WHEN CATS CALL AT NIGHT
Copyright 2008 Sarah Hartwell
Night-time calling is also known as nocturnal vocalisation or nocturnal calling and is not the same as caterwauling (a mating or territorial behaviour often termed "yowling"). There are three main reasons a cat will call out to its owners at night: physical distress, insecurity or senility (now termed Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome). Cats that call out at night due to insecurity or senility may also call in the daytime when the owner is out of sight.
Other causes of calling (night or day) are attention-seeking, food-seeking or to solicit play. Cats have been known to sit imperiously by a grooming brush, toy or an empty food bowl and call for their humans servant. Some cats call out during or after using the litter tray even though they're not in discomfort - the best explanation anyone has come up with is the cat announcing the tray is in use (the cat equivalent of an "engaged" sign) and the need to come and clean out the used litter. A colleague’s cat, Basil, sits at the top of the stairs calling out until his owner makes an appropriate response and he runs downstairs for a fuss – this is a game for him. These sorts of calling are usually easily identifiable!
This article mainly deals with night-time calling due to insecurity and to "senility" (now being referred to as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome - CDS - by feline behaviourists). Although these are different, they share the common issue of the cat feeling vulnerable and abandoned.
1. Physical Distress
Physical distress means the cat is in some sort of predicament or pain. This can range from physical disability to a feline intruder in the house to getting tangled up in soft furnishings. Owners can reduce the risk of nocturnal predicaments by restricting night-time access to some areas of the home. The predicament isn't always predictable! I was once summoned to the aid of a neighbour's young cat that had come through the cat flap one night and called for help after being been cornered by resident cats Sappho and Affy (they were thoroughly enjoying tormenting it).
Other physical reasons for night-time calling include deafness (deaf cats often lack a volume control!), blindness (the cat needs help orienting itself), high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism. A vet needs to rule these out before the calling is considered a psychological issue.
An insecure cat is often clingy or spends its time hiding in a safe den; its "toileting accidents" will be due to marking its indoor territory against other cats. In general, an insecure cat has full mental faculties and may be physically fit, but still feels vulnerable (often ascribed to loneliness by owners). It may try to keep in physical contact with its owners to provide a sense of security. Cindy felt secure as long as some part of her body touched me - she often sat on the floor with her tail resting on my feet.
Where physical contact isn't possible, the cat tries to stay in vocal contact. It may call out when the owner is out of sight. The owner goes to check on the cat and the habit begins. The cat has a feeling of abandonment when the owners vanish at bedtime leaving the cat alone and the house quiet.
Insecurity can be a temporary issue with a new cat. It has found itself in unfamiliar surroundings and until it settles in it may call out for attention and reassurance. Once Cindy settled in fully she detached her tail from my feet and established several preferred resting places round the house and garden.
3. Senility (Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome)
Just as the developed world's human population is ageing, our pet cats are also living longer. Thanks to improvements in nutrition, veterinary medicine and general care, around 2.5 million of more than 7 million pet cats (about 35%) in Britain are now considered seniors. The ratios in North America and Australia will be similar. As cats age, they undergo physiological changes. Their senses of hearing, smell and sight deteriorate. The cat's compensation mechanisms often means owners are unaware of deterioration until it becomes advanced. Senior cats sleep more and exercise less, are more rickety and heal more slowly. Memory may deteriorate and elderly cats can become forgetful and confused. Added up, these age-related changes mean changes in behaviour, some of which pose problems for owners. Around 1 in 4 cats aged 11-14 will develop at least one behaviour problem. In cats 15+ years old, 1 in 2 will develop a behavioural issue.
A cat developing CDS (often termed as "senile" as most sufferers are elderly) will typically show several of the following behaviours to some degree:
A cat with CDS may become disoriented and forgetful and call out because it needs help in resolving its mental confusion. As the ageing cat's ability to protect itself declines, it becomes more dependent on its owner for security. Just as humans were once described as entering a second childhood (become more dependent on carers), an elderly cat may become kittenlike in its increasing dependence on carers and its mishaps (but will have far less energy than a kitten).
Night-time calling (nocturnal vocalisation, nocturnal calling) is found in both senile and insecure cats. It is most common in older cats as their physical and mental abilities decline. It is more common in cats that sleep away from the owners; though not all owners want their cat on or in the bed with them especially if the cat has other age-related behavioural issues.
Some cats also call out during the day if the owner is out of sight which suggests over-attachment to the owners and se tion anxiety. Such cats frequently crave physical contact and may vigourously mark people and objects through cheek rubbing. This high need for reassurance and owner contact is understandably reinforced by supplying attention more-or-less on demand.
The night time call is a forlorn miaow or plaintive wail from a cat that believes the household has abandoned it at bedtime. When the humans have gone to bed, forlorn cries come from the cat's sleeping place as it tries to maintain contact. When this first manifests, it causes panic-stricken dashes as the owners believe the cat is injured or distressed. They are likely to be met with a feline greeting and solicited for stroking. Because the owner generally runs to investigate and provide reassurance, the calling habit is reinforced.
If the owners have learnt to ignore the original plaintive "distress call" the cat may change calls. In my cat, Sappho, I learnt to ignore a rising call ("question") only for Sappho to adopt a forlorn descending note call. Having learnt to ignore that call also, Sappho adopted a hoarse and persistent wail that sounded genuinely distressed (such as a claw painfully caught in the curtains). Such wails are extremely hard to ignore.
