Why does my cat yowl, howl, or meow at night?
How can an animal that makes a sound as charming as the purr also produce a noise as disturbing, unsettling, and irritating as a yowl? And why (why? why? why?) do cats do it at night just when their human counterparts are settling down to rest, or worse, already asleep?
Oh, a single yowl would be OK, I guess. Annoying perhaps, but we’d all just go back to sleep, wouldn’t we? But a cat inclined to nighttime yowl doesn’t just have his say once and for all. A yowler tends to make a career out of it.
What does a cat’s yowl sound like?
The yowl is a peculiar vocalization. It’s like a meow, but long and drawn out. I’ve heard it described as “melodic,” possibly because it has an almost sing-song quality to it, but “discordant” might be a better description.
Are cats noctural?
First of all, why do cats yowl at night? You may have read that cats are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night, but this is a myth. Cats are actually crepuscular, which means their peak hours of activity are at dawn and dusk.
Owls, bats, and foxes, for example, are true nocturnal animals, meaning they wander around all night long. Diurnal animals, like humans, squirrels, and elephants, work the dayshift. Crepuscular prey animals, like deer, mice and rabbits have adapted to take advantage of that twilight in-between time, when it’s light enough to see but dark enough to lower the odds of being caught by a predator.
Cats are highly adapted predators
Predators, like our cats, may have “out-adapted” their prey by becoming expert dawn/dusk predators.
One of the key adaptations is cats’ eyes. Cats have a reflective layer behind their retinas call the tapetum lucidum that allows them to maximize use of whatever light is available (this layer also causes cats’ eyes to appear to glow green at night).
But more importantly, they have slit-shaped pupils which can open 135-fold and act like night-vision goggles. For comparison, human pupils expand by only a factor of 15. This allows cats to hunt well in the low light of dawn and dusk.
Why are cats so active when we’re sleeping?
Just when you’re settling down for the evening, your cat is ready to party. Thanks to her crepuscular nature, she’s up again at the crack of dawn, which may feel like the middle of the night to you. By why yowl? Can’t she just play quietly in the corner with a toy?
During the daytime, a cat that’s awake is just between naps. He may be active, but he’s not in high gear. Besides, you’re awake during the day, too, talking to him, playing with him, feeding him. He has your attention and there’s no need to yowl.
But at night he’s ready to hunt – or at least to eat – and to play. And he knows that vocalizations get your attention. (As a side note, did you notice that cats rarely meow at other cats, just humans? Cats generally communicate non-verbally with each other.) A persistent nighttime yowl is hard for sleeping humans to ignore.
There are, however, special circumstances where yowling has other causes and they’re worth paying attention to.
When to worry about your cat’s yowling, or at least not complain
Before you decide that your cat is just meowing to get your attention and to ignore it, ask yourself if there are any extenuating circumstances to cause the nighttime yowling. Some of the reasons cats call out at night require extra patience, love, and attention, and several absolutely demand a visit to the vet:
What should I do if my cat yowls at night?
Let’s start with what NOT to do.
So, what should you do if your cat is causing you to lose sleep?
First, make a gentle shift in feeding and playtime so that they coincide more closely with your own bedtime. The point is to make sure all of his needs are met before settling down for the evening. His belly should be full and his body should be tired from play.
And then do nothing, which is the hardest thing of all to do. Nothing means nothing. Do not look at a yowling cat. Do not talk to your yowling cat. Do not grunt and groan and mumble obscenities to yourself. Do not toss cat toys across the room to distract him, or to give him something to. Do not invite him into your bed. Do not shoo him from the room (not at this point, anyway – there is nothing wrong with excluding him from your room before the yowling begins) and slam the door. All of these things, even the negative or unpleasant things, give a cat attention for yowling.
Everything that isn’t completely nothing reinforces the yowling behavior. The more you reinforce your cat for yowling at night, the more your cat is going to yowl.
Even if you are mostly quiet while the cat is yowling, but lose patience and explode with a loud “shush!” just once, you have given the cat what animal behaviorists call an intermittent reward. Intermittent rewards are particularly damaging because they may ingrain a behavior even more firmly than actually tossing your cat a favorite treat every time he yowls.
Doing nothing can be particularly difficult because of an animal behavioral concept called extinction burst, which is a kind of doubling down on a behavior. If you’ve unknowingly done things in the past that reinforced a cat for yowling at night, but then finally decide to stop once and for all, the yowling may actually get worse before it gets better. You’re just going to have to live through it and hope for the best.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Conscious Companion. “Crepuscular Cats!” 3 June 2013. consciouscompanion2012.com, consciouscompanion2012.com/2013/06/03/crepuscular-cats/.
 Smith, Belinda. “Why do cats have slit-shaped eyes?” 21 Sept. 2015. Cosmos Magazine, cosmosmagazine.com/biology/why-do-cats-have-slit-shaped-eyes.
 Raidhan, Ibrahim “Why do cats meow at humans?” 5 Sept. 2018. Psychology Today, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-dogs-go-heaven/201809/why-do-cats-meow-humans.
 Farricelli, Adrienne. “Understanding Extinction Bursts in Dogs.” PetHelpful, PetHelpful, 12 Aug. 2019, pethelpful.com/dogs/-Dog-Behavior-Understanding-Extinction-Bursts.