We all love our cats – their friendly greeting when you arrive home at the end of the day, their sweet meow during feeding time, kneading and massaging your face in the middle of the night…oh, is that just me? But do you know what to do if your cat’s meow ever changes or gets lost?
A cat’s meow comes from their voicebox, or larynx (prounounced lair-inx). It’s a small structure that sits in the very back of their mouth and opens to their trachea, or windpipe. If you gently run your hand along the underside of your cat’s neck, you should be able to feel a little “bump” just behind their chin. Did you feel it? The larynx consists of a group of cartilages that move in and out when your cat breathes, meows, or eats.
When they swallow, the larynx briefly closes to protect their airway from any food material. We’ve all heard the expressions when someone “swallows wrong” or when food or water “goes down the wrong pipe” – it’s because the larynx didn’t quite close quickly enough to protect the trachea. The cartilages vibrate when cats meow which gives them that characteristic sound.
So what happens when your cat’s meow changes or is lost? A condition known as laryngeal paralysis is more common in dogs and horses; however, it can affect cats as well. It occurs when one of the cartilages becomes paralyzed and can’t move in and out properly so it can’t vibrate when they meow. There’s a long list of reasons for why this cartilage doesn’t move appropriately, but first, your veterinarian needