By: Mingo Hagen
Loud yowling may indicate your cat has a serious health problem. By: Mingo Hagen

Has Little Miss Kit turned into Ol’ Yeller? Is that a new techno sound upstairs, or has the old cat just gone over the brink?

The idea of an old cat yowling and waking up the house may sound funny, but elderly cats who begin to yowl may be suffering from something serious — and treatable.

Medically, this is known as excessive vocalization. It is more common at night, but some cats vocalize at any time.


Common Complaints

  • “Doc, she’s keeping me up at night!”
  • “I think she’s in terrible pain.”
  • “Three o’clock in the morning, and she begins yowling. What’s wrong with her?”
  • “I got a complaint from my landlord. Now what do I do?”

Some people who come in are worried only about their cat. Others are worried about their own lack of sleep.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about your cat “talking” to you, meowing excessively or purring. Instead, these geriatric cats are yowling or screaming, and they sound distressed. They may walk aimlessly, not trying to communicate with you — just vocalizing. And it’s loud.

We used to think these cats had become senile or demented, and didn’t believe there was a lot we could do. Now we know there is a direct correlation between certain medical and neurologic conditions, cognitive dysfunction and excessive vocalization.

You have to be willing to have your vet do a thorough workup, which is important for a geriatric cat anyway, and have patience to do some trial drug therapies. This is one area where “traditional” medicine can work nicely with more naturopathic treatments.

Top 6 Reasons That Cats Vocalize

These are the top reasons we think cats vocalize for no obvious reason. Usually there is a reason; finding it may not be easy.

  1. Sensory decline. Cats losing vision, hearing or sense of smell can begin to vocalize excessively. Common sense would dictate that a decline in the senses leads to confusion, irritability, etc. My 20-year-old yowling cat reminded me of my dad when his hearing aid batteries pooped out on him. “Dad, you don’t have to scream at me. I can hear you.”
  2. Hypertension. High blood pressure, either alone or in association with other diseases, is a frequent finding in old cats. Some of these cats scream. We can fix this.
  3. Hyperthyroidism. Very common in the older kitty, hyperthyroidism can cause excessive vocalization. Are these cats hungry? Hyperactive? Anxious? All of the above? We can fix this, too.
  4. Pain. This often requires a diagnostic hunt and a guessing game of sorts, but cats in chronic pain may have periods throughout the day and night when they vocalize. Many older cats have severe dental disease, arthritis, GI pain, UTI pain and neurologic pain, to name a few.
  5. Central nervous system (CNS) disease. Brain tumors occur in cats. The most common tumor is a meningioma, which can be slow-growing and cause behavioral and neurologic changes as well as vocalization.
  6. Cognitive dysfunction. Although we think a form of Alzheimer’s is more common in the dog, some older kitties show signs of dementia and confusion.

The Biggest Reason to Get to the Vet

You may want to just “fix” the yowling so you can sleep, but finding the source of the screeching may also be a lifesaver for your cat.

These diseases can be dangerous if left untreated, so finding and treating the underlying cause can do a lot more than give you back a good night’s sleep. It can add happy years to your cat’s life.

The Step-by-Step Workup

I begin with a thorough physical:

  • Check eyesight, the senses, the oral cavity, body weight, cardiac, etc.
  • Then we get full blood work, a urinalysis and a reliable blood pressure.

If I find hyperthyroidism or hypertension, we treat these conditions medically and see if we make an improvement. This is the fairly easy part of the diagnostic plan.

Pain assessment is more difficult:

  • Often, we find severe dental disease in the physical exam.
  • Arthritis may or may not be obvious.

Are these conditions causing the yowling? Trial pain medication may be prescribed to see if arthritic or neurologic pain improve. A dental procedure may be recommended if the kitty is in a stable state for anesthesia.

Other sources of pain or chronic inflammation may not be as obvious.

Cats living with subacute pain for a long period of time may be very stoic. Weight loss in an older cat is a tipoff that there is a problem. The workup may reveal pain caused by GI disease, pancreatitis, neoplasia and so on, but the level of pain itself is still subjective.

