I’m sure you’ll agree that waking in the dead of night to hear your own cat crying like an unhappy infant is an unnerving experience. And if you’re new to the joys of being a cat owner you will probably find it mystifying as on the majority of occasions there appears to be no reason for them to wail in such a distressed manner. But after years of listening to my own two cats crying in the middle of the night, I believe I can shed some light on this fascinating conundrum.
Why do cats cry like a baby at night? Because cats understand the power of communication not only between themselves but with their human companions. They have a recognisable form of language complete with a rich vocabulary and possess an appreciation of their own voices.
Of course, cats can cry when they are uncomfortable through a medical condition such as diabetes or if they have hurt themselves leaping from a cupboard. But when there are no signs of physical distress I always delve a little deeper to discover why my cats are trying so hard to tell me something. It’s often surprising to find that the reasons behind my cats’ bouts of nocturnal vocalisation are on an emotional level. Sometimes they’re lonely, bored or suffering acute stress from being bullied by the cat next door. But how do I know what clues to look for?
Understanding why your Cats are so Vocal
One of the main reasons for cats crying at night is attention and it’s simply their way of telling you that they need your help. Mine usually want me to let them out so that they can visit their outdoor toilet area. The signs for this are easy to spot as they have a habit of circling around by the back door in readiness to run out.
Hunger can be another reason which is quickly identified and remedied. Occasionally cats cry because they are lonely or insecure. Kittens are especially vulnerable as they find they are suddenly no longer part of a boisterous litter and they are away from familiar surroundings. They will feel isolated and afraid, emotions that are intensified during the night. Crying is how your kitten communicates its feelings and its need for reassurance. Allowing your kitten to sleep in your bedroom should gradually reduce the number of times it cries. However, it’s not just kittens that can feel insecure.
Moving house can cause a cat to become as bewildered as it is disorientated by the loss of its familiar home and will obviously need time to adjust. Elderly cats who have been fairly independent all their lives can suddenly become more vocal. No longer as active as they once were they are trying to tell you how confused they are with their change of circumstances. Consequently, older cats require much more attention and reassurance.
Unfortunately, some can suffer from cognitive dysfunction syndrome which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Cats with this degenerative illness can experience episodes of severe confusion causing them to cry out at night through fear. Leaving a low level of soothing background music can provide some comfort. But what are cats in their prime trying to tell us when they cry at night?
Indoor cats, in particular, suffer anxiety from sheer boredom. Intelligent and inquisitive, they quickly tire of their limited surroundings and are in need of vast amounts of stimulating play. Many owners overlook the fact that cats are frequently more active at night when their instinct prompts them to go hunting for small prey. Vocalisation during the night means they are calling for amusement and exciting activities. Providing them with cat puzzle toys such as a motorised mouse that they can chase around a circular track can help alleviate their feelings of frustration. However, cats who have plenty of access to the garden outside can be just as vocal for an entirely different reason.
Cats are territorial creatures who mark out the perimeters of their personal domain with their own scent and keep a constant lookout for intruders. If another cat lives too close their territories will overlap causing border disputes with intense caterwauling at night. If your cat happens to be in at night and looks through the window to see its rival it will begin to cry in anger and let you know it needs to get out quick.
Alternatively, it could feel too intimidated to venture outside which in turn causes extreme stress and vocalisation. Even indoor cats are territorial and can occasionally suffer anxiety if you have moved the furniture and dislodged their favourite spot. Crying at night is their way of venting their anger and making a complaint. But is it only at night that cats cry?
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Do Cats cry during the Day?
Cats are far less likely to cry between their daytime cat naps because they have many distractions to keep them occupied and most importantly, they can enjoy more of your companionship. Their awareness of isolation and loneliness is much reduced and although cats seem to sleep at any time, they are more prone to being nocturnal. This is particularly noticeable at the end of a hot summer’s day when they suddenly become active after sunset but it can leave some cats feeling bored and liable to cry at night.
Some cats are noisy regardless of the time. Siamese cats, in particular, have a reputation for being extremely talkative and for crying at night like a baby. The Siamese cat has a finely developed intellect and is noted for having a close relationship with its owners. Its fondness for companionship means it will often indulge in vocalisation during the day to inform you that it needs attention. Other breeds that imitate the cries of a baby include the Japanese Bobtail and the Burmese. However, the cats that don’t cry like babies are new-born kittens even if they are the offspring of domestic cats who have become strays. The mother cat’s instinct like that of her cousin, the Scottish wildcat, is to keep her helpless kittens silent for fear of drawing the attention of predators. But when will they be allowed to purr?
Why do Cats Purr?
All cats purr and there is often a debate over whether they are happy, irritated or just noisy. My own cats will frequently start purring when they indicate contentment such as being stroked or when they are relaxing in the sun. They even manage to purr while eating something particularly appetising. I never hear them purr when they appear frightened or anxious. Unlike its night time wailing, purring is a soothing part of a cat’s conversation. There is no doubting that they purr when they choose to but it is a skill they have to learn as one of my own cats demonstrated.
At the age of one year she didn’t purr at all, then gradually there was a momentary hum. Over the course of the next two or three months, the fragment of purring increased. No one taught her how to purr so how did she know what to do? Cats purr by adjusting the muscles in the throat near to the larynx. As they breathe in and out the air resonates along their vocal cords to produce the purring sound. The action is virtually the same as when people choose to hum a tune. Although there seems to be a mystery surrounding purring it is clearly another indication of how cats express themselves. They are certainly aware of how to produce such a sound and by choosing when to purr they obviously recognise and value their own voices.
And each cat like every person has its own unique tone and quality to its voice. Anyone with more than one cat can easily distinguish one from the other by how each one sounds when miaowing. But when you talk to your cat does it understand what you are saying?
Do Cats understand Human Speech?
Cats are resourceful, intelligent and perceptive. They communicate with each other in a variety of tones to express anger, contentment or frustration. Their vocabulary consists of various miaows and assorted noises. A mother cat talks to her kittens to give them orders such as a low growl to make them stay in one place or a chirruping noise to call them to her. They understand her perfectly and do as they are told. When your cat is watching the birds it will often chatter at them. When discovering an intruder in its territory a cat will use a variety of hisses and growls while whimpering is a sign of submission. But when your cat communicates with you do you understand each other?
There are some cat owners who are convinced that their cats understand their language because the cats display an uncanny ability to know what is going on. Cats communicate with us through many vocal noises reserving one type for when they want their food or a more urgent cry typically like a baby’s when they are desperate for some sort of action such as a door being opened. They all possess the power to communicate with us and their feline contemporaries by using their wide range of recognisably distinct vocal sounds. When they cry at night they are simply using one part of their vocal repertoire to get our attention. Identifying changes in your cat’s behaviour and linking it to their particular circumstances can help you determine why your cat cries like a baby at night.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.