The Mind of Your Cat: 08/03

Question: My cat is 14-years-old and I wonder why he cries so much. He has always cried a lot, but as hes gotten older, it has gotten worse. I cannot allow him in my bed at night as he is always kneading my skin and I cannot sleep. He is also walking between my legs as if to trip me. When I am in the kitchen he lies right at my feet where he is sure to get stepped on. What is wrong with my cat?

Answer: Perhaps there is nothing wrong with your cat! Cats are fabulous talkers. They have a wide vocabulary, producing many sounds. Cats growl, hiss, meow, cry and chirp, to name a few. When heard in context, the sounds seem to reflect emotions that range from dissatisfaction to pleasure.

An individual cat may vocalize for one of many reasons. First, some cats by nature simply talk a lot. Undoubtedly, there is a genetic component to this tendency. (The breed that comes to mind is the Siamese.) Even without a strong genetic predisposition toward gab, many social cats can be encouraged to talk. They discover that their vocalizations are well rewarded. A simple meow is likely to result in the appearance of a special person. In addition, there may be the reward of treats, playtime, an extra meal, or an opportunity to be stroked.

The cats that have learned the value of vocalizing may be motivated by different factors. Some cats are simply demanding. (Even controlling!) Should we anthropomorphize, we might suggest that these cats appear to derive satisfaction from watching us perform for them. They may stay on one side of a room and meow to invite us to approach. They may bat a toy under the bed and meow for us to retrieve it for them. Vocalization serves them well. Treatment strategies for these cats may include teaching alternative, and quieter, ways to signal. In addition, these intelligent cats can be taught to work for us; we need not continue to work for them.

In contrast to confident, controlling cats are those cats which vocalize in response to an underlying fear or anxiety. In particular, many cats vocalize as an expression of anxiety when they are separated from those they care for. The barrier may simply be a door. Or, it may be a psychological barrier, such as when a cats person is talking on the telephone and is temporarily unavailable. Behavior modification techniques are available to reduce a cats anxiety in a wide number of situations, including separation-related anxiety.

There is another very important potential cause of vocalization in a healthy 14-year old cat: a medical condition. Any senior citizen cat that exhibits a change in his pattern of vocalization should be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. A cat may vocalize as a consequence of a wide variety of medical conditions. Hyperthyroidism, pain, and hearing loss are examples.

Finally, once your cat receives a clean bill of health, a behavioral assessment should be done: Some cats appear to experience cognitive decline as they mature. The condition has been compared to Alzheimers disease in people. Some affected cats become restless at night as the family tries to sleep. Other cats exhibit signs of disorientation. They lose interest in their toys or even lose interest in other household cats or people. If learned behaviors are affected, cats begin to eliminate in unacceptable places or resume scratching items that had previously been avoided. Your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can perform a behavioral assessment to confirm a diagnosis of cognitive dysfunction. There are behavior modification strategies as well as medications available to help slow the progress of this condition. Some of the strategies are not very different from those applied to people.

From the examples you provided, it is apparent that your cat prefers to be as close to you as possible. He positions himself to assure physical contact, even risking the pain of being inadvertently kicked. While you are sleeping, your cat may comfort himself by kneading.

When your cat cannot attain adequate contact for his comfort, he may cry for you. Perhaps you have, in the past, acknowledged his cry. You might have come directly to him, offering him great relief. Or, you might have simply chatted back to him, offering him considerable security regarding your whereabouts. Your cat could rely on the verbal interaction until physical contact was once again available.

As I mentioned earlier, there is probably nothing wrong with your cat. Still, if we are certain that there is no medical basis for the behavior, and the vocalization is not secondary to cognitive decline, then the behavior can most likely be changed. Before a treatment strategy can be developed, the behaviorist will need to learn the circumstances in which the undesirable vocalization occurs.

Other helpful information will include your cats response to various stimuli including his being separated from you. It would be helpful to learn how you have responded to his cries in the past. Then, a diagnosis can be determined and a very specific treatment plan can be developed. You should be able to enjoy your cat as much as he seems to enjoy you.