There may be clues in a neuro exam that the vocalization is caused by a central nervous system problem such as a brain tumor. These cats may be circling, seizuring, acting depressed or dull. A definitive diagnosis needs more advanced imaging, such as a CT or MRI, and these cats can do very well with surgery. Often, we tentatively diagnose a meningioma based on the kitty’s symptoms. Medical treatment can be of some help.

If most of the testing on your geriatric cat is normal up to this point, your cat may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction. Because of an aging brain, your pet may have a syndrome not unlike Alzheimer’s in humans. There is no definitive test. I prescribe a number of medications and supplements to see if we can stop or decrease the yowling.

This video features a cat yowling, something that is a regular occurrence every night:


For many people, medicating these cats is very challenging. You all know that some cats are resistant to getting 1 pill, let alone up to 4 or 5 pills a day.

If my patient is a hyperthyroid, hypertensive kitty with cognitive dysfunction, I may need to prioritize which meds I prescribe first.

This kitty’s pill container could look something like this:

  • Hyperthyroid: methimazole
  • Hypertension: amlodipine
  • Pain: gabapentin and/or many others
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Appetite stimulants

(Some of these medications can be formulated into a transdermal gel, minimizing the pilling.)

Cognitive dysfunction: 

  • Selegeline (not approved but in common usage)
  • SAMe and other antioxidants
  • NuCat Senior
  • Fish oil
  • Melatonin
  • Tranquilizers
  • SSRIs

Lifestyle suggestions:

  • Diet change
  • Acupuncture
  • Regular exercise and sensory stimulation
  • A nightlight!

The upside of all this? There’s a lot of help out there. The downside? Zeroing in on the most important problems and medicating appropriately can be tough.

Please don’t give your cat supplements without checking it out with your veterinarian. Don’t give your cat your mother’s Alzheimer’s meds. This can be very dangerous. The drugs I mentioned may not all be compatible, and your cat may have particular medical problems that put some of these drugs on the “caution” list. This is by no means an exhaustive treatment list. If people have the finances, for example, I like to treat hyperthyroidism with radio-iodine therapy.

I would say you probably can’t go wrong with a low-carb diet, a geriatric supplement like Nu-Cat Senior Supplement (affiliate link), a calm and orderly household, and lots of love and affection for your aging cat. Beyond that, check with your vet.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

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  • Make It So

    My 17 year old man kitty howls like a madman randomly throughout the day. The worst of it is in the wee hours of the morning like maybe 3am. We did take him to the vet a while back for a blood screening and he indeed does have Hyperthyroidism but he is still going nuts every morning even though further blood screenings have shown the medication has brought his levels to normal.

  • Dr J in So Cal

    CONSTIPATION! My 18 yr old cat’s yowling like he was dying was driving us crazy. Checked by a vet twice, we chalked it up to senile confusion. Noticed he only yowled standing up usually in a room by himself, often with jaw forward. I’m an M.D.. In desperation, I sedated him with Valium, a muscle relaxant then Prozac 2 hr apart! The next day a huge stool was in his box the size of an adult person’s! No more yowling for 3 wk but then started again after no stool for a few days. Colace gelcap every other night has kept him regular with no yowling! That cry really is due to pain. Dr J

    • sophie

      hi! my cat is doing that to! it scares me have to death! WY dose do that?

  • Debora lichtenberg

    I’m pleased you got to the bottom of it. Yes, pain indeed can be a source of yowling. Glad you saw the kitty’s arched stance trying to defecate. Too bad he just couldn’t tell you he was trying to pass a rock of poop!
    Constipation is a common problem in geriatric cats. Expert opinion suggests that low doses of multiple drugs may help these kitties more than just one drug. Miralax (my personal favorite), Colace, senna, psyllium, Cisapride, pumpkin, diet changes…to name the most popular.
    Megacolon is a serious condition and many cats have had their lives saved by colectomies. They usually do extremely well.

  • tcat

    Hey there –

    I have a 15year old russian blue mix male that I adopted there who just figured out how to yowl at 530-6am. It is the most horrible sound I think I’ve ever heard. If I yell “shut up cole” he stops.. But it is still causing me to lose hours of sleep every night.

    I give him food every night at midnight so I don’t think its that.. I just got him checked at the vet and I was told he has the workup of a 5 year old. His eyesight is fine and he doesn’t seem senile at all.very alert.

