[From Tufts February 2011 Issue]
Please, I need help on what to do with my chatty cat, Bubba. He is 7 years old. My other cat, Melissa, is 8. Bubba has been a rascal ever since I brought him home. I have had cats for 30 years , but I am puzzled by Bubba’s behavior because he talks all the time.
Both cats stay indoors, but if I open my front door, Bubba meows loudly as if to call someone. If I am outside and he hears my voice, he meows very loudly. I know that other cats do this too, but he does this while I am trying to sleep. He will shake the closet doors, go under the bed and scratch at the underside of the box springs (which I have covered so he cannot go inside) or just meow and meow.
He will stop (or meow in a quieter voice) when he knows I am upset. I find myself waking up and automatically yelling. I hate yelling, but it just comes out. This makes him stop, but then he’ll do it again. Of course I play with them. They have several cat trees and lots of toys, but what can I do to about his incessant loud chatter? I love both of my cats. I hope he is not unhappy. What can I do to try to make Bubba be less vocal?
Dear Shanna: Thank you for being so forthcoming in your description of your reaction to Bubba’s constant chatter. I suspect that Bubba’s seemingly constant vocalizations are attention-seeking behavior. He meows to get your attention if you are outdoors. He meows when you try to sleep and when you yell, he “meow mutters,” but he still garners your attention.
From some cats’ perspective, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Plus if you intermittently reinforce him by giving him attention when he vocalizes, he’ll learn that this behavior works and it will be repeated the next time he wants to be noticed. I suspect he meows when he wants petting and you respond. Bubba also probably meows when he wants food and so you feed him. Thus the behavior is being reinforced in myriad ways throughout the day.
In order for him to unlearn this behavior, it is essential that you completely ignore him every time he vocalizes. This means no corrections, no eye contact, no petting. If you give in once, he wins. I should warn you that he will vocalize even more frequently and more loudly once you being this program, because it has always worked for him in the past. You will need some earplugs. Close him out of the bedroom and resolve to retain tolerance to get to the point where the behavior is finally extinguished. Always remember to reward him when he is not vocalizing so that he learns that being quiet is what gets him what he wants.
In all fairness, while you mention that you do play with Bubba, is he truly receiving sufficient exercise and play interaction on a daily basis for a cat with his temperament? Setting up daily play periods and providing environmental enrichment opportunities for him to entertain himself will ensure that you are being fair when you request that he be quiet and leave you alone. Also bear in mind that there is anecdotal evidence for breed differences in terms of frequency and intensity of vocal behavior and needs for social interaction. Siamese cats come to mind as being comparatively labor intensive in terms of their needs for social interaction and mental stimulation, and they don’t mind voicing their opinion if these needs aren’t being met.
So, if Bubba is part Siamese, you may have your work cut out for you. Finally, while I gather Bubba has always been vocal, if there has been a change in his behavior for the worse, you might wish to consult with your local veterinarian, as some medical conditions such as hyperthyroidism are associated with increased vocal behavior. Good luck with Bubba. He’s a great cat, just a bit high maintenance.
Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB
Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC
Brooklyn Veterinary Hospital,