Why Does My Older Cat Yowl All the Time? (I’m Trying to Sleep!)

Cat yelling

Meowwwww! By: Mingo Hagen

Has Little Miss Kit turned into Ol’ Yeller? Is that a new techno sound upstairs, or has the old cat just gone over the brink?

The idea of an old kitty yowling and waking up the house may sound funny, but elderly cats who begin to yowl may be suffering from something serious — and treatable.

Many owners living through this find that the noise pollution is no laughing matter. Medically, this is known as excessive vocalization.

Excessive cat vocalization is a common problem in the older kitty. The yowling is more common at night, but some cats vocalize at any time. If an owner has been on the fence about bringing in her aging cat for a vet visit, yowling may be what breaks the owner’s own sound barrier.

I’m Losing My Mind!

“Doc, she’s keeping me up at night!”

“I think she’s in terrible pain.”

“Three o’clock in the morning, and she begins yowling. What’s wrong with her?”

“I got a complaint from my landlord. Now what do I do?”

Cat meowing

Really? At 3 in the morning? By: Libelul

Some clients are worried only about their cat. Others are worried about their own lack of sleep. Some people think their cat has lost his mind. Others are worried about losing their own minds. Let me give you the top reasons we THINK cats vocalize for no obvious reason. Usually there is a reason; finding it may not be easy.

Allow me one clarification. I am not talking about your cat “talking” to you, meowing excessively or purring. Instead, these geriatric cats are yowling or screaming, and they sound distressed. They may walk aimlessly, not trying to communicate with you — just vocalizing. And IT’S LOUD.

We used to think these cats had become senile or demented, and didn’t believe there was a lot we could do. Now we absolutely know there is a direct correlation between certain medical and neurologic conditions, cognitive dysfunction and excessive vocalization.

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 That Cats Vocalize

1. Sensory decline. Kitties losing vision, hearing, or sense of smell can begin to vocalize excessively. Common sense would dictate that a decline in the senses leads to confusion, irritability, etc. My 20-year-old yowling cat reminded me of my dad when his hearing aid batteries pooped out on him. “Dad, you don’t have to scream at me. I can hear you.”

2. Hypertension. High blood pressure, either alone or in association with other diseases, is a frequent finding in old kitties. Some of these cats scream. We can fix this.

3. Hyperthyroidism. Very common in the older kitty, hyperthyroidism can cause excessive vocalization. Are these cats hungry? Hyperactive? Anxious? All of the above? We can fix this too.

4. 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, neurologic pain, to name a few. Are these chronic sources of discomfort making them vocalize? It makes sense.

5. Central nervous system (CNS) disease. Brain tumors occur in cats. The most common tumor is a meningioma, which can be slow-growing and cause behavioral and neurologic changes, and vocalization.

6. Cognitive dysfunction. Although we think a form of Alzheimer’s is more common in the dog, some older kitties show signs of dementia and confusion. As our feline population is growing older and older, we are seeing more of these neurodegenerative disorders. Vocalization can be a symptom of the degenerating kitty brain, and research is being done to better understand it.

Big Reason to Get to the Vet

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.

The Step-by-Step Workup

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A thorough, step-by-step workup at the vet’s office is important for older cats, but especially if your senior cat is excessively vocalizing.

I begin with a thorough physical. Check eyesight, the senses, the oral cavity, body weight, cardiac, etc. Then we get full blood work, a urinalysis and a reliable blood pressure on a yowling kitty.

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.

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 improve. A dental procedure may be recommended if the kitty is in a stable state for anesthesia.

Other sources of pain or chronic inflammation may not be as obvious. Kitties living with subacute pain for a long period of 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 very subjective.

There may be clues in a neuro exam that the vocalization is caused by a central nervous system problem such as a brain tumor. These cats may be circling, seizuring, 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 kitty’s 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 kitty may have a syndrome not unlike Alzheimer’s in humans. There is no definitive test for this problem. I prescribe a number of medications and supplements to see if we can stop or decrease the yowling.

How Many Pills?!