    Please please help I need to this to stop. I love this cat but I’m starting to resent him.. And that’s terrible

    • Noisy Kitty

      Maybe he wants a safe place to sleep? My cat has slept either in my bed or on her special chair all her life; if those are not available she won’t sleep and stays up complaining all night until someone comes and clears her chair or brings her to their room. Maybe he’s scared and wants to sleep in your room with you. However if it’s in the morning…maybe he wakes up with the sun. Sun-blocking curtains maybe?

  • grandmapaw

    I just wanted to share that my 22 year old lady seems to meow much less at night as long as she gets extra fat in her diet. It doesn’t seem to matter very much whether I give her a capsule of fish oil, or a tablespoon of 35% cream (her preference)…she seems much better off. The idea came to me last night since I’m currently fixing some of my health issues with a high fat ketogenic diet…a diet which has shown awesome results in human Alzheimer’s patients….perhaps omega 3 & saturated fats are good for the ol’ nervous system in elderly cats too?

  • no mom for 5 min

    My 14 year old cat is deaf and a door, and sight is starting to go. This along with low light is what sets him off screaming in the night. I can not yell at him, he can not hear me. If I turn on a light he spooks and runs away. So glad to see I am not the only one losing sleep out there.

    • Jo

      Again, I highly recommend having your vet run a series of blood pressure checks (at least 5 readings, then average). He is too young to be going blind. High blood pressure WILL cause blindness–among other problems–if left untreated. Please get your kitty to a doctor!

  • Noisy Kitty

    My 19-year-old cat yowls like this, probably for the “neurological changes” thing, and the sensory failure thing. She is completely deaf, but she can tell the difference between her loud yowling and quiet greeting meows. But she yowls on purpose to get attention. We know this because she will come downstairs to visit, and if no one immediately gets up to feed, pet or cuddle her, she goes all the way upstairs and yowls in frustration. And the thing is she knows EXACTLY what she’s doing: she goes into the bathroom, which is in the direct middle of the house, and has a spectacular echo effect, and yowls her heart out. And it’s not aimless or mistaken, she KNOWS it’s bad behaviour, because if you catch her doing it (deaf=you can sneak up on her) she immediately stops and looks like she’s going to get scolded. My cat uses her senility as a weapon, I swear. There is no treating this. Besides, she would have a heart attack just taking the trip to the vet. I love her anyway though, and I’m a heavy sleeper so I can sleep through her weaponized yowling.

    • edie

      i totally agree with your funny and entertaining opinion on why older cats howl at night! my girl is 17 and still somewhat feral.she recently started this god-awful howling and had us scared to death. finally, i got so stressed out from worrying about her that i grabbed the water bottle and squirted it at her! guess what? the “pain” she had been in suddenly disappeared!

  • Jen

    My 16yr old kitty boy howls all.the.time. He’s been thoroughly checked out, has hyperthyroidism and is on meds for it. I just don’t know what else to do! Losing sleep, neighbors are unhappy and you can hear him outside with the whole house closed up. Honestly I’m losing it. I just had to put my 15yr old kitty girl to sleep, heartbreaking. Of course she was the quiet one who never puked or was a problem. The howler has been one well before my other one going to the Rainbow Bridge. I’m going to try the nightlight idea and see how that goes. Thanks to all who shared!

    • Jo

      Howling frequently comes with hyperthyroidism. Are you sure the cat’s T4 is being adequately controlled by his medication? Once controlled, the howling typically goes away.

      I would have kitty checked for high blood pressure. It is a common cause of howling as the article indicates.

  • texasfilly

    My baby is 18 yrs old, has had kidney problems many years ago, has had several teeth removed and is also going ‘blind and deaf’. She will howl really loud, seemingly to locate me because as soon as I talk to her in a level, normal voice, she will gradually stop crying and come to where I am. She cries right after eating, right before and after she uses the litter box, she’s not constipated, and she’ll cry when she ‘wakes up’ to see who’s in the room. She will walk in circles, really tight circles, 2 or 3 times when she gets ready to move somewhere. She has trouble not realizing when there is a drop off, or how far down the drop off is, when getting off a bed or chair or couch. When I asked my vet, he simply said dementia. I don’t know. I saw a show on TV about cats that said when they develop cataracts it effects the inner ear, they loose their equilibrium and will walk in circles and do a lot of loud vocalization. My husband and I looked at each other and said “That’s it!!” So…. I guess my next move is back to the vet or maybe to a different vet?

