Q: Boots, my 1½- year-old cat, constantly meows from midnight until 6:00 a.m. My cat’s behavior started last September after I had to euthanize my 14-year-old diabetic cat, Tygger. Boots now constantly wakes me up. I feed him wet food at 11 p.m. and he always has dry food available. His meow is so loud that it disturbs the whole house. I have another cat so he is not lonely.
A: Whenever a cat’s behavior changes suddenly, a veterinarian must examine the cat. After the veterinarian has ruled out any possible medical reasons for the behavior, you can approach the problem as a behavior challenge.
Losing a companion animal is rough for the whole household, including other resident animals. Cats can feel grief. Although your cat may still grieve your other cat, it is more likely he is vocalizing because you might have initially reinforced his behavior through food and attention. Understandably, you and other household members might have comforted your cat by giving him attention and treats after his companion passed away. Boots quickly figured out that whenever he howled, someone responded, reinforcing his behavior. In addition to feeding him, talking, yelling, playing and picking him up will reinforce the vocalizing.
Change your cat’s behavior in four steps:
- Ignore his demands while simultaneously providing him with attention before bed. Before your cat’s 11 p.m. meal, play with him. Engage your cat in energetic play and immediately feed him after he catches the toy at the end of the session. Use a fishing pole-type toy that has either feathers or a small stuffed animal attached to it. Drag it away from him, imitating prey. After the last catch, immediately feed him. He will eat, groom and then go to sleep.
- Feed your cat before bed. Even though you have dried food available, your cat might prefer canned. Commercially available auto-feeders contain ice packs and can keep canned food fresh. Schedule the auto-feeder to open two to three times during the night. The additional feeding times can help decrease the howling.
- Enrich your cat’s environment with interactive toys such as ball and tract toys and puzzle boxes. Adding vertical territory such as cat trees and window perches and placing them near secure windows will keep Boots and your other resident cat occupied while they watch the nighttime neighborhood activities.
- Do not accidentally reinforce your cat’s vocalizing. When your cat vocalizes, do not talk or yell at him, pick him up or reinforce him with food. Do not be surprised if the behavior temporarily escalates before it finally ceases. Your cat’s unwanted behavior should gradually decrease as long as it’s not reinforced and he has other resources and activities available that address his needs.