Have you ever noticed how “chatty” our cats can get around dinner time? Cats have developed a way of communicating with us by meowing. Yep, that’s right, your cat has trained you to help him/her out and some of us probably even reply and chat back at them! A cats’ meow can indicate many different emotions and needs such as hunger, attention seeking, displeasure or happiness. Each emotion/need often has its very own unique meow; the yowl is a particularly important one to recognise as an owner. The cat yowl is one generally used to communicate frustration, fear, discomfort.
Cats are less “chatty” in the day as often we are busy around the house, constantly interacting with them and so they already have our attention. Exceptions to this include certain breeds that are inherently chatty by nature such as Bengals, Siamese or Burmese to name a few. At night when we are resting, cats’ yowl to get our attention and most commonly this is the older cat in need.
What are the main reasons my cat would suddenly develop this behaviour?
Pain, frustration or confusion, hormonal changes and some illnesses lead to your cat calling out for help or yowling. However, the likely cause depends to a great degree on their age.
The younger cat:
Cats with anal gland issues may yowl after a night-time bowel movement to let you know they are sore and in some discomfort. As may a cat with cystitis or urinary discomfort. Other sources of pain include acute injuries, chronic joint pain, generalised abdominal pain, eye pain. Obviously, a new behaviour or communication from your cat should never be ignored. You should seek veterinary advice to determine the cause and treat the problem.
More common in female cats, hormonal changes occur seasonally between February and October. This is called coming into oestrus or “calling” and tends to cycle every 2-3 weeks within these months. The typical female call is a loud, prolonged vocalisation, usually at night, which can sound quite distressing and is usually accompanied by arching of the back and rubbing on furniture. It’s not uncommon for the newer cat owner to panic and call an emergency vet in this situation as it really can look like your cat is in serious trouble! Rest assured, it is normal, your vet can discuss neutering to reduce or stop the behaviour. And keep your cat safe from unwanted pregnancies and other hormonal induced illnesses.
Our older cats:
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS)
Older cats can develop cognitive dysfunction (a reduction in brain function and sharpness) similar to that in humans termed senility or dementia.
Older cats can develop the symptoms of CDS as a primary condition related to age changes affecting the brain itself, or secondary to other diseases such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, blood pressure changes, renal failure and more. Diagnosis of CDS is therefore only possible after other diseases have been ruled out.
Typical symptoms include spatial disorientation (confusion about where they are i.e. being “stuck” in a corner of the room); temporal disorientation (confusion about what time it is – i.e. yowling for food after having just been fed); relationship changes (changes in how the cat interacts with family members); altered interest in food; changes in activity (either sleeping more or pacing) and very commonly a development of inappropriate vocalisation or yowling. Typically yowling in this instance communicates frustration or confusion. Such as the cat that is “stuck” in the corner of the room and can’t work out how to get out. The cat, in this example, is directly asking for help and is distressed by the situation. So obviously it is important not to ignore our older friends as they need more support as they age.
Talk to your vet about how best to support your older cat. It is likely your vet will discuss with you keeping the environment as static as possible (not moving furniture around), modifications to help your cat move around easier (ramps, moving feeding stations, lower sided litter trays etc), drug therapies and supportive diets.
One of the most common diseases to cause our older cats to yowl at night is hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a term used to describe an overactive thyroid gland that is producing too much thyroid hormone. Excessive thyroid hormone leads to an overactive metabolism, raised heart rate, often a raised blood pressure. The resultive symptoms are weight loss, increased appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, hyperactivity, and vocalisation. It is thought the excessive vocalisation created by this disease is due to overstimulation of the nervous system leading to signs of anxiety such as pacing, restlessness, overactivity and of course the classic yowl.
A common complication of hyperthyroidism is also raised blood pressure, which in turn could lead to pain in the form of a headache or ocular discomfort. If you suspect hyperthyroidism in your cat, a thorough veterinary examination and blood test should be performed. An examination will include listening to your cats’ chest, checking their eyes and measuring their blood pressure which will ensure the whole disease is treated and give your cat the best quality of life during their older years.
Eye function can deteriorate in the cat, especially the older cat leading initially to “night blindness” (a difficulty in seeing at night and moving around in the environment) and potential then full visual loss. Again, this can be distressing for our cats who are naturally nocturnal and enjoy playing or hunting and being active at night. They like to tell us about it too!
Hyperthyroidism isn’t the only disease that our cats suffer from that lead to vocalisation and so your vet will perform a physical exam and likely a blood test to determine the cause. Your history (the signs you see at home) will also help the vet work out the most likely reason for your cat’s change in behaviour.
Diabetes can cause your cat to develop excessive thirst or hunger and so they may become more vocal and yowl for attention to “beg” for more food. Kidney disease can cause your cat to experience sickness and discomfort. 60% of cats with kidney disease also were found to have a high blood pressure. Hyperthyroidism, as above, is also a disease commonly leading to raised blood pressure.
Raised blood pressure in cats can cause problems in many body systems. It puts pressure on the heart to effectively pump blood around the body which can “tire” the heart muscles leading to a “heart attack”-like situation. Raised blood pressure can also put a strain on the eyes as the pressure within the eyeball raises also and can lead to the lens of the eye being disrupted and potential complete loss of vision. It is very important that blood pressure is closely monitored and corrected in our cats to ensure they stay healthy and well, whatever the underlying cause. Yowling at night is a feature of raised blood pressure due to discomfort; but also due to disorientation and inability to see around the home and therefore frustration and confusion.
If in doubt, get it checked out!
If you notice a change in behaviour in your cat, it is advised that you seek veterinary advice to ensure your cat stays healthy and happy for as long as possible. Note down any patterns in behaviour you can identify and think about your cats’ general habits, have they changed. Are they more active, less active, do they eat well, have they developed a ravenous appetite or are they now really picky. All this information together with a clinical exam will help your vet determine the cause of vocalisation and treat it.