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.
- “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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Selegeline (not approved but in common usage)
- SAMe and other antioxidants
- NuCat Senior
- Fish oil
- Diet change
- 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, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed March 11, 2015.