Why is my cat persistently crying?
Most owner complaints about feline vocalisation are either to do with the intensity and persistence of the vocalisation, or the fact that it occurs at night, when family members or neighbours are trying to sleep. Attention getting behaviours, sexual (oestrus or male) behaviours, play behaviour, medical problems, discomfort and aggressive displays are the most common reasons for feline vocalisation. Of course, since some cats are quite active at night, it is not surprising that many owners are concerned about their cats night time vocalisation and activity. Some breeds, such as the Siamese are much more likely to be vocal than others.
What can be done to prevent undesirable vocalisation?
Providing sufficient play and exercise during the daytime and evening may help to schedule the cat so that it sleeps through the night. For details on feline play see unruly, destructive and nocturnal cats. Never reward vocalisation by providing food, attention, or play, when the cat vocalises. Mild outbursts of vocalisation can either be ignored or interrupted with remote punishment techniques such as a water pistol, compressed air, loud verbal ?no?, or an alarm device, but never through physical punishment.
Understanding the problem
The cause of the cat?s vocalisation, those stimuli that are associated with the onset of the behaviour as well as all factors that might be reinforcing the behaviour, must be understood. For some cats, especially those that are middle aged or elderly, veterinary examination is recommended to rule out potential medical causes of vocalisation such as pain, endocrine dysfunction and hypertension. Some older cats may begin to vocalise as their senses or cognitive function begins to decline (senility).
Modify the environment
If the cat can be denied exposure to the stimuli for the vocalisation (e.g. the sight or sounds of other cats), or prevented from performing the behaviour (e.g. keeping the cat out of the owner?s bedroom at night), the problem can often be successful resolved.
Modify the pet
The most important aspect of a correction program is to identify what may be serving to reinforce (reward) the behaviour. Many owners inadvertently encourage the behaviour by giving the cat something it values during vocalisation. Attention, affection, play, a treat, allowing the cat access to a desirable area (outdoors, indoors) are all forms of reinforcement. Reinforcement of even a very few of the vocalisation outbursts perpetuates the behaviour. Although removal of reinforcement (known as extinction) ultimately reduces or eliminates excessive vocalisation, the behaviour at first becomes more intense as the cat attempts to get the reward. This is known as an extinction burst.
Physical punishment should never be utilised in cats. Not only is it ineffective at correcting most behaviour problems, it can also lead to fear and anxiety of the owner, people in general or being handled and petted. Although ignoring the vocalisation, so that the cat receives no reward for the behaviour, is the best solution, in the long run it can be difficult to do. Punishment devices can be used to interrupt the behaviour immediately and effectively. A spray of water, an ultrasonic device, an audible alarm or a quick puff of compressed air (from a computer or camera lens cleaner) is often effective at stopping the behaviour, and at the same time ensuring that the cat has received no form of reward. Punishment that is not immediately effective should be discontinued. With some ingenuity, remote control devices can be used to activate punishment devices and therefore remove the owner as the source of the punishment.
What can be done for cats that vocalise through the night?
For those cats that vocalise through the night, it is first necessary to try and reschedule the cat so that it stays awake and active throughout the daytime and evening. Food, play, affection and attention should be provided during the morning and evening hours, and as many activities as possible must be provided for the cat during the day (cat scratch feeders, activity centres, or perhaps even another pet). Drug therapy may also be useful for a few nights to help get the cat to adapt to the new schedule. Older cats with sensory dysfunction and geriatric cognitive decline may begin to wake more through the night and vocalise more frequently. These cases will need to be dealt with individually depending on the cat?s physical health.
If the cat continues to remain awake through the night, there are two options that might be considered. The first is to lock the cat out of the bedroom by either shutting the bedroom door, or confining it to a room or crate with bedding and a litter box for elimination. If the cat is ignored it may learn to sleep through the night, or it may be able to keep itself occupied if there are sufficient toys, activities or another cat to play with. Under no situation should the owner go to the cat if it vocalises (even to try and quiet it down) as this will reward the behaviour.
If the cat must be allowed access to the bedroom, inattention, and punishment devices such as an ultrasonic alarm, compressed air, or a water sprayer, can be used to decrease or eliminate the cat?s desire to vocalise.
Will neutering help?
If your cat is an adult male or female and not yet neutered, then some forms of vocalisation are associated with communication, especially with regard to oestrus cycles and mating. Cats in oestrus are particularly vocal ?calling?. Neutering should help to reduce vocalisation in these cats.
Neutered animals still may wish to go outside and roam. If there are other cats in the neighbourhood that frequent the home territory, this may encourage your cat to vocalise. Blocking visual access, and providing ?white noise? may help if you are unable to get the outdoor cats to leave your property.