Cat with food bowl

Q. My cat meows incessantly before mealtime. How can I teach her to be more polite when she’s waiting to eat — or is this even possible?

A. Meows are an effective feline communication tool. Instead of a dinner bell, many a cat guardian is reminded that it’s mealtime by the insistent meowing of a four-legged friend. Your cat uses her voice to connect with you, and scientists have found that the mealtime cry is distinct from cries in other contexts: It is more annoying than a typical happy purr — and harder to ignore. There is also an upside to this this predinner crying: It is most likely to happen in smaller households, where the cat has a direct one-on-one relationship with her person. So your cat’s mealtime vocalizing may indicate that the two of you share a close bond, which is a good thing. But your annoyance with this behavior is understandable — the “feed me” cry can be quite unsettling. It’s important to teach your cat the polite ways to ask for what she wants. Fortunately, you can calm your cat’s mealtime crying with some simple clicker training.

Teach Your Cat to Sit

For many cats, meowing at meals is natural. To minimize the crying, you will need to replace that behavior with another, more acceptable behavior. Although many cat owners don’t realize it, cats are fast learners when they are properly motivated, and food is a good motivator. You can reduce mealtime meowing by teaching your cat to to sit and by rewarding her with treats when she does so quietly. Before you start training, check with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical cause of the behavior. Certain diseases that increase thirst and hunger, like hyperthyroidism, can cause excessive vocalizations. Have your vet check your cat’s weight as well, to be sure she’s eating enough, and discuss your feeding schedule with your vet, to guarantee that your cat is not going too long between meals. To teach a sit, use a lure — in this case, a spoon with a soft treat inside, such as canned cat food or tuna fish. Raise the spoon just above your cat’s nose while she is standing on all four paws and slowly lift it slightly above her head. As her bottom starts to tuck underneath her body, reward her with a verbal cue, like “yes” or “good,” or use a clicker to mark the behavior. As soon as you offer the verbal reward, lower the spoon below the cat’s mouth and allow her a lick of the food. If she stands on her hind feet when you offer the lure, hold the spoon in a lower position so that she can reach it while she’s sitting. After each success, move the spoon forward so that your cat again is on all fours, and then lure again. Once she is sitting on a regular basis in response to the lure, add a word, such as “sit,” as you start to move the lure back over her head. The goal is to phase out the lure and teach her to respond to the command. Once your cat is responding solely to the verbal marker and is sitting quietly in response to the command, transition the lure from the spoon to the food bowl and reward her with her bowl as soon as she sits. If your cat is an extremely persistent vocalizer, you may need to start easy. Hold a treat in your hand and wait for a quiet mouth and a desirable behavior, like orienting toward you or giving eye contact. Mark that behavior with a verbal cue or a click and reward with a treat. Work to build these quiet behaviors from only a couple of seconds to 30 seconds or longer.

Be Patient — and Creative

The way you feed your cat also can help. Feeding part of her meal in a food puzzle or hiding some of her kibble around the house, in places she frequents, turns her meal into something akin to a real hunt and expends both physical and mental energy. If your cat is especially vocal, play with her before a meal to release excess energy that may otherwise present as loud meowing. A feather toy allows her to channel her prey drive and prepare for her meal. Ask your cat to do her quiet behavior before you start the game; as the game winds down, follow up with her meal to complete the eating part of the predatory sequence. Your cat will do what works to get what she desires. If you teach her that quiet and calm gets her what she wants — in this case, dinner — she will soon learn to mellow her mealtime meowing. More on