Is that a new techno sound upstairs, or has your old cat just gone over the brink?
The idea of a cat yowling at all hours of the night and waking up the house may sound funny, but senior cats who begin to yowl like this may be suffering from something serious — and treatable.
Excessive vocalization in cats is more common at night — although some old cats vocalize at any time. Keep reading to learn why this may be happening …
Common Complaints When an Old Cat Meows All the Time
Just to be clear, this article is not about a cat who “talks” to you, meows a lot or is purring loudly.
No, this article is about geriatric cats yowling or screaming — these cats sound genuinely distressed. They may walk aimlessly, not trying to communicate with you — just vocalizing. And it’s loud.
Here are some common complaints I hear as a veterinarian:
- “She’s keeping me up at night!”
- “I think my senior cat is in terrible pain.”
- “At 3 in the morning, this old cat starts yowling. What’s wrong with her?”
- “I got a complaint from my landlord about the cat’s constant yowling. Now what do I do?”
Some people who bring their cat to the vet for this are worried only about the cat’s well-being.
Other people? They’re worried about their own lack of sleep.
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 in cats.
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 an Old Cat Meows All the Time
Below are the top reasons we think cats vocalize for no obvious reason. Usually there is a reason, though finding it may not be easy.
- Sensory decline. Cats who are losing their vision, hearing or sense of smell can begin to vocalize excessively. Common sense would dictate that a decline in the senses leads to confusion and irritability. My 20-year-old yowling cat reminded me of my dad when his hearing aid batteries died. “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 older cats, 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 disease. Cats can get brain tumors. The most common tumor is a meningioma, which can be slow-growing and cause behavioral and neurologic changes as well as excessive vocalization.
- Cognitive dysfunction. Although we think a form of Alzheimer’s is more common in the dog, some older cats show signs of dementia and confusion.
Why You Need to Take Your Cat to the Veterinarian
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.
How Your Vet Will Find the Problem
When someone brings one of these cats to my vet clinic, I start with a thorough physical:
- I check the cat’s eyesight, senses, oral cavity, body weight, cardiac, etc.
- Then I get full blood work, a urinalysis and a reliable blood pressure reading.
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.
Dental or Arthritis Pain
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 improves. A dental procedure may be recommended if the cat is in a stable state for anesthesia.
Other Sources of Pain
Other sources of pain or chronic inflammation may not be as obvious.
Cats living with subacute pain for a long 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.
Central Nervous System Problem (Brain Tumor)
There may be clues in a neurological exam that the cat’s excessive vocalization is caused by a central nervous system problem such as a brain tumor. These cats may be circling, having seizures, or 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 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.
In this quick video, Dr. Wendy McClelland, DVM, explains more about why an old cat meows all the time:
For many people, giving medicine to a cat is hard work.
Some cats are resistant to getting a single pill, let alone up to 4 or 5 pills a day.
If my patient is a hyperthyroid, hypertensive cat with cognitive dysfunction, I may need to prioritize which meds I prescribe first.
This cat’s pill container could look something like this:
- Hyperthyroid: methimazole
- Hypertension: amlodipine
- Pain: gabapentin and/or many others
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories
- Appetite stimulants
Some of these medications can be formulated into a transdermal gel, minimizing the pilling.
- Selegiline (not approved but in common usage)
- SAMe and other antioxidants
- Nu-Cat Senior (more on this below)
- Fish oil
- SSRIs (antidepressants)
Final Thoughts: When Your Old Cat Meows All the Time
There’s a lot of help out there. But zeroing in on the most important problems and medicating appropriately can be tough.
Don’t give your cat supplements without checking with your vet.
The drugs mentioned above may not all be compatible, and your cat may have particular medical problems that put some of these drugs on the “caution” list.
By no means is this an exhaustive treatment list. If people have the finances, for example, I like to treat hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine therapy.
You probably can’t go wrong with a low-carb diet, a geriatric supplement like Nu-Cat Senior Supplement, a calm and orderly household, and lots of love and affection for your aging cat.
Beyond that, check with your vet.