Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My 2 1/2-year-old cat, Pickle, will not stop meowing in the mornings. We tried completely ignoring him for two months, we tried squirting him with water every time he meows, we tried a scat mat (he has a particular spot he meows from) and we have tried a Sssscat motion detector air sprayer. I am at my wit’s end. He has a vet appointment today about this, but I’m afraid I may need to re-home him. I will take every step possible to avoid re-homing him as he thinks of our 4-year-old as his mom and has since he was 5 weeks old. He does not function well without the 4-year-old. Any advice would be appreciated. Is there a surgery similar to de-barking a dog for cats? Please help me before I have a mental breakdown; I have not slept a full night in about five months now!
Siouxsie: Well, Marion, there are a couple of reasons why cats meow excessively. If Pickle is a Siamese cat, he’s going to be quite vocal anyway, since that’s the nature of Siamese cats.
Thomas: However, it’s possible that there’s some sort of stress factor at work that’s making him want your attention early in the morning.
Dahlia: You say the meowing started about five months ago. Can you recall anything that happened around then that might have caused stress for Pickle? Did you move house? Did your family’s schedule change? Did your daughter start going to day care? Did another animal in the house die? Did he have a medical procedure? Did you change Pickle’s food or litter? Any of these things can stress a cat and cause behavior changes.
Siouxsie: If Pickle is a very people-oriented or needy cat, changes in home life can cause high levels of stress. A cat who was adopted at the age of 5 weeks was probably weaned too early (unless you had the mother in your home at the time), and prematurely weaned cats can develop excessive dependency on the people in their lives for stimulation and company.
Thomas: Another possibility is that Pickle is bored. A bored cat, like a bored child, will do whatever it takes to get attention–even if it’s negative attention.
Dahlia: We’ve never heard of “de-meowing” surgery for cats. Even if there was such a thing, we wouldn’t recommend it. Cutting the vocal cords–whether on a dog or a cat–does not silence the animal; it only makes the vocalizations quieter. It also does not solve the problem that caused the excessive vocalization in the first place.
Siouxsie: The best choice you can make is to find ways to relieve Pickle’s anxiety and do behavior modification so that he doesn’t have a reason to continue this unacceptable meowing.
Thomas: Feline behaviorist Pamela Johnson-Bennett recommends the ignoring treatment for excessive vocalization. You said you tried ignoring the behavior for two months in hopes that he would stop. We suggest ignoring again, but this time, add a couple of elements to the ignoring plan.
Dahlia: If you have an extra room in your house–or even a room you don’t use at night, such as an office or a study–we’d recommend you turn that room into Pickle’s bedroom. The room should be comfortable and pleasant and contain everything Pickle needs: a bed, toys, food and water, and a litterbox. Obviously, it should have a door that closes firmly.
Siouxsie: Ideally, the room should not be the same one where Pickle does his morning meowing. He may be seeing something outside the house that’s agitating him.
Thomas: If it has to be the same room, or it has to be on the same side of the house, you’ll want to close the curtains or blinds when you put Pickle to bed. This may prevent him from seeing whatever gets him meowing.
Dahlia: Make sure the litterbox is as far from the food and water dishes and the bed as possible. Cats don’t like to excrete where they eat. Put a small radio in the room and tune it to a mellow station.
Siouxsie: Before you go to bed at night, play a rousing game of Thing on a String or Cat Fishing. Ten or 15 minutes of this should help Pickle wind down and get ready for a good night’s sleep. Maybe your daughter can help you with this. Since your daughter and Pickle are good buddies, they can play together and enjoy some quality time.
Thomas: In fact, your daughter could play with Pickle more than once a day. We love it when Mama’s nieces come to visit and play with us! If Pickle is bored, regular play will help him feel better and more relaxed.
Dahlia: Make sure to teach your daughter not to use her hands as part of the play. She won’t enjoy playing with Pickle if she gets scratched or bitten regularly!
Siouxsie: Cats like play that stimulates their hunting instincts. When you or your daughter plays with Pickle, make sure to move his toys like a mouse or bird would move rather than flinging the toy all over the place and expecting him to chase it.
Thomas: Another benefit of play is that it will tire Pickle out and make him more likely to sleep through the night.
Dahlia: When you bring Pickle to his room at bedtime, take some time to pet him and love him. Turn on the radio at a very low volume. That background noise may help Pickle feel less lonely and stressed.
Siouxsie: We’d recommend that you use a feline pheromone diffuser in the room as well. These diffusers, sold under the brand name Feliway or Comfort Zone, send out pheromones that cause a cat to feel relaxed and happy. Mama has used Feliway successfully to deal with stress-related behavior problems.
Thomas: A package containing a bottle of Feliway and a plug-in diffuser costs about $50 US at most pet stores and veterinarians’ offices. Replacement bottles to insert in the diffuser are also available.
Dahlia: This program of playing, putting Pickle to bed in his own room, and using Feliway should help to eliminate the excessive meowing.
Siouxsie: If nothing else, it’ll make it hard to hear him carrying on in the wee hours of the morning–and therefore make it easier for you to ignore him.
Thomas: Your veterinarian may recommend a short course of treatment with anti-anxiety drugs. If his meowing is related to severe stress, this could help. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to resort to medications, but just as with people, some cats need to take medications to get their brain chemistry back on an even keel.
Dahlia: Don’t reward Pickle’s inappropriate behavior by giving him attention. Of course, scolding and punishing (such as squirting with water) are forms of attention.
Siouxsie: You’re going to have to be patient and persistent, but we do think you can get Pickle’s excessive meowing under control if you use the steps we’ve outlined above.
Thomas: Good luck, Marion. Please let us know how things turn out.