Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
My cat has always been a talkative animal, but her insistent meowing has been worse recently than ever before. Sami has always been much quieter when living in a household with another cat, but now Sami cries constantly, anytime my boyfriend or I are home. It’s not a talkative friendly cry, it’s a desperate sounding cry for attention. She follows us around and cries at our feet until we pay attention to her. She cannot handle not being held or petted and always needs to be sitting on my lap. I’ve tried so many different things….I’ve tried giving her attention first thing in the morning, playing with her, cuddling with her, but even if I play with her for 30 minutes I have to get ready for work and she cries the whole time I’m getting ready. As soon as I come home from work it starts again. I have tried to give her tons of attention and when she cries I pick her up and talk to her…but it always continues, she always wants more and more….and I just don’t have time!!! Now I’m trying to ignore her when she is crying, I’m not making eye contact, not talking to her, and I walk away when she is crying. When she is being quiet then I try to give her attention….but it’s so hard! She will be sitting there quiet and I’ll walk toward her or say one word to her and she will start crying!! So then I have to walk away again. It’s so frustrating, I just don’t even know what to do anymore.
Erin, the problem is that by giving Sami attention to get her to be quiet, you’ve actually spent months rewarding her for meowing! It’s even worse if you ignore her for a little while and then finally give in because then she learns that she has to meow longer and harder to get your attention. Now that you’re ignoring the meowing and trying to reward quiet behavior, you’re on the right track, but you’ll need to tweak it to get it to actually work.
First, you’ll have to find a better way to give her the message that sitting quietly is what earns her your attention. The quickest way to do this in cats is to teach them to sit using food. Use her regular kibble instead of giving it to her for free in a bowl, or use canned food on a spoon, or small treats. Getting her to work for her kibble or regular food is best since if you can reward quiet behavior 100x in a day, you’ll change the behavior much faster than if you used treats which can only make up about 10% of her diet. Also make sure the treats or kibble are small enough so she finishes each one in just one or two bites.
To train sit, as soon as Sami sits, get the food reward up to her face in a manner that allows her to remain seated. Once she eats it give her one or two more for remaining seated. At first if she’s meowing, it’s ok. But after she gets the idea that she should be sitting, then only reward the sit if she’s also quiet. She should be on this step by the end of day 1 or 2.
Once she can sit quietly for several seconds to receive a treat, then work on giving her treats for remaining seated and quiet. The goal is to always give treats before she starts meowing or getting up. For instance you may start by giving treats every 3-5 seconds for 5-10 treats, and then increasing the interval to 7 seconds and then 10 seconds and then 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. If you increase in this systematic manner and have her earn a large portion of her meal this way, then within several days you’ll have longer bouts of quiet.
It’s also a good idea to teach her that the word “quiet” means she gets no attention. You can do this once she is starting to understand that sitting quietly gets treats and can hold still and quiet for at least 5-10 seconds. Then, when she meows at you, say “quiet” in a calm but clear voice and immediately turn your head away from her. Once she’s quiet for a second or two, reward her with a treat and then give several more frequently enough so that she remains quiet for another 30 seconds but gradually space the treats further and further apart.
You can also then train her to follow you when you walk around the house, when she catches up so that it’s easier to reward quiet sit behavior, or you can train her to sit quietly and stay in one spot away from you. To train her to follow you, take a few steps. When she follows and sits then reward the quiet, polite behavior. To train her to stay, give her a treat for sitting on a chair or stool. Give her a “halt” signal with your hand. Then back up one step but hurry and return to her and reward her with a treat before she gets up. When you can do this 5 times, then switch to taking 2, then 3 and then more steps away.
By approaching this problem in a systematic manner so Sami can understand that quiet behavior is what earns attention, you’ll be able to turn the meowing noise off in just several days.