For many owners, medicating these kitties can make drug trials very challenging. You all know that some cats are going to be resistant to getting one pill, let alone up to four or five pills a day.

If my patient is a hyperthyroid, hypertensive kitty with cognitive dysfunction, I may need to prioritize which meds I prescribe first.

This kitty’s pill container could look something like this:

  • Hyperthyroid — methimazole
  • Hypertension — amlodipine
  • Pain — gabapentin and/or many others
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Appetite stimulants

(Some of these medications can be formulated into a transdermal gel, minimizing the pilling.)

Cognitive dysfunction: 

  • Selegeline (not approved but in common usage)
  • SAMe and other antioxidants
  • NuCat Senior
  • Fish oil
  • Melatonin
  • Tranquilizers
  • SSRIs

Lifestyle suggestions:

  • Diet change
  • Acupuncture
  • Regular exercise and sensory stimulation
  • A nightlight!

The upside of all this? There’s a lot of help out there. The downside? Zeroing in on the most important problems and medicating appropriately can be tough.

Please don’t give your cat supplements without checking it out with your veterinarian. Don’t give your cat your mother’s Alzheimer’s meds. This can be very dangerous. The drugs I mentioned may not all be compatible, and your cat may have particular medical problems that put some of these drugs on the “caution” list. This is by no means an exhaustive treatment list. If people have the finances, for example, I like to treat hyperthyroidism with radio-iodine therapy.

I would say you probably can’t go wrong with a low-carb diet, a geriatric supplement like Nu-Cat Senior Supplement (aff), a calm and orderly household, and lots of love and affection for your aging kitty. Beyond that, check with your vet!

book-cover-smallest1Does your senior cat yowl a lot? Tell me about it in the comments below. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love Pets Adviser’s email newsletter. It’s free to sign up, and you’ll be among the first to get alerts about major pet food recalls. New subscribers also get instant access to our 40-page ebook — which has “secrets every cat and dog lover should know.” Learn more here.
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From Around the Web

  • Make It So

    My 17 year old man kitty howls like a madman randomly throughout the day. The worst of it is in the wee hours of the morning like maybe 3am. We did take him to the vet a while back for a blood screening and he indeed does have Hyperthyroidism but he is still going nuts every morning even though further blood screenings have shown the medication has brought his levels to normal.

  • Dr J in So Cal

    CONSTIPATION! My 18 yr old cat’s yowling like he was dying was driving us crazy. Checked by a vet twice, we chalked it up to senile confusion. Noticed he only yowled standing up usually in a room by himself, often with jaw forward. I’m an M.D.. In desperation, I sedated him with Valium, a muscle relaxant then Prozac 2 hr apart! The next day a huge stool was in his box the size of an adult person’s! No more yowling for 3 wk but then started again after no stool for a few days. Colace gelcap every other night has kept him regular with no yowling! That cry really is due to pain. Dr J

    • sophie

      hi! my cat is doing that to! it scares me have to death! WY dose do that?

  • Debora lichtenberg

    I’m pleased you got to the bottom of it. Yes, pain indeed can be a source of yowling. Glad you saw the kitty’s arched stance trying to defecate. Too bad he just couldn’t tell you he was trying to pass a rock of poop!
    Constipation is a common problem in geriatric cats. Expert opinion suggests that low doses of multiple drugs may help these kitties more than just one drug. Miralax (my personal favorite), Colace, senna, psyllium, Cisapride, pumpkin, diet changes…to name the most popular.
    Megacolon is a serious condition and many cats have had their lives saved by colectomies. They usually do extremely well.

  • tcat

    Hey there –

    I have a 15year old russian blue mix male that I adopted there who just figured out how to yowl at 530-6am. It is the most horrible sound I think I’ve ever heard. If I yell “shut up cole” he stops.. But it is still causing me to lose hours of sleep every night.

    I give him food every night at midnight so I don’t think its that.. I just got him checked at the vet and I was told he has the workup of a 5 year old. His eyesight is fine and he doesn’t seem senile at all.very alert.

    Please please help I need to this to stop. I love this cat but I’m starting to resent him.. And that’s terrible