    • Jo

      Please have your vet do a series of blood pressure checks on your kitty. High blood pressure is extremely common in older cats and will cause blindness, among other things, if left untreated! If your vet has not suggested BP checking, or done a thorough wellness exam to rule out the other disorders mentioned in this article, I would definitely find another vet!

      Hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease are hugely common in cats as old as yours, and could be the reason for some of the symptoms you describe. Without treatment, your kitty will continue to be very sick.

      You said she “had” kidney disease years ago. Are you sure she does not have chronic kidney disease now, given her age?

      It sounds as though she is really suffering. She needs a good doctor! Kudos to you for being concerned enough to seek advice!

  • Jo

    Dr J,
    You were wrong to give your cat Valium, then Prozac!!! Just because you’re a human MD and prescribe human drugs, it doesn’t give you the right to administer such drugs to a cat for which you are not educated or experienced to know what those drugs might do to the animal! I hate that you even mentioned it here, as you have undoubtedly put the idea in some people’s heads that it’s ok to give those drugs to a cat without first checking with the animal’s veterinarian. It was and is very irresponsible of you. And being an MD, you should know better!

    As for feline constipation, Colace is NOT the proper or standard supplement/drug given to control it. Miralax starting at 1/8 teaspoon every 12 hrs is very effective for getting a cat regular. One can titrate up to 1/4 teaspoon every 12 hrs if needed to soften the feces and put the cat on a regular defamation schedule.

    Kitty also needs plenty of liquid to ensure proper hydration, not only to help avoid constipation but also to help the Miralax to work. Feeding canned food only goes a long way towards preventing constipation and helps older cats to combat chronic kidney disease, as well.

    Great article, BTW!

    • Pets Adviser

      Thanks for flagging this issue. We have edited the comment in question, as well as your reply.

  • ali

    Thank you for such an informative article. I adopted my neighbors “20” year old cat (owner said she was 20). At the time she weighed 13 pounds and was covered in fleas. I gave her CapStar and Advantage and flea problem went away. She now weighs 11 lbs, 2 months later, which is concerning me and vet. I switched her to Wellness and she didn’t like it. Her owner gave her Whiskies dry and canned tuna her whole life, so I give her Wellness dry, canned tuna and canned Whiskies (hesitantly, I might add. That stuff is worse than Mc Donalds for humans).
    She stayed inside the first 3 days and by the 4th day she went outside and walked down the street howling like she was dying and/or crying like a baby. It sounded like a cat-call to me; like she was saying- ” I’m back and no more bugs and badder and stronger than ever boys, bring it on!” She only did it a few days after that. That was in April.
    Last week she has been doing it quite a bit. She usually wakes up with sun and meows to go outside, but now she’s more determined to go out and will go to back alley and yowl and cry. She does it more often at their infamous 11 o’clock cat hour.
    I think she’s in heat, but 1. She’s apparently 20 (even though vet said she’s the healthiest cat she’s ever seen) and 2. Apparently she’s spayed!!
    Her last bloodwork was 5 months ago and she’s extremely healthy. She did have constipation when I first got her and she drinks a lot of water and pees a lot. She does not like to go poo in box though, which I find odd. Last time she did, it was regular.
    Does anyone know if she’s in heat if she wasn’t spayed or is my baby possibly getting neurological problems? She acts normal in every other way. Her old owner just said she’s bossy:-) And that she is.
    Oh, she also is setting up camp in my closet (which she rarely does) and a new place in linen closet on shelf with towels. Seems to me, she thinks she’s having babies.

  • hc

    Our boy is almost 17, & he screams like he’s on fire in the mornings…….but ONLY on the weekends. During the week, when my husband is up at 4, & I’m up by 6, it’s fine. On weekends, he can’t stand it if we sleep in. He’s on methimazole, has been on a course of meds for arthritic pain, but he seems fine, painwise……..he can jump easily onto the counter, table, or couch.
    We’ve started using a nightlight, but he still seems confused a lot, & often needs to be guided
    to the sandbox. We’ve had to result to a tarp in the corner behind the front door……he doesn’t seem to be able to remember where to go.