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Cats that Talk and Talk...Dealing with Hypervocalization

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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All cats have a voice but some are more vocal than others. This is true on an individual basis and breed basis. Orientals are the quintessential loud mouths; they unabashedly voice their concerns in their own unique way using characteristic deep, loud throaty meows. Persians and Maine coons are generally much less vocal.

Whether a cat is hypervocalizing or not, depends to some extent on the breed and on the circumstances. What may be excessive for a Persian may be par-for-the-course for a Siamese. What may be an overreaction to life in the living room may be an appropriate reaction for a cat stuck in a closet. But owners tend not to consider such matters when labeling a cat hypervocal. All they are concerned with is how loud, how long, and how often. When faced with an apparently hypervocalizing cat it is as well to consider why the cat is vocalizing before trying to stop the racket.

Cat Language

Cats make a series of different sounds, some pure sounds and others composite or complex sounds. They all mean slightly different things. Many of the simple sounds signal aggression e.g. the growl, hiss, shriek, and spit. However, there are more pleasant sounds, like the highly versatile murmur, used as a request or greeting, the squeak of pleasure, and the ever-welcome purr. Complex sounds include the mew, meow, and the guttural moan. The term hypervocalization is usually reserved for excessive meowing as a means of energy release, attention-getting mechanism, or long distance communication.

Interpretation

Having determined that a cat is truly hypervocalizing (meowing loudly and excessively to the distraction and perhaps sleeplessness of the owner), the next step is to determine why. One tomcat I described in the lead chapter of my book, The Cat Who Cried For Help, cried all night after she was made an indoor cat. I imagine that her nocturnal crying was an expression of the frustration she felt at having her freedom taken away. Some cats may have learned to hypervocalize to get attention while others have medical causes underlying their hypervocal behavior. Below is a list of possible factors involved:

  • Motivational conflict (access limited)
  • Attention-seeking
  • Pain or hunger
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety/Fear
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Estrus
  • Brain tumor
  • Feline hyperesthesia
  • Cognitive dysfunction

    Diagnosis

    To determine which of the above factors is operating in any particular case, it is important to take into consideration the cat's age, breed, sex, neuter status, it's environment, living circumstances, the history of the problem (recent onset vs. long standing), events coincident with the onset of the problem, the owner's reaction to the cat's vocalization, and possible medical factors.

  • Motivational conflict is often seen when an outdoor male cat is brought inside and yearns for his former life.

  • Attention seeking is a learned behavior fueled by the owner's positive reaction to the cat's vocal demands.

  • Pain or hunger is usually self-evident.

  • Aggression involves triggering by an adversary.

  • Anxiety and fear occur situationally (e.g. when cat is left alone, during car travel, etc.).

  • Compulsive vocalization is repetitive, monotonous, and seemingly without a cause.

  • Hyperthyroidism occurs in older cats that also show other signs of this disease (ravenous appetite, weight loss, bouts of hyperactivity, etc.). This condition is definitively diagnosed at the vet's office by means of a blood sample for T4 level.

  • Estrus (heat) can cause intact female cats to hypervocalize. Not all owners recognize heat for what it is. To some it appears unexpectedly and mysteriously as sudden onset displays of rolling, rubbing, and, yes, hypervocalization.

  • Brain tumors occur most commonly in older cats. The history is one of late onset changes in personality and alterations in behavior. Hypervocalization may be a feature in some cases, perhaps reflecting pain or disorientation.

  • Feline hyperesthesia usually occurs for the first time in middle age. It is characterized by enlarged pupils, skin rippling, frenetic self-grooming, aggression, and, sometimes, hypervocalization.

  • Cognitive dysfunction may cause some older cats to wail. Other behavioral changes will be evident to, including disorientation, altered social interactions, sleep disturbances, and perhaps, house soiling.

    Treatment

    A treatment program depends on the cause. Obviously, pain, hunger, and medical conditions, if involved, should be addressed first. Motivational conflict arising from frustrated wanderlust tendencies can sometimes be addressed by castration. Females that yowl incessantly when in heat can have their temporary displays of hypervocalization eliminated by spaying.

    Hypervocalization as an attention-getting behavior should be conscientiously ignored, i.e. treated by attention withdrawal on the part of the owner. Note, however, the problem may get worse before it gets better. To hurry the process of attention withdrawal, the owner can use a "bridging stimulus," a neutral sound used to signal the owner's imminent withdrawal of attention or departure from a room. Duck calls, tuning forks, or sounding a low note on a piano may be used as bridging stimuli. The idea is not to punish but rather to signal to the cat that there is about to be a transition.

    Environmentally induced hypervocalization should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Aggression between cats should be assuaged using whatever means it takes. Separation anxiety should be treated by desensitization and, perhaps, medication. Compulsive disorders usually direct that environmental enrichment strategies and medication are employed. For non-medical causes of hypervocalization, should medication be necessary, it is as well to ask your vet to consider either an anxiety-reducing drug like alprazolam (Xanax®) or buspirone (BuSpar®), or an anti-depressant. The best anti-depressants to try are probably clomipramine (Clomicalm®), fluoxetine (Prozac®), or paroxetine (Paxil®).

    Cognitive dysfunction may respond positively to deprenyl (Anipryl®).

    There can't be much worse a plight than living in a house with a cat that howls all day and night ... or even just all night. Very often, by the time owners get round to seeking help for this problem, it has escalated to the point where they are necessarily seeking help for themselves. If medical factors are involved and can be addressed, then all is well and good. But make no mistake; hypervocalization from purely behavioral causes is not a piece of cake to treat. Sure, it can be controlled with drugs if need be, but behavioral modification strategies can take a long time and are not often successful.

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