Changes in the Meow (Hoarseness, Changes in Pitch, or Loss of Vocal Ability) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Variation in meowing sounds is normal in cats, but when meowing becomes hoarse or crackly it is considered abnormal. This change in the vocal sound can be a symptom of many conditions that range from mild to life-threatening. 

• Most commonly, hoarseness is an indication of overuse, however this symptom can also be attributed to upper respiratory infections, injuries to the neck, or tumors in or around the throat

• Diagnostic tools include physical evaluation, bloodwork, and, in some cases, diagnostic imaging

• Treatment varies from simple rest in the case of overuse, to antibiotic therapy, to surgical intervention, depending on the underlying cause

A Closer Look: What are Vocal Changes in Cats?

Vocal changes may vary in presentation and severity according to certain factors, including:

• Sounds of raspiness or hoarseness

• Changes in pitch of the meow (voice sounds lower or higher than normal)

• Complete loss of vocal ability: the cat attempts to vocalize but no sound comes out

Duration is another factor subject to variation. If the symptom suddenly arises, particularly when associated with a stressful event, it might be an indication of overuse. If hoarseness is chronic, it might be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as an infection or cancer.

There is a broad spectrum of potential causes of vocal changes. Overuse is a common case. If a cat meows a lot to attract attention because it is trapped somewhere or in distress, its meowing might become hoarse. Changes in vocal sounds may also be related to laryngitis, or inflammation of the vocal cords. Laryngitis might have many potential causes including tracheal intubation during anesthesia.

In more serious cases, vocal changes may be associated with neurological disorders. Neurological changes impacting vocalization do not always sound like hoarseness, but might seem more like a noticeable change in the character of the sounds.

Possible Causes

Changes in vocal sounds are associated with many disorders affecting the upper airway as well as some nervous system diseases, including

Upper respiratory tract infectionsHyperthyroidism 

• Viral infections such as feline leukemia virus or rabies

• Choking or foreign body stuck in the throat, such as migrating grass awns 

• Injuries, especially to the neck and throat area

• Tumors and cancers • Dysautonomia • Polymyositis

• Tuberculosis and other bacterial infections

• Smoke inhalation • Myasthenia gravisTick paralysis

• Toxicosis, such as bromethalin • Laryngeal paralysis

Brachycephalic airway syndrome • Intervertebral disc disease

Risk Factors

Changes in vocalization is rare in cats. The prognosis varies according to the underlying condition. Some causes of vocal changes are serious and potentially life-threatening, so hoarseness warrants prompt veterinary attention.  If vocal changes present alongside other serious symptoms, such as collapse, pale gums, weakness, or difficulty breathing, emergency veterinary care is required.

Testing and Diagnosis

The diagnostic process varies according to the suspected underlying condition. A complete physical examination, including bloodwork and medical history of the patient, is typically required. Sometimes diagnostic imaging such as CT scan, ultrasound, or X-rays are necessary to rule out more serious conditions affecting the throat, lungs, or other organs. 

Treatment also varies according to the cause of vocal changes. Treatment ranges from rest in the case of overuse, to medications such as antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections, to surgery for cancer or other diseases.

Similar symptoms

A hoarse meow might be confused with difficulty breathing or wheezing due to asthma.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms that arise depend on the underlying condition. Typically in cases of laryngitis, hoarseness is accompanied by:

• Wheezing

Difficulty breathing

• Panting

• Weakness


Upper airway infections present similar symptoms as well as sneezing, coughing, and nasal discharge.

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