Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Beast Mode,
I have a cat (about 14 years old) who has always liked attention and has always been fairly vocal. But over the past few years the vocalizing has become progressively worse, so she is just crying all the time. She gets a clean bill of health from the vet. My husband and I are retired, and there’s another cat in the house that she’s lived with for 10 years, so she shouldn’t feel lonely. She has food, she has water, and she gets plenty of lap time and brushing. We’ve tried ignoring, scolding, moving her to the garage. She won’t shut up! Do we just have to live with this?
—Big Cats Do Cry
Dear Big Cats Do Cry,
Simple questions don’t always have simple answers. Why is the sky blue? Where do babies come from? Why are people calling it a “live-action” Lion King remake when the wart hog is clearly standing in front of a green screen while he sings Elton John songs? Likewise, not only does your own conundrum—how do I get my cat to shut up?—lack an immediate solution, but it also spawns a few more complicated questions of its own.
For example, when you say the vet gives your cat a “clean bill of health,” how clean are we talking? “A lot of people think their cat has been checked out by the vet, but they didn’t do lab work,” certified cat behaviorist Ingrid Johnson tells me. “They went into an exam for some vaccines and think everything’s fine.” Have you told your vet about the crying? Johnson says that the No. 1 cause of sudden vocalization in senior cats is a disease called hyperthyroidism, and it would require bloodwork to receive a proper diagnosis. Likewise, hypertension could be responsible, and testing for this problem is not always part of a routine checkup. If your vet hasn’t really looked under the hood, now would be a good time to bring your cat in for a full assessment.
Even if you can rule out those ailments, there are other medical issues that could be causing this behavior. Deaf cats are far more vocal, and you should check for hearing loss. You can do this at home. “Look to see if the cat responds to high pitches, bells, things that do not create any motion or vibration,” Johnson says. Stomping your foot won’t reveal anything, as the cat doesn’t need its ears to feel a loafer slam against the floor. I’ve already written about conditioning a deaf cat to be quiet, but you should know that it’s going to take patience (and earplugs).
There’s also the possibility that she is hungry. In the wild, Johnson says that cats eat nine to 16 meals a day. Breakfast and dinner might not be enough, and leaving dry food in treat-dispensing toys around the house will both keep her busy and satiated as she goes through her stressful routines.
Let’s say your cat has a full tummy. And great hearing. And perfect circulation. And that her thyroids earn a standing ovation from the entire veterinary clinic. Assuming there is no cognitive dysfunction (and, at 14 years old, she would be rather young for that diagnosis), then the reason behind her nonstop crying might actually be somewhat simple: It could be because of you.
You say you’ve tried “ignoring” your cat, “scolding” her, and “moving her to the garage.” Only one of those responses work, and it’s not making her do hard time with the station wagon and Christmas supplies in the garage. Ignoring is the only way to go, as anything else—including castigation—will only work to reinforce the behavior. To her, even you screaming “Shut up!” is the same as a hearty “Keep up the good work, champ!”
Ignoring requires monkish stoicism, but it can proactively help the process along. It’s possible to “train quiet,” as Johnson puts it. “Every time they’re silent, they get a reward. You can add a verbal command: You can say ‘quiet’ or ‘shush,’ or whatever you want it to be, but if they vocalize, you wait until the second they shut up and you reward them.” This is not a one-time game, however. “You have to do it very consistently,” she says.
I know, this is a lot to consider. You just wanted the cat to shut up, and now you’re on the hook for bloodwork, hearing exams, and self-reflection to figure out whether you are to blame for her whining and screeching. But take solace in knowing that it could be worse: Both of your cats could be crying constantly. Wouldn’t that be complicated?