Case Study: Excessive Vocalization in a Cat
Summary: A case of a cat who vocalized day and night in the presence of her preferred human companion, across a wide variety of contexts — including if her guardian tried to take a nap. Resolution was almost completely achieved through intentional extinction, differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior, and environmental modifications.
Starting about two weeks after being adopted, Eevee, a 3-year-old spayed domestic shorthair, began meowing excessively. Her guardian described her meowing as occurring day and night, in multiple contexts, and for long periods of time: “If I go to bed or take a nap, if she wants food (even if she just ate), if she wants to play, if she uses her litterbox, if she wants to go for a walk, if she wants to jump in my lap, almost always. One time I counted 208 meows before she gave up.” Eevee’s guardian was desperate to resolve the problem behavior. It was impacting her and her husband’s sleep and causing tension in their marriage. In response to a question about her goals for Eevee on my behavior history form, she wrote, “For Eevee to be able to be quiet. My husband is at the end of his rope, I would do just about anything to keep her.”
By the time Eevee’s guardian contacted me, the excessive meowing had been going on for a couple of months and her guardian had already invested significant time and money into trying to decrease the behavior. Thinking Eevee might be bored, she had provided her with enrichments such as food puzzles, interactive play sessions, and harness and leash walks. She set an autofeeder to dispense kibble at 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the event Eevee’s nighttime and early morning meowing was due to hunger. And she had taken Eevee to the vet, who had examined her and done bloodwork, including checking her thyroid (normal), as well as her blood pressure (normal) and a urinalysis (also normal). The vet recommended giving Eevee chicken necks at bedtime to keep her occupied overnight, providing automatic toys, and perhaps even getting another cat. The vet had also put Eevee on 100 mg of gabapentin, 25 mg of trazodone, and 3 mg of melatonin every night, and 5 mg of fluoxetine every morning. For the first two weeks on the medications there was a decrease in Eevee’s meowing, but soon Eevee was back to meowing as frequently and persistently as before.
As Chloé Tavernier and colleagues note in their article “Feline Vocal Communication,” of all cat vocalizations, the meow “seems to have particularly been affected by domestication.” The authors observe that “the meow is a rare vocalization in cat-cat interactions but is one of the most common vocalizations in cat-human interactions.1 More than that, it seems that the house cat actually specialized their meow to communicate with humans and not conspecifics.” Similarly, Sarah Brown and John Bradshaw hypothesize that the great differences in meows among individual cats—each cat has their own voice, if you will—“argues against these variations in the miaow having distinct (intra)species-specific meanings.”2 To illustrate, think of the difference between meowing and growling. Though there may be some variation in volume and duration depending on the cat and the context, there is far more consistency in the sound of a growl among individual cats and between cats. That is because the growl has an intraspecies specific meaning; unlike meowing, cats use growling to communicate with other cats.1
Brown and Bradshaw also note that cats quickly learn to meow to humans. They cite a study by Farley et al. from 1992 in which cats were trained to meow for a food reward. The cats learned to meow for the trainer in just a few minutes and with additional training learned to sustain their meows “at a rate of two meows per minute for a period of 2 [hours] or more”. Knowing that cats readily learn to direct meows at people and are capable of sustaining them for extended periods of time, I wondered if Eevee’s guardian had inadvertently trained her to meow excessively and persistently by unwittingly rewarding her when she meowed.
Before beginning a behavior modification plan, I wanted to rule out two other potential causes. I asked her guardian to send me video of an episode of Eevee’s meowing to be sure it didn’t look like the kind of vocalization that can occur when a cat is in heat. Eevee was spayed, but if the meowing was accompanied by other typical heat-related behaviors, I would have referred the client back to her veterinarian to be sure Eevee didn’t have remnant ovarian tissue. I also wanted to rule out the meowing as a separation-related behavior, so had the client set up a kitty camera to capture Eevee’s behavior when the client wasn’t home. Video showed that Eevee’s meowing was not accompanied by heat-related behaviors and that she spent most of the time she was either alone or in the company of just the husband contentedly napping.
Further discussion with the client confirmed my suspicion. Whenever Eevee meowed, the client’s response was to try to figure out what she was asking for and give it to her. Eevee learned very quickly that meowing brought her rewards—sometimes food, sometimes petting, sometimes a play session, sometimes a walk. Something good always followed the meowing, so Eevee meowed all the time. In short, Eevee’s guardian was inadvertently engaging in a more-or-less continuous reinforcement schedule for meowing, and it hadn’t taken long for the behavior to become problematic.
At that point, with the behavior well established, the client had tried ignoring Eevee when she meowed. But Eevee was persistent, and the client frequently relented and gave her food or attention because it would quiet Eevee at least temporarily. Unaware, the client had taken the next step in more firmly ingraining the behavior. She had moved from a continuous reinforcement schedule to an intermittent reinforcement schedule. Now instead of getting a reward every time she meowed, Eevee only sometimes got a reward when she meowed. When the client’s tolerance for Eevee’s meowing was low, she would give in after just a few meows. When her tolerance was higher, she could hold out for many meows before giving in. And when she felt committed to ignoring the behavior, she would not give in at all no matter how much Eevee meowed. The result was that Eevee became even more persistent in her meowing because often enough, if she meowed long enough, her efforts were rewarded.
It was a perfect storm. Take a natural behavior, meowing, that through domestication has been shaped to occur almost exclusively in the context of cat-human interactions. Add a human, who in her solicitousness for her cat, wants to give the cat what she thinks the cat is asking for whenever the cat meows. Then, in an attempt to extinguish what has become incessant meowing through inadvertent continuous reinforcement, the human unknowingly further ingrains the behavior by sometimes ignoring it and sometimes rewarding it, in other words, switching to an intermittent reinforcement schedule.
Without going into technical terms, I explained to the client that she had been unknowingly rewarding Eevee for meowing and that we were going to use rewards to teach her to be quiet, or at least quieter. Our goal for Eevee wasn’t total silence, which would’ve been unnatural and unrealistic; rather, it was a significant reduction in the frequency and duration of her meowing.
I laid out for the client a three-part behavior/environmental modification plan. The first part was for the client (and her husband, because we needed everyone in the household to respond consistently to Eevee) never to give Eevee anything she would find reinforcing when she meowed. This meant they were to be mindful of not feeding her or giving her attention of any kind—no petting, play, or walks—when she meowed. If, for example, Eevee happened to meow right as the client was setting down her food, the client was to stop and wait for Eevee to be quiet for a few seconds and then set the food down so that the consequence for Eevee of being quiet was getting her meal.
The second part involved using differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI). I explained to the client that we would be using clicker training to teach Eevee that being quiet, not meowing, was the behavior that would result in rewards. I instructed the client to have on hand at all times a clicker and some high-value treats. As often as she could throughout the day, when she happened to catch Eevee being quiet, she was to click and then give Eevee a food reward. If Eevee continued to be quiet for another few seconds, the client should click and reward again. Gradually, the client was to increase the amount of time Eevee had to remain quiet before getting a click then a reward. I cautioned the client that if Eevee were to meow after the click but before the client could give her the treat, that she should withhold the treat, wait until Eevee had been quiet for a second or two, then click again and reward.
I chose DRI, as opposed to DRA (differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior) or DRO (differential reinforcement of other behavior), because we needed to teach Eevee a behavior that would have the same function for her, getting food or attention from her guardian, but that she could not do and meow at the same time. If we had chosen to teach Eevee to go to her mat, for example, it would not have necessarily reduced her meowing, as she could have engaged in both behaviors at the same time. And, of course, the most direct route to getting Eevee not to meow was to reward her when she was quiet.
I had the client send me video of these training opportunities so I could provide her with feedback. In one video, I noticed the client was giving Eevee a hand signal, waiting for a few seconds of silence, then clicking and rewarding. I suggested omitting the hand cue because our goal wasn’t for Eevee to be quiet on cue, it was for her to be quieter in general, and I thought she would more quickly generalize the desired behavior if it wasn’t paired with a cue. The client was diligent in working with Eevee, and Eevee caught on quickly. Using this method, in 10 days the client was able to have Eevee be quiet for 30 minutes at a stretch even though she had a packet of Churu in her hand in plain sight, something that would’ve previously triggered persistent meowing.
Eevee’s nighttime meowing was a bigger challenge. It was more disruptive than her daytime meowing because it interrupted the client and her husband’s sleep, and it wouldn’t be feasible for the client to use clicker training for quiet throughout the night as she was doing throughout the day. Eevee had quickly made substantial progress in being quieter during the day because we were able to give her an alternative behavior to meowing: being quiet. And the client was able to reinforce the alternative behavior many times over the course of the day with clicker training, but that wasn’t going to work overnight. In part, we were going to rely on Eevee carrying over the quiet behavior she was practicing during the day to the night, but that alone wouldn’t be sufficient.
The third part of the plan focused on environmental modifications. The client had never allowed Eevee in the bedroom at night but did sometimes let her in the bedroom to nap with the client during the day. Because sometimes allowing her in the bedroom was most likely contributing to Eevee’s meowing to be let in the bedroom at night, I recommended Eevee no longer have access to the bedroom at all. I also recommended providing Eevee with a couple of sleeping spots designed to increase her sense of comfort and security while by herself overnight. This included making cardboard hide boxes and lining them with t-shirts or sweatshirts the client had slept in for a few nights to infuse them with her scent. I also suggested using a Feliway Classic diffuser in the family room, where Eevee spent her time overnight, and playing iCalmCat music.
Thanks to the client’s commitment to the behavioral and environmental modifications, within two weeks Eevee’s meowing had substantially decreased. The client estimated an 80% decrease in daytime meowing and Eevee had even gone one entire night without vocalizing. After two months, Eevee’s daytime meowing was at a level the client and her husband found normal and acceptable. As expected, the nighttime meowing took more time and effort to resolve. It, too, had decreased but not as much as the daytime meowing. Eevee still sometimes vocalized in the middle of the night, though she gave only a meow or two, in contrast to the prolonged periods of meowing she had been engaging in when the client first contacted me.
Eevee’s early morning meowing turned out to be the most persistent of her excessive vocalizing behaviors. The client had been in the habit of playing with then feeding Eevee right after getting up in the morning. Under normal circumstances, this routine would fit well with a cat’s natural crepuscular behavior. But with Eevee, even though the client was mindful not to play with or feed her while or right after she meowed, the chronology of meowing while the client was in the bedroom followed—albeit some minutes later—by food and attention as soon as the client came out of the bedroom was enough to maintain the early morning meowing. To address this, I wanted to increase the amount of time between Eevee’s morning meowing and her getting food and attention, so I recommended the client wait a half hour after leaving the bedroom in the morning before giving Eevee attention or food.
But the morning meowing persisted. It turned out that simply the client getting up and coming out of the bedroom when Eevee had been meowing was reinforcing the behavior, even though the client didn’t give her food or attention for the first half hour. This forced us to up our game. I suggested that if possible, the client should wait until Eevee was quiet before exiting the bedroom in the morning. But if she wasn’t able to wait for Eevee to stop meowing before leaving the bedroom, she should have the clicker and a few treats on hand, and as soon as Eevee stopped meowing, she should click then reward and repeat as many times as possible during that first half hour. Over time, she should have Eevee be quiet for longer stretches before getting a click and reward.
This was no small inconvenience for the client, but she was committed to resolving the problem behavior. As a result, the morning vocalizing decreased to just the occasional meow. But in an object lesson on how little it can take for a previously ingrained behavior to resurface, on two occasions the husband fed Eevee her breakfast after she had been meowing, resulting in a rebound of her morning meowing. To remove the possibility of this happening again, I had the client switch to using an autofeeder for all of Eevee’s meals. I wanted to take the humans out of the chain of causation in Eevee’s mind. I wanted her to learn that meowing at the humans wouldn’t get her a meal because it was the autofeeder, not them, who controlled access to meals.
Undoubtedly, for the client, changing her own behavior toward Eevee—ignoring her instead of attending to her when she meowed—was the most difficult part of the plan. In the beginning, I was prepared to have to make a strong case and provide sustained support to the client for not attending to Eevee when she meowed. However, that turned out to be unnecessary. Eevee’s meowing had become so disruptive for the client and her husband and previous attempts to resolve it had been unsuccessful, leaving the client desperate for a solution. In this case, that desperation was sufficient motivation for the client to commit to her own behavior change, even though it was difficult, as a necessary part of the process of changing Eevee’s behavior.
As a cat behavior consultant, the most challenging aspect of this case for me was figuring out how to deal with my concerns about the medications the cat had been put on. Based on the behavior history form, consultations with the client, and videos of the cat’s behavior, I was confident that the cause of Eevee’s excessive meowing was inadvertent reinforcement by the client and that behavior modification, coupled with some environmental changes, was the way to resolve the problem behavior. Though I could not say so to the client, I had two concerns about the medications. First, I was uncomfortable that the initial approach to the problem had been to rely almost exclusively on medication to address the excessive meowing. The vet had made a few suggestions for enrichment but no recommendations for behavior modification or referral to a cat behavior professional (The client sought me out on her own because the medications weren’t working.) Second, I was worried that the purpose of some of the medications was to sedate the cat into being quiet.
I felt I was in a difficult position, one I suspect many behavior consultants have found themselves in. I knew I could not make recommendations about medications to the client and did not want to second guess the vet’s treatment decisions. (Even if I did allow myself to second guess them, I never expressed my reservations to the client.) But I also had difficulty simply ignoring the medications, as they could impact the likelihood of resolving the behavior issue as well as the cat’s general wellbeing. So I ended up telling the client that because Eevee was on a number of medications, she might want to work with a veterinary behaviorist or a general practice vet with cat behavior certification. I didn’t want to lose the client and felt confident that addressing the cat’s behavior issue was well within my area of expertise. But since I couldn’t address the medication part of the case and wasn’t comfortable moving forward as if I had no concerns, it was what I felt I needed to do. The client decided, however, that she wanted to continue to work with me. When Eevee quickly showed a reduction in meowing after less than two weeks of behavior modification, I suggested to the client that once Eevee’s meowing had consistently decreased to a normal and acceptable level, she talk to her vet about whether and how to take Eevee off the medications.
Within three months, Eevee’s meowing had decreased to a normal and acceptable level during the day with just occasional meowing in the morning and at night. Significantly, she was maintaining this reduction in vocalizing while having her medications decreased: she was no longer on fluoxetine or trazadone, and her gabapentin dosage had been reduced to 50 mg and melatonin to 1 mg per night. At this point, the client felt confident she now had the tools to resolve the last vestiges of morning and nighttime meowing on her own and was also planning to follow her vet’s guidance on getting Eevee off the medications entirely.
- Brown, S.L. and Bradshaw, J.W.S, (2014) Communication in the domestic cat: within- and between-species. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior. 3rd edition, D.C Turner and P.Bateson, (eds), Cambridge University Press.
- Tavernier C, Ahmed S, Houpt KA, Yeon SC. (2020) Feline vocal communication. Journal of Veterinary Science. 21:1, e18.
Kate Luse, M.A., CCBC, is a certified cat behavior consultant who has been fostering cats for over 25 years. She co-coordinates the Frederick Friends of Our County Animal Shelter’s at-risk cats foster program. You can visit her on the web at healthycattitude.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.