Attention-Seeking Behavior in Cats

Excessive vocalization, begging, pawing and more

Photo of Cat Cat Seeking Attention by Meowing
Cat Seeking Attention by Meowing.

Getty / Elisa Bin

One of the most common complaints about cat behavior is their excessive vocalization: loud meowing or crying, sometimes accompanied by other attention-seeking behavior. Because causes for both of these behaviors can be either physical or emotional, or both, you need to do some homework on possible causes.

Sometimes what may seem to be a "behavior problem" may be completely normal behavior in a given cat. Weigh all the factors before deciding that your cat has a problem that needs correcting. Here are some of the activities that are related to or mistaken for attention-seeking behavior and their possible causes:

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"Lost in the Night" Howling

Although no one knows for sure why some cats do this, it is most common in geriatric cats due to cognitive dysfunction (senility) and/or decreased vision or hearing. This kind of mournful calling, in cats of any age, when associated with suddenly racing around the house with the fur on the back rolling, can also be the result of another physical condition, feline hyperesthesia, commonly known as rippling skin disorder. Other medical disorders that can cause excessive vocalization include hyperthyroidism, cancer, neurologic disease, and pain. For all of these conditions veterinary intervention and treatment are indicated.

Begging for Food and Treats

Although genuine hunger can't be completely discounted, cats, like humans, do sometimes suffer from addiction. They can be quite pitiful in their efforts to feed their addiction, especially for treats such as bonita tuna flakes.

Solution: Occasional treats are not harmful, and for the overweight cat, using small, low calories treats is a viable substitute when the cat begs for food, particularly treats of the high protein variety. Treats should not comprise more than 10% of your cats daily calories. Several small meals a day is actually better for cats than one big meal in the morning or evening. Schedule three or four small meals of canned food, picking up the remainder after 20-30 minutes. If you need to feed dry food due to your cat's preference or your schedule, give one small meal of dry food in the evening, which you can leave down for the night.

Pawing Your Arm or Leg

Some cats, like kids, do need frequent attention and will paw your arm when you are seated or do the "figure 8" around your legs as you try to walk.

Solution: Some cats simply need more human attention. If the cat is the single cat in the household, you may want to adopt another cat for company. Otherwise, try to schedule special times for playing, lap-cuddling, and petting for these cats. Cats like routine, and if they know that lap time is coming soon, chances are they'll leave you alone.

Insistent Meowing

Some cats are also very vocal  (Siamese and Oriental breeds are famous for this trait). And many cats actually enjoy a back-and-forth feline-human chat and will meow right back at you when you talk (or meow) to them.

Solution: Enjoy it, if you do like to talk back to your cat. If you're not particularly crazy about a "chatty cat," reserve your attention for times when he is quiet. On the other hand, if your cat is normally quiet and suddenly starts meowing insistently, (or if a normally talkative cat suddenly stops meowing) he could be trying to tell you he is in pain. Or your cat could be gradually going deaf. A trip to the vet is indicated here, to rule out medical problems.

Pica

Although pica (the eating of non food items) is not necessarily an attention-getting behavior, it certainly does gain the attention of us humans. Pica manifests also in wool-sucking or chewing, and is particularly dangerous if plastics or string-like objects are ingested. Wool sucking is common to certain breeds, including Siamese, Burmese, and Himalayans, and it is also common in cats prematurely weaned or removed from their mothers. Stress seems to be a common denominator in cats with pica.

Solution: Since stress is so common in cats with pica, it is important to rule out stress, or deal with it. Anxiety and stress can often be ameliorated by scheduling regular petting or play sessions in a quiet place, and providing plenty of toys, vertical space and other forms of environmental enrichment. In rare cases, anti-anxiety drugs may be indicated.

Pica can also be related to certain mineral deficiencies, so make sure kitty's diet is well-balanced. It is also important to remove the inappropriate chewing/swallowing substances by picking up strings, small pieces of plastic, and rubber bands or to eliminate them as items of interest by cat-proofing electrical wiring with wrapping or bitter apple spray.

Inappropriate Scratching

Sometimes cats who have plenty of scratching poles and other "legitimate" scratching surfaces, still will insist on inappropriate scratching on carpeting or furniture. Cats sometimes use inappropriate scratching as communication. 

Solution: Make sure to offer your cat a variety or scratching posts in different materials and shapes so they can find the one they like the most. You can also use treats and catnip to attract your cat to appropriate scratching posts.

Rippling Skin Disorder

This condition, also known as feline hyperesthesia, is not well understood. It can sometimes be successfully treated with dietary change, elimination of fleas or toxins (which might be a cause), medication, and/or planned exercise activities for the cat. Please read the linked article for more information.

Stress and Anxiety

Many of these attention-getting behaviors can be the result of stress or anxiety, particularly if there have been recent changes in the household, including, but not limited to:

In these cases, providing environmental enrichment for your cat is paramount.

Doing your homework, knowing your cat's normal behavior, and keeping close watch over behavioral changes, can go a long way toward helping your needy cat eliminate attention-seeking behaviors.​

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.