Attention-Seeking Behavior in Cats

Excessive vocalization, begging, pawing and more

Photo of Cat Cat Seeking Attention by Meowing
Cat Seeking Attention by Meowing. photo © 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 before punishing your cat for excessive crying and meowing, or other attention seeking behavior.

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:

Types and Possible Causes

1. "Lost in the Night" Howling
Although no one knows for sure why some cats do this, it sometimes is related to increasing deafness or even senility, as cats age. This kind of mournful calling, 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. In both instances, veterinary intervention and treatment are indicated.

2. 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 certainly not harmful, and for the overweight cat, are a viable substitute when the cat begs for food.

Solution: Occasional treats are certainly not harmful, and for the overweight cat, are a viable substitute when the cat begs for food, particular treats of the high protein variety.

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, with perhaps one small meal of dry food in the evening, which you can leave down for the night.

3. 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.

4​. 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.

5​. Pica
Although pica 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 to 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. 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.

6. 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. 

7​. Rippling Skin Disorder
This condition is often successfully treated with dietary change, elimination of fleas or toxins as 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:

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