The Cat's Meow! Caterwauling in Cats

By Anne Dagner, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

The cat’s meow conveys many messages. “Hello." “Let me in.” “Let me out.” “Give me food.” “Clean my litter box.” You know your cat and understand the normal vocabulary. But when the usual meow turns into the high-pitched, drawn-out, howl-yowl called caterwauling, you may need an interpreter!

What is caterwauling?

Caterwauling is hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it! This disturbing sound is a combination of a yowl, a howl, and a whine. It is melodic and melodramatic. It’s persistent. It means, “Pay attention! Something is up!

Most caterwauling is directed at humans, so we must decipher this cat language. Cats also speak to each other by caterwauling, but the message is loud and clear in feline circles. No interpreter needed!

Why do cats howl?

Cats caterwaul to communicate many needs and emotions, including the following:

Physical problems: Cats that are in pain will often make noise! If their tummy hurts, or they have arthritic joints, or they are injured, they frequently vocalize. Cats with systemic medical problems like thyroid disease or kidney malfunction (often associated with high blood pressure) may howl, too. Any number of ailments can cause caterwauling. If your cat begins making strange noises, start with a visit to your veterinarian to rule out medical problems.

Hormonal reasons: When female cats are in heat, they make strange noises to alert males in the vicinity. Males, in turn, respond with equally strange noises to let the females know they heard the mating call.

Danger warnings: Cats are territorial and protect their turf. If a stranger (animal or human) comes inside their protected perimeter, they may caterwaul. Even if the intruder stays outside, they may yowl. Expect some singing if your cat sees “trespassers” through a window, such as birds, squirrels, or mail carriers.

Insecurity. Cats don’t like change. They often become anxious if new people or pets join the family or if the existing family moves into a new home. Cats may become frustrated if their human gets a job or goes to school and leaves them alone. Caterwauling may be them telling you they are insecure or unhappy with their new circumstances. Stressed-out cats can really make noise!

Desire for attention: Even the most aloof cat may sometimes crave your attention. What better way to get it than yowling? Maybe your cat needs some affection. Maybe they need some water. Maybe they’re just bored and want a playmate. Maybe they want to see if you’ll jump at their caterwauling command.

Disorientation or cognitive dysfunction. Like humans, cats can experience cognitive changes as they age. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), more than 55% of cats aged 11-15 and 80% of cats aged 16-20 have some form of cognitive dysfunction. Senior cats may approach the food bowl but forget to eat. Others may exhibit repetitive behaviors like pacing the floor. And some aged cats caterwaul.

Cats are historically nocturnal creatures, but with cognitive dysfunction, cats may howl at all hours. Since older cats often have hearing loss, they may turn up the volume on the evening concerts. With declining vision, they may wander aimlessly and stumble around the house and as they become increasingly frustrated, the caterwauling may escalate even more.

How can I make caterwauling stop?

Since the reasons for caterwauling vary, you may need different tactics to alleviate the behavior. Here are a few suggestions:

Visit your veterinarian to rule out medical problems. Even if your cat sees the veterinarian regularly, take them in as soon as you notice behavior changes. Your cat may have developed a new medical problem. Early diagnosis of thyroid disease, kidney malfunction, arthritis, or other ailments may mean more effective treatment. The right medical remedy may also remedy the caterwauling.

“Fix” the problem. If your cat’s caterwauling is hormonal in nature, get him or her “fixed”. Female cats should be spayed (ovaries and uterus removed) before their first heat cycle. Male cats should also be neutered (testicles removed) at an early age. Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best time for the procedure. In addition to eliminating hormonal caterwauling, you will help reduce the cat overpopulation dilemma.

Reassure territorial cats. Cats that resist having a human or animal enter their domain may need reassurance. Comfort your cat with physical attention while gradually introducing the newcomer. If your cat howls at people, animals, or birds that are outside, restrict their view temporarily by closing the shades or drapes. Of course, if your cat likes to look outdoors for entertainment, they may become bored and howl for another reason! Moderation here is key.

Deal with night-time insecurities. If you have an insecure night-time caterwauler, try to anticipate their needs and fill them before the noise begins. Make sure they are not hungry or thirsty. Give extra attention. Stay within the cat’s visual range, which may mean having them sleep in your room. But here’s where it gets tricky - don’t reward caterwauling. It’s okay to lavish your cat with attention to prevent caterwauling, but not to stop the caterwauling. Don’t reward whining! If you do, your cat will quickly recognize that caterwauling gets them what they want.

Reset your cat’s timetable. If your cat stays awake at night and naps all day, you may need to adjust their biological clock. Cats are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal (active at night). Encourage your cat to stay awake during the day by providing entertaining toys. Before nightfall, engage them in active play to tire them out. Then provide quiet time as the household prepares for bed.

Schedule mealtime. Cats are free feeders, nibbling at will, but a meal schedule may reduce caterwauling. Try feeding your cat in the morning before you leave for work and again in the evening, around dinner time. Follow the evening play session with a late dinner, which will ensure they stay full overnight. Just remember to provide fresh water all the time.

Keep the litter box clean. Scoop in the evening so your cat has no excuse to complain about the litter box in the middle of the night!

Keep your cat warm. Keeping your older cat comfortable, especially at night, may reduce anxieties. Older cats cannot regulate body temperatures as well as younger cats. They crave warmth, so place their bed out of drafts and provide an extra blanket.

Leave the light on. Cats normally see well in the dark, but cats with vision problems, especially older cats, may need additional light to navigate the house at night. A simple night light can help an elderly cat with visual deficits or impaired cognitive function feel more secure, which may reduce nighttime caterwauling. Remove obstacles and clutter to further reduce stress and frustration.

Play music. A radio set on low volume will remind your cat that they’re not alone. This helps at night and during the day when you are away from home.

Cat lovers think their cat is the “cat’s meow”! We love hearing them purr, but listening to caterwauling is no fun. Learn to interpret this disturbing cat language. Understand what your caterwauling cat is trying to communicate. Meet his needs, then end the conversation!

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