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Cats have a lot of ways of communicating with humans and each other. Hissing, meowing, purring and variations of those sounds are sounds we recognize from kittenhood to old age. Some cats even have their own unique sounds. My cat Dobby makes a weird hiss when she gets overly excited while playing. Howling is often a form of communication that people don’t notice until their cats start to age. If your older cat is howling, this can be a sign of a number of things. While you might start worrying that your cat might be going senile, this is not the only reason why cats suddenly start howling. Here are a few reasons why your cat might start howling at you out of nowhere.
Here is an example of what cat howling sounds like.
Even though cats, especially older cats, can be couch potatoes, that doesn’t mean they don’t get bored. When cats lack mental and physical stimulation, they can get cranky and start howling. Cats require a lot more physical activity than a lot of people realize, and just because your cat is getting older doesn’t mean exercise isn’t important anymore!
Kittens are easy to keep entertained because the world is new to them and anything you introduce them to will seem new and exciting – boxes, new furniture, your iPad – it’s all a new adventure. A 12 year old cat will no longer be stimulated by the same old toys you’ve always given them. This leads to boredom. Other symptoms of boredom in cats include overeating, over-grooming, and compulsive behaviors such as pacing.
To keep your cat entertained, try investing in some food-motivated puzzle toys, or move around cat trees into unique configurations they can wander around in.
I’m hoping that if you have a senior he or she has already been spayed or neutered, but for cats who aren’t fixed howling can be a sign of heat. Female cats howl to show males that they’re in heat, and male cats will howl as a reaction to a female cat in heat howling. Occasionally, a fixed cat may still have these instincts if they hear an unfixed cat howling, so if you have another cat who isn’t fixed, that’s a good sign it’s time for that to happen. If a stray cat outside is howling and causing your cat to howl, contact a local animal shelter and get in touch with a trap/neuter/release organization. This organization can provide you with free humane traps to capture the strays, and once the cat is in there you can drop them off to be fixed at no cost to you. You’ll be saving cat lives AND your sanity!
Stress and anxiety are big reasons your cat might be howling. Like appetite changes in cats, howling is a common reaction to stress. The most common cause of stress in cats is a change in the household. These can be major changes, such as a new pet (or the loss of a pet), a new home or a new person living in the house. Other minor changes can also cause stress in an older cat, such as rearranging furniture in a room. This might not be something you’d think too much about, but senior cats can become sensitive to changes in their environment, and if the furniture in a room was one way their entire life, and suddenly there’s a completely different couch in there that smells strange and is much larger than the old one, this can cause a stress reaction in your cat.
Some of these stressors can be changed, and others obviously cannot. For example, if you move, you can’t just move back to your old place to calm your cat down. In fact, even if you could that would be extra stressful! Calming their stress depends on the cause of it. If your cat is upset after another pet died or a person moved out of the home, try and spend extra time with them. If you recently moved, keep all your cat’s necessities (food, litter, toys) in one room and let them get used to that space before giving them free-reign of the house. If you’ve introduced a new pet into the home, this stress response could be a sign you’re introducing them too quickly, so be sure to introduce your old and new pet slowly and only under your supervision.
Events that you’ve since forgotten about can also cause stress. For example, if your neighbors are setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July, that is a memory your cat can hold onto for several days. In this case, patience and love are the best tools you can have to help your cat.
Illness or Injury
As you likely know if you’ve had a cat for some time, cats are really good at hiding pain. I once missed that my cat had a broken tail for 2 days because he wasn’t acting like he was in pain at all. Cats typically only show that they’re in pain or sick if they’re feeling really awful, and howling can be one sign of that. Unlike typical boredom or stress howls, which are low sounding and slow, injury howls are often more frantic and wild sounding. You’ll likely also notice other symptoms depending on what’s wrong, such as vomiting, appetite changes, isolation, hissing or swatting, or general lethargy.
Aging related health issues, such as losing vision or hearing, can also be a cause of distress that would cause your cat to start howling, especially at night.
If your cat is suddenly howling out of nowhere and you’re seeing other worrying symptoms, please take them to a vet immediately to figure out what’s going on.
As an older cat parent you might fear dementia right away if your cat suddenly starts howling. While this article shows this is not always the case, it certainly can be. Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) is essentially the cat version of Alzheimer’s disease. This most frequently occurs in cats over 10 years old. The two most common signs of CDS are howling (especially at night) and using the bathroom outside of the litter box. These symptoms are also signs of other medical conditions as well, such as thyroid issues, arthritis, or a UTI, so you’ll certainly want to check with your vet to get a diagnosis.
CDS can’t be seen in any test, so it’s typically diagnosed once your vet has ruled out any other issues it could be.
There’s sadly no cure for CDS, but there are things you can do to make your cat’s life easier. First, you can start them on supplements such as B12 and SAMe, which are shown to improve cognitive function in cats. While this won’t cure existing CDS, it has been shown to slow down the progression. Keeping your cat mentally stimulated is also good for their brains, so puzzle toys, hunting games and exercise can also help slow the progression of the disease.