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San Diego Humane Society

Behavior Challenges: Excessive Meowing

Does your cat meow nonstop for food? Or maybe he is waking you at 3 a.m. with his special song? If so, read on!

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Why Is Your Cat Vocal?

Many cats enjoy a good chat now and again, whether their talkative tendencies come from genetics or they’ve learned through their interactions with us. Cats can produce over 100 different types of sounds, and while they mostly use non-verbal body language to communicate with each other, many cats have learned that vocal behavior is an excellent way to get our attention!

Let’s be real. Many cat owners talk to, sing to and have full discussions with their cats (we see you, it’s ok, this is a safe space). Your cat has very likely learned that you react a certain way when they respond to you or when they vocalize on their own. Your response might include talking back, feeding or playing with them, coming over to see what they’re doing or responding in some other direct way.

This level of engagement is very reinforcing, or rewarding, for our cats, who are naturally social animals! Even when we’re upset and think our response isn’t reinforcing to our cats… well, they don’t always agree, because any attention can be perceived as worthwhile attention — especially if, in their mind, they are “starving” or “it’s been forever” since the last play or snuggle session.

Like us, cats use their vocalizations with us and other animals to communicate many things, such as wants or needs, or to express pain, frustration, warnings or distress. While many sounds are endearing, such as the “ek ek ek” sound they’ll direct at bugs, small birds and the occasional thumbtack, some are less so. For example when unaltered cats yowl in relation to mating behavior or scream during territory disputes with other cats. Most of us have also experienced a cat hissing or growling to communicate a boundary, as a warning or to express fear or pain.

As we can see, vocal behavior is a natural and important part of our cats’ ability to communicate. Setting fair expectations around what vocal behavior is “appropriate” by our standards is an important first step before deciding to implement training to modify it. So, how do we address inappropriate vocal behavior or shift already existing vocal behavior patterns?

Don’t Reward Unwanted Behaviors, and DO Reward Wanted Behaviors!

Rewarding behavior you want to see is crucial for changing your cat’s behavior. Take note of when they tend to be vocal — is it around mealtimes? Has it been a while since you played or interacted with them? Are there are other cats or animals outside? Before they have a chance to start vocalizing during those more predictable times, reward your cat and give them treats, praise, playtime or affection in moments when they are quieter. Conversely, if they begin meowing at an inappropriate time, do not respond. Try leaving the room or doing something unrelated to your cat that might catch their interest enough to stop them from vocalizing. When they do stop meowing, invite them to engage with you in some way and reward them for being quiet.

Meet Your Cat’s Needs & Manage the Environment

Cats thrive on routine! In fact, the “Cat Activity Cycle” is Wake up --> Play --> Eat -->Groom --> Sleep --> Repeat! Set a daily schedule your cat is accustomed to, and you can easily maintain. This will also make it a bit easier to build habits around rewarding the behavior you want to see because you’ll be operating around a predictable schedule.

Cover the basics by making sure your cat always has a clean litter box and fresh water, and that their diet is adequate. If your cat seems hungry all the time, consult your veterinarian to ensure there are no medical concerns and to see if some supplementation or feeding more small meals throughout the day would help.

It is also important to consider that some cats will vocalize when they are in pain or are distressed. Consulting a veterinarian to rule this out is an important first step, especially if the behavior has developed recently. Changes in the features (volume, intensity, pitch, consistent changes in tone, etc.) of the vocalizations themselves can also indicate changes in health.

Meowing for attention/engagement:

Remember to also provide your cat with stimulation, such as toys and exercise, regardless of whether they are an indoor or indoor/outdoor cat. New toys you buy or DIY, food puzzles and the occasional catnip toy will keep them from getting bored. Make your playtime interactive by incorporating toys like wand or fishing-pole toys and feathers that your cat can chase. Avoid laser toys – many cats get frustrated or distressed that they cannot “catch” the laser, and for some this can lead to an increase in undesired behaviors, including vocalizations. Whenever you introduce a new type of toy, monitor your cat’s interactions with it to ensure it will be safe. Some cats will destroy some types of toys, and sometimes those toys can result in unintended health hazards for our cats like choking or blockages.

Meowing at night:

If your cat is meowing constantly at night, try adding some enrichment activities for them to do before bed, such as feeding meals in a puzzle toy or creating a scavenger hunt! Providing enrichment activities throughout the day or before that last feeding will also help to tire them out.

Oftentimes a shift in feeding routine also helps! While cats shouldn’t be free-fed, you can keep their daily measured dry food portion freely available. Most cats are grazers, and will nibble their kibble throughout the day, but some will scarf their portion down early and then be hungry again later — sometimes much later, while you’re trying to sleep! For these cats, try splitting their daily portion into multiple servings, the last of which is put out right after a play session and shortly before you go to bed. This will help the cat activity cycle line up with your sleep schedule a bit better. Don’t have time to play one evening? This is another situation where (premade if needed) enrichment activities can help! You can also manage their vocal behavior around asking for food by using automatic feeders, because meowing at you no longer makes food appear!

Keep in mind, some cats are “social eaters”, meaning they like company while they eat. If snacking is currently a social behavior for you and your cat, find other ways to keep that routine going — maybe around treat delivery for other appropriate behavior or sitting with them while they engage in a food-based enrichment activity!

Window wars:

As we’ve mentioned cats can be quite vocal when it comes to seeing, hearing or smelling other cats outside the home. Sometimes it can get a bit intense and involve other less desired behaviors such as inappropriate scratching or urine marking. Closing blinds or removing access to spaces where they are interacting with other animals can help — this management can be ongoing or situational/seasonal. If removing access to one window, be sure to provide access to less active windows so they don't lose that wonderful source of enrichment! 

Be Patient

Whenever you are teaching a cat a new behavior or changing unwanted behavior, remember that it takes time and consistency on our part for cats to learn a new routine or behavior, or to learn a previously “rewarded” behavior is no longer effective. 

Some Situations Require a Different Response

If your cat is grieving:

Like us, cats grieve. If they have recently lost a companion they had a bond with — of any species — they may walk around the house and meow in search of them or just be reacting to the change. It is important to support your cat in the ways they seem to need it. This might look like extra snuggles, playtime, or some extra enticing treats if they’re eating less. It may also look like sticking to a familiar routine so they’re not adjusting to even more changes. If you have significant concerns over behavior changes, speak to your vet.

If you have a new cat in your home or have moved into a new home with your cat:

Cat’s typically struggle with change, and it can take them 7-10 days to recover from a significantly stressful experience. When a new cat comes into your home, remember they’re coming from a stressful experience already and then having to cope with additional change. It can take weeks to months for a cat to feel more fully settled and comfortable in a home. Some cats will vocalize when stressed, and it’s important to be patient and try to help them feel as comfortable as we can (which sometimes means giving them space and quiet time, rather than rushing to bond). If you have another cat or other pets in the home, you will also likely hear them vocalizing during the introduction process. Watch this lecture on Introducing Pets to set up for successful interactions!

If a normally quiet cat has become very vocal:

Any sudden changes in vocal behavior or in the vocalizations themselves can indicate a medical concern and should be checked out by a vet. If the changes seem to clearly be environmental – a new cat in the home or yard, loss of a pet, changes to the routine or home composition (work school schedule changes or people moving in/out) you can try addressing them through training. For support, San Diego Humane Society offers online cat training classes you can also contact a cat behavior specialist.

Behavior Helpline: Contact Our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within seven days, but responses may take up to two weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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