Everyone knows a cat purrs and meows. These are sounds we expect from our feline family members. Yowling can be another story entirely.
What is a yowl? Another term is “caterwaul”, which is perhaps more descriptive as it calls up those times when a cat utters a high-pitched, drawn-out meow that’s much more likely to get your attention, which, for the cat, is exactly the point. Yowling often means the cat wants something, or to communicate that there’s a female cat in heat nearby.
Let's take a look at why your cat may be yowling, and how you can help.
The Root of the Behavior
Research has shown that the African wild cat, our domesticated cats' closest relative, as well as several species of big cats use yowling as a form of communication. As cats evolved into the domestic varieties we see today, their vocalizations have changed into sounds that are less threatening and more pleasant to the human ear to get them to meet the cats' needs instead of running in the other direction.
A cat's yowl can mean many things. Often, yowling is associated with mating, and unaltered females will make the sound as they go into heat. If a male cat fights with another male cat over a potential mate, there’s much yowling to be heard. Lonely or bored cats may yowl for attention, but the yowl could also mean they’re hungry or thirsty, or their litter box needs changing.
Warning you about danger is another important reason for your cat to yowl, especially if they’re indoors and the “danger” is visible outside. Squirrels, birds and the mail carrier are all examples of “trespassers” that must be warned away to protect the family’s territory.
As cats age, they’re often subject to the same sensory and cognitive deficits as humans. They may not be able to see adequately and may become disoriented even in their own house. Fearful and frustrated, they may reach out in the form of a caterwaul, especially at night when confusion is especially heightened.
Encouraging the Behavior
When your cat is yowling it’s important to resist the urge to react with harsh words or other negative actions. Punishing your cat for a natural behavior won’t make them stop, but it can cause them to become fearful of you. A better behavior modification strategy is to ignore the feline while it’s yowling; when it stops, even for an instant, be generous with praise and some petting or cuddling. Eventually, they’ll learn that yowling brings only silence and a turned back, while stopping results in something positive for them
If you suspect that your cat is acting out because they’re lonely or bored, toys that entertain them or a pet-sitter from Wag! can keep them occupied when you are gone. And playtime with you will go far to alleviate boredom.
Some cats eat freely, with kibble always available to them. If your cat is on a schedule, it doesn’t take long for them to learn to anticipate when their next feeding should be and harass you with constant caterwauling until their food appears. A good remedy for meal anticipation yowling is an automatic feeding system that dispenses the food on a schedule. The good news: they’ll stare at and yowl at the feeding mechanism instead of in your face. They may even stop yowling for feeding as they learn the schedule. Water should always be available at all times.
More than half of cats that are 11-15 years old, and 80% who are over the age of 16 are especially likely to yowl. Because disorientation and cognitive dysfunction typically occur in older cats, especially at night, it’s important to have them checked medically. Some drugs may help them be less confused and vocal. Reassurance and rearrangement of obstacles in their path may help. Other remedies include using a dim light to help them find their way at night, removing obstacles in their usual path, making their sleeping area especially cozy and warm, and playing soft music at a low volume.
Other Solutions and Considerations
One sure way of dealing with mating-related caterwauling from both male and female felines is to have them spayed or neutered. Female heats occur between February and September every 18 to 24 days, and can last four to ten days. That’s a lot of yowling!
While it may be an annoyance to you, yowling has meaning to the cat, who is alerting you to something in its environment or body that they want you to be aware of and fix. It’s a bad idea to ignore the yowling–assume it’s something that can be improved or eliminated. For information about cat behaviors and more, check out more Wag! cat guides!