Possible Solutions There is no one-size-fits-all solution to night-time calling. These tips will need to be adapted to your particular situation and to the cat's needs. You will need to address any problem of over-attachment or se tion anxiety if the cat also calls during the day. Physical Proximity Some cats are amenable to moving their sleeping quarters into the bedroom if it doesn't conflict with another cat's territorial rights. Sometimes the calling stops when the cat is allowed to sleep in the bedroom or on the bed where it feels most secure. This depends on any litter-tray forgetfulness and on the owner's willingness to share the bed with their cat. Proximity - or physical contact - make the cat feel safer, though not all owners can let their cats to sleep under the covers or on the pillows. However, senile cats may well leave the bedroom during the night and wander elsewhere in the house, perhaps initially for food or toileting, only to become confused and start calling out.
An alternative is to move human sleeping quarters closer to cat, though only the most indulgent owners are likely to try this on a long term basis. It is only recommended if there is a physical cause that requires monitoring and there is a reason it isn't feasible to bring the cat into the bedroom. On the occasions when I slept next to Sappho on the sofa, her midnight call was delivered at full volume and point-blank range into my left ear - mere human presence wasn't enough, human interaction was required. This may be the reason the cat isn't allowed to sleep in the bedroom in the first place.
Nervous Mustard appears reassured by being allowed in bed at night. During the night she may move to other sleeping places before returning to bed. I've noticed that all her other preferred sleeping places are "dens" and not in the open and that she needs enclosed areas in order to feel secure when not with me.
Voice Reassurance If the cat sleeps in one place and you have an baby intercom you might try setting it up so that you can talk to the cat via the intercom. If your cat only requires vocal contact to quieten it, this trick can save a lot of legwork. Some cats are reassured by a radio at low volume tuned to a talk show. Substitute Company Cats which sleep together, or with the family dog, often keep each other company and provide mutual reassurance. Sometimes such cats can be bought off by creature comforts such as a heated bed (or towel-wrapped hot water bottle) or a soft toy and the company of a radio left playing at low volume. Secure Den (Safe Room) Provide a secure "den" or "safe room". Sick or injured cats instinctively seek out a place where they won't be disturbed. Cats that feel vulnerable can be made to feel safer if a core territory or safe room is provided by the owner. If the cat is elderly and getting confused by its nocturnal wanderings, establish a den or small 'core area' that provides comfort and a secure, predictable environment. The cat may already have a favourite core area. Otherwise, choose a room that is cosy and can contain all the essentials: warm bed, food, water and litter tray. Sometimes this means putting the cat in a large kittening cage overnight with the cage part-covered by a blanket.
Because elderly cats are less efficient at regulating their own body temperature, provide a snug bed away from draughts; either a ready-made fleecy bed or a blanket lined box. Lining it with a recently worn sweat sweatshirt often adds to the cat's sense of security. Before the bedtime restriction, give the cat fuss and cuddles. Once the cat is confined to its den and the door closed, any calling will be ignored until breakfast time.
While restriction to one room or a pen may sound an awful restriction of the cat's freedom, for the cat it becomes a safe place to sleep. As cats age or become weaker they are less able to defend or maintain a larger territory and their core area shrinks (an older cat commandeering a favourite armchair is a familiar sight). When Mustard developed an insecurity-related behavioural problem, every time she felt insecure during the day she hopped into the open cage and settled down. With all her resources close at hand she felt secure enough to relax and keep an eye on the immediate surroundings.
Tackling the Underlying Cause
Regular vet checks, play sessions and environmental enrichment (e.g. shelves to jump on or posts to climb up) will help maintain the cat's physical health for longer. If the cat feels fitter it may feel also more confident and able to look after itself (this is not infallible, the cat world also has some extremely fit wimps). Confident cats are less likely to call for reassurance.
In general, the cat's sense of vulnerability needs to be addressed. Keeping the mind and body active can slow down CDS for a while and this applies to cats as well as humans. Grooming and gentle play may help stave off the calling for a bit longer. Securing the garden against wandering and getting lost can also help.
Make sure the bed(s), food/water and litter tray are in predictable places. An elderly or insecure cat can be upset or confused by changes in its territory and may resume the calling habit.
In insecure cats, securing the house against intruders (locking the cat flap at night and providing a litter tray) may be enough to resolve calling out. In Mustard it also reduced inappropriate marking behaviour.
Footnote 1 - Owner Insecurity
Be warned - when you have successfully dealt with a night-time calling cat, silence itself can be worrying. Having become used to your cat calling out, the lack of calling can be equally worrying especially if the cat goes abruptly from a constant caller to a silent sleeper. It's not unknown for owners to want to check on their now quiet cat - re-establishing the cycle of "attention on demand".
Footnote 2 - Unusual Cases
Greg Fry of Los Angeles, California mentioned an intriguing form of night-time calling in his 16-year-old female cat, Snowboots (a large black cat so named for her white paws). Snowboots has never had kittens, but her night-time calling has an element of maternal care associated with it and began when she became mature. Snowboots has full access to the bed, but made very alarming-sounding yowls in the middle of the night when not snuggled with her owners. After yowling, she picked up and carried Greg's dark-coloured dress socks as though they were kittens. The socks/kittens can be found in differnet places in the morning. Greg feels that the cries are akin to a mother cat calling her kittens to her for safety. Interestingly, she ignores the more frequently worn white socks in favour of the darker ones. Her maternal crying is also triggered when the other cat, Mandy, suckles on Greg's hands at night - this causes Mandy (in a kitten mindset) to head towards Snowboots.