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Why does my cat yowl at night?

Why does my cat yowl, howl, or meow at night?

yowling cat

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?

black cat at night

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.

fox

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.

cat's eye

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).[1]

 

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.[2] This allows cats to hunt well in the low light of dawn and dusk.

 

Why are cats so active when we’re sleeping?

grey cat

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.

kitten yowling

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?[3] 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

kitten

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:

 

You have a new kitten: A new kitten may cry at night out of loneliness. He was used to sleeping with his littermates and mom, and he might be scared to find himself alone for the first time.
 
You just adopted an adult cat: Your new cat may have hit the lottery when she got adopted by you, but she just doesn’t know it yet. She might be scared of her new environment and miss all of her kitty friends at the shelter. If she was used to sleeping amongst other animals at the shelter, she might be calling out to them at night.
 
Your home or schedule has changed: Change causes anxiety in people, cats, and other creatures. If you’ve moved apartments, changed jobs, or added a new baby or other family member to the household, your cat may feel stressed or anxious and yowl at night.
 
Your cat is lonely or bored: Ask yourself if your cat is getting what she needs from you during the day. Cats need social contact and you may be their only source of it. Make sure you’re not leaving your cat alone too long during the day so she yowls at night.
 
Your cat is a senior citizen: There are many reasons older cats begin to meow or howl at night. Some older cats develop a kind of kitty dementia called CDS (cognitive dysfunction syndrome) that causes them to meow inappropriately. It can also cause disorientation. A confused older cat might find himself stuck in a closet or cabinet and need your help to find his way out. Older cats can also become hard of hearing and not realize how loudly they're meowing or begin to lose their vision and become frustrated trying to make their way around the house.

 

cat meowing

What should I do if my cat yowls at night?

 

Let’s start with what NOT to do.

 

Don’t ignore it: Let’s assume you’ve visited the veterinarian and eliminated all the worrisome causes of nighttime yowling described above. That doesn’t mean your cat isn’t trying to point out something that may require attention. Perhaps he is trapped in a room and can’t get to the litter box. Or maybe the water bowl got knocked over. Just get up and check – once – to make sure everything is as it should be.
 
Don’t punish a cat for yowling: Do not hit a cat, yell at a cat, or spray a cat with water. Those behaviors may cause a momentary pause in the yowling, but they also cause long-term damage to your relationship with your cat. Trust is the foundation of your cat’s bond with you. Do not damage that trust.

 

woman ignoring

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.

person under the covers

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.[4] You’re just going to have to live through it and hope for the best.

 

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. But don't click here.

 

 

Footnotes

 

[1] Conscious Companion. “Crepuscular Cats!” 3 June 2013. consciouscompanion2012.com, consciouscompanion2012.com/2013/06/03/crepuscular-cats/.

[2] Smith, Belinda. “Why do cats have slit-shaped eyes?” 21 Sept. 2015. Cosmos Magazine, cosmosmagazine.com/biology/why-do-cats-have-slit-shaped-eyes.

[3] 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.

[4] Farricelli, Adrienne. “Understanding Extinction Bursts in Dogs.” PetHelpful, PetHelpful, 12 Aug. 2019, pethelpful.com/dogs/-Dog-Behavior-Understanding-Extinction-Bursts.

 

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