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When Cat Meowing Indicates a Medical Problem

By Diana Bocco

Generally, meowing is not a cause for concern. "Some cats, notably Siamese, meow more than others," says Dr. Jeff Levy, a Manhattan-based veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist. "And it's likely your feline will also use meowing to train you to do his bidding in the middle of the night like mine has."

Cats use meowing to communicate with both humans and other cats. If your cat is always talkative, then that's probably just his nature and nothing to worry about. However, changes in your cat's intensity, type, or frequency of meowing can actually be a sign that something is amiss. It's up to you to read those signals and notice changes that might be telling you it's time for a vet visit.

Causes of Excessive Meowing

Changes in meowing can be associated with a number of medical conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, hypertension, or laryngeal/voice box disease, according to Dr. Courtney Marsh, founder of BCCB Pet clinic in Richmond, Virginia. "There are also instances that would constitute an emergency, like a urinary tract blockage," Marsh says. "Many cats will vocalize loudly and continuously in the litter box because that condition is so painful."

Increased meowing can also be a sign of distress associated with neurologic function, such as in the case of senility and brain disorders, especially if it occurs in older cats. For example, cats with cognitive dysfunction often meow more because they are stressed and confused. "Cognitive dysfunction is essentially akin to dementia in humans, so the exact causation for increased meowing isn't known," Marsh says. "Generally, cats with dementia will show increased confusion, disorientation, and a decreased awareness of their surroundings."

Essentially, any medical condition that results in physical or mental discomfort may cause cats to meow more than they have in the past.

Paying Attention to Cat Sounds

Healthy cats meow for many reasons: to ask for food, to demand attention or petting, or to remind you to open the door for them. "In more than 20 years as a house-call veterinarian, I’ve heard every kind of meow you can imagine," Levy says. "In fact, I hear my own cat, Asti Spumante, vocalize every night, trying to squeeze in an extra feeding or just wanting attention."

But there's an obvious difference between the usual meowing your cat uses to talk to you and the meowing of a pet in distress. "When I hear a patient howling or moaning in a deep, guttural voice, I know there’s a serious medical problem," Levy says. "This is the sound made by cats in end-stage kidney disease, or with a blood clot, or in an altered mental state. It can also signal a traumatic injury, such as being hit by a car or a broken leg due to a fall. It indicates real suffering."

When to Worry About Meowing

When it comes to meowing, it's what your cat is doing differently that might matter the most. "Meowing in cats is just like barking in dogs: some dogs bark all the time at the littlest things and others hardly bark at all. So, if your cat has changed its behavior at all, it is worthwhile to speak with your vet," Marsh says. "For example, if your cat suddenly starts meowing at you all the time, or vocalizing when jumping on and off furniture, or vocalizing when being handled, all of these could be an indication of something going on."

Meowing that suddenly becomes louder or softer, more frequent, or changes pitch or tone could also be an indication that something is amiss, Levy says. "You know your cat best. When you see changes in behavior, patterns of activity, or vocalizations they produce, these should be warning signs."

Watch for Other Signs of Illness

If the changes in meowing are due to a medical problem, chances are you'll notice other symptoms as well. Common signs that may be subtle and easy to overlook include a change in activity level or appetite, a change in gait or expression, and even changes in the position of the ears or tail, Levy says.

Happy, active cats who suddenly become very quiet and either sleep a lot or just want to be left alone might be telling you something's off. "If you see changes in grooming or interaction with you and other pets in the house, then the meowing changes might also have more significance,” Marsh says.

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