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 reasons 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 to be corrected. 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.
Occasional treats are not harmful, and for the overweight cat, using small, low calories treats can be 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 cat's 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 to 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.
Some cats simply need more human attention. If the cat is the only 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.
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.
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 it 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) it could be trying to tell you it is in pain or discomfort. Or your cat could be gradually going deaf. A trip to the vet is indicated here, to rule out medical problems.
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 in 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.
Since stress is so common in cats with pica, it is important to either 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 your 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 eliminate them as items of interest by cat-proofing electrical wiring with wrapping or bitter apple spray.
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.
Make sure to offer your cat a variety of 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.
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:
- A recent move
- A newborn baby
- New pet (cat or dog)
- Owner's absence due to a new job or vacation
- Sudden aggression by another cat
- A sickness of the owner or another cat
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 to eliminate attention-seeking behaviors.
Černá, Petra et al. Potential Causes of Increased Vocalisation in Elderly Cats with Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome as Assessed by Their Owners. Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 10,6 1092. 2020, doi:10.3390/ani10061092
Abnormal Eating Habits in Cats. UC Davis Veterinary Medicine.
Hyperesthesia Syndrome. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.