Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My cat Hogan used to meow starting at 6 p.m. You can even set your watch by him. Our other cat died this week and Hogan is now meowing non-stop, day and night. We have tried everything under the sun over the last few years and nothing has worked. He is Burmese and I believe he was weaned too early, but also I think it’s part of his personality.
Soon he will be relegated to the garage at night. I have to get some sleep! He won’t play with toys either. Never has. And he even meows when we give him attention. The water squirter works temporarily — a few minutes at best. I know he’s stressed about the other cat, but he is making all of us stressed too. My last step is to the vet for some kitty downers.
Siouxsie: Well, Pat, you’re not alone in your situation. In fact, excessive vocalization has actually surpassed inappropriate elimination problems in the percentage of letters we receive from cat caretakers!
Thomas: There are several factors that influence a cat’s tendency to meow and howl: breed heritage, physical health, hormones, and anxiety.
Dahlia: Cats whose ancestors include Oriental breeds such as those in the Siamese and Burmese family generally tend to be more vocal than breeds such as Persians. Some people say that’s because Oriental cats are high-strung, but as a cat with some Bombay and Burmese heritage, I would like to state for the record that it’s only due to our superior intelligence!
Siouxsie: Some health issues can cause excessive noisiness. Hyperthyroidism and senior cognitive dysfunction, for example, cause sufferers to become much more vocal. If your cat has suddenly started meowing more, or the tone of his meowing has changed and taken on more urgency, we strongly recommend a trip to the vet to rule out any health problems.
Thomas: Female cats in heat will howl and call in order to advertise to males that they are ready to breed. Male cats can begin yowling and crying, too, when they detect a female cat in heat. The only solution for this problem is spaying or neutering.
Dahlia: The final problem, anxiety, is the most difficult to solve. We cats can become anxious and stressed over things that humans may not even consider, like the smell of dogs or other cats on the shoes of people who live in our home or come over to visit.
Siouxsie: Strange animals walking through our yard, or the sound of barking dogs from neighbors’ houses, can also freak us out.
Thomas: And as you’ve seen, Pat, if a cat is already vocalizing excessively because of anxiety, a huge stressor like the loss of a feline companion can send the behavior spiraling out of control.
Dahlia: So what’s a beleaguered cat caretaker to do?
Siouxsie: In a previous column we talked about steps you can take to de-stress your cat and avoid unwittingly providing positive reinforcement for your cat’s excessive vocalization.
Thomas: But it sounds to us like your cat’s anxiety and grief have reached a point that you need the help of a professional behaviorist.
Dahlia: Certified behaviorists have a body of knowledge that includes basic anatomy and physiology, counseling, behavior training, and special needs of cats. Generally a behaviorist will visit your home and do an assessment from the cat’s perspective. The individual can then counsel you on changes you can make that will decrease your cat’s stress level.
Siouxsie: Then the behaviorist will decide which training technique or techniques will work best to help your cat become less stressed. You and the behaviorist will work closely together, because you will take over the training when the behaviorist isn’t at your house. The success of behavior modification depends strongly on the willingness of the owner to follow the behaviorist’s recommendations and not stop the treatment too early.
Thomas: To find a behaviorist, ask your vet if he or she knows of any cat behaviorists in your area. If not, check the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, an organization that provides a set of competency standards its members are required to meet in order to receive accreditation. The IAABC also has a consultant locator tool on its website.
Dahlia: Vets have prescribed anti-anxiety drugs for cats with stress behaviors that their owners haven’t been able to modify with regular and persistent training.
Siouxsie: The keywords here are regular and persistent. In other words, no matter what training techniques you try, they’re not going to work if you only use them for a few days — or even a few weeks or a few months. It took years for your cat’s problem to reach this level of severity, and this isn’t like a TV show where a crisis is resolved in 45 minutes and everybody lives happily ever after.
Thomas: You’ve got to be willing to do the work, and do that work for as long as it takes to get your cat feeling better.
Dahlia: For what it’s worth, your cat is at least as miserable as you are. If you’ve ever suffered from an anxiety disorder yourself, you know that constant gnawing in your stomach or the overwhelming feelings of doom, and the trembling you just can’t stop no matter how much you try to “talk yourself down” to a normal state of mind.
Siouxsie: Anxiety shortens our lives because all of our body’s systems are on constant alert. No living creature, human or animal, can survive in that state of mind without harming our health.
Thomas: It’ll be well worth the effort once Hogan is feeling happy and relaxed — and you can get a good night’s sleep.
Dahlia: We hope we’ve been able to help even a little. Please let us know how things go with Hogan.