Mind of the Cat: 12/04

Dr. Lindell explores the scenario of the cat that talks too much. (Hint: Sometimes, were the cause!)

My cat just talks and talks and talks. Imagine that. Why would a cat have so much to say? And what is she saying, anyway?

Cats do have a large vocabulary. We have done our best to interpret the meaning behind the words, so to speak. But we have a long way to go. We have all heard the conversational meow, the plaintive howl and the perky chirp. And often, perhaps out of courtesy, we talk right back to our cats.

But why do some cats take their talking just one step too far – so much so that people might actually consult a veterinarian or a behaviorist in an attempt to have some peace and quiet? In some cases, a cat is simply genetically predisposed to vocalizing. Certain breeds of cats are known for their conversational tendencies. Individual cats that are very social are often very talkative. They continually seek new ways to interact with their companions.

When It May Be a Problem
Is all this talking normal? Well, sometimes. When presented with a complaint of excessive vocalization, the first question that comes to my mind is When did this begin? If a cat has been quiet all of her life and then takes to speaking incessantly as a senior, it is essential to search for possible causes for this change. First, it is important to do a thorough medical work-up. Any pain or illness may lead a cat to vocalize, perhaps to express her discomfort or to signal that she needs assistance. Loss of hearing or vision can be disconcerting, leading to increased vocalization.

If no medical conditions are evident, then the next consideration should be a possible environmental change. A relocation or remodeling project might cause stress, which in turn could lead to vocalization. The addition of a family member, of any species, should be considered a possible trigger. In fact, even a pending change can stimulate a sensitive cat to begin to speak out as family members become excited and begin to make their own adjustments.

What if everything is status quo? Then it is important to determine whether other behavioral changes have accompanied the recent onset of talking. As cats age, they may suffer from cognitive decline. Sometimes, disorientation is evident. Cats may begin to seek new resting places, or become less interested in spending time with the family. They may begin to soil outside their litter boxes, or pace rather than sleep through the night. Cognitive dysfunction must be identified as it can be controlled with appropriate behavioral modification and medication.

Are You Encouraging Cat Chat?
What about the young cat that just wont stop talking? Of course, it is again important to be sure that he is healthy. Then, consider how his person responds to his talking. Suppose a little mew generates a kindly Whats up, Harry? Just imagine what a full meow will bring! And so the behavior develops. One meow, person talks back.

Next, the person is a little busy, so does not respond until the third meow. Harry learns that he must work just a bit harder for that reply, considering that perhaps he is not speaking quite loud enough. So he now blares out with three loud meows, waiting for the What do you want, Harry? Then one day his person is very involved in a project, trying desperately to ignore all distractions, when a series of loud meows is heard. Finally, Im in here! and now you have it – intermittent reward resulting in a behavior that is inclined to last.

The scenario I have just described is one that would most likely occur in any behaviorally sound cat. It simply reflects a normal pattern of learning. And, as such, this vocalization is likely to decrease in frequency and intensity if the reinforcement ceases. That is, as the person declines to respond, the cat will be less motivated to speak.

For some cats, though, the need to receive a reply reflects a need for attention that is much greater than average. This intense demand for attention may reflect an underlying anxiety great enough to prevent normal learning. When an anxious cat is ignored, he may vocalize with a much greater intensity. Or he may develop a new behavior that is even more detrimental than the original, perhaps causing damage to himself or to your property.

If your cat vocalizes excessively and the technique of ignoring does not yield rapid results, then it is important to consider your cats overall anxiety level. The anxious cat requires a special treatment plan that addresses the triggers for vocalization and gradually reduces the responses to these triggers. Your veterinarian or a behaviorist should be consulted so that a humane approach can be developed.