vocalizations are getting on your last nerve, here are some potential causes, as well as some techniques that might just quell all of this cat-speak.
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
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Boredom and Breed
When we find ourselves bored or anxious, we might be prone to making small talk to fill the void. Your cat is no different, and a lack of things to do or play with might very well bring out the orator in your feline. If late-night yowling performances from your cat have become the norm, there are some actions you can take to keep your cat interested in doing things other than vocalizing.
“Don’t leave cats alone for long periods of time without anything to do,” says Krieger. “It’s a great idea to adopt bonded pairs of cats—they keep each other entertained.” She adds that it’s important to “provide lots of enrichment, including vertical territory, boxes, paper bags without handles, scratching posts, ball and track toys, and other safe toys that can’t be dismembered and swallowed.”
The answer to fighting boredom, says Krieger, is to get involved in your cat’s life. Have regular play sessions, treasure hunts with puzzle toys that hold treats, or begin a program of clicker training that can modify some undesired behaviors. Some cat breeds, Krieger advises, are considered to be chattier (Siamese, Abyssinians, Burmese, Bengals, and others), so potential owners should be aware of what they might be getting into when they choose a breed to own.
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Not surprisingly, a prime source of increased feline vocalization is hunger, whether actual or perceived. If your cat believes that a noticeable dent in its food constitutes it being “empty,” then you’re bound to hear about it—and will probably continue to hear about it until the bowl has been topped off. According to Krieger, you might be better served by changing your cat’s feeding regimen.
“Cats that demand food should be fed small meals 4-6 times a day,” recommends Krieger. “There are timed, automatic feeders available that will dispense food on a schedule. Some have ice packs—perfect for wet food. Also, enriching the environment with vertical territory and places to hide, along with ball and track toys, can help.”
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Some people enjoy the sound of their cat’s voice. “When people like the meowing, they can reinforce it with attention and treats,” says Krieger. But, she adds, “there are times when the meowing is problematic, such as in the early morning or late night, while people are trying to sleep. In addition to not reinforcing the behavior, the reasons behind this behavior need to be identified and addressed.”
Training your cat to “unlearn” this behavior can be difficult, and the fact that folks love holding conversations with their pets doesn’t help much. “Many cats and people do answer back and forth to each other, holding ‘conversations,’” Krieger says. “It works both ways. People enjoy the interaction—they like that their kitties answer them, and the kitties like the attention.”
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Pay Attention to Me!
The fact remains that the reason your cat is so noisy and demanding might just be your doing. There’s a fine line between positive and negative reinforcement of your cat’s behavior—and staying on the right side of this line can be difficult.
As mentioned previously, the most common reason for your cat’s meowing is probably the most obvious one—it gets results. In the same way that a human infant discovers that by crying it can receive food, comfort, and attention, your cat is just as quick in making the mental leap between the meow and being rewarded with what it wants.
This habit can be tough to break—for both you and your cat. Rewarding quiet behavior is a possible remedy, says Krieger, but it will require you to ignore your cat’s pleas for attention, and rewarding your cat with affection when she is sitting quietly. Attention seeking meowing, claims Krieger, can be stopped gradually, and without the use of negative reinforcement when your cat is vocal.
“First, it’s important to address the need for attention when the cat is not demanding attention with play sessions, treasure hunts, clicker training, and other activities,” says Krieger. “At the same time, the meowing is never reinforced with attention. When the cat is quiet, she is reinforced. Clicker training is a very effective tool for this.”
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As cats age, they can lose their faculties in the same way we do. “There are a number of factors that can cause an elderly cat to meow more or louder. Kitties who are losing their hearing often increase the volume since they can’t monitor the level of their vocalizing,” says Krieger. “Diseases and pain can also cause cats to vocalize,” she says.
Physical and behavioral changes related to age can manifest as stress, anxiety, compulsive disorders, and litter box problems; any one of these physical or mental changes can lead to changes in your cat’s vocalization. “Kitties that have feline cognitive dysfunction often walk around meowing,” says Krieger.
Sometimes, these little ones can be found at night sitting, facing a corner, and meowing. Whenever there are changes in behavior, including meowing, cats need to be checked out by a veterinarian.”
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Pain and Other Medical Factors
Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Elkins Park, PA, says that excessive vocalizations from your cat can be a sign of pain or illness and shouldn’t be ignored.
“Pain is the most common cause of increased vocalization,” he explains. “The source of the pain can often be difficult to find, as cats tend to hide when they’re hurting. The pain might be dental, orthopedic, or abdominal, among others. In addition to pain as the cause, we see animals that are blind, diabetic, with thyroid problems, as well as cancer,” all of which, he says, can lead to increased vocalization. “For some cats, vocalization just says that something is wrong, and it’s the job of you and your vet to find out what that is.”
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Finding a Solution
If “cat-erwauling” has become a problem in your home, it’s always best to take your cat to the vet for a full medical evaluation, says Denish.
“If your pet is deemed medically healthy, then the vet will look for environmental or neurological causes such as stress or anxiety, as well as abnormal interactions with other pets and humans at home,” he says. “Medications can be given, but only in cases where your vet feels that it would be beneficial. These might include herbal meds as well as real medications to calm a pet down or decrease its level of anxiety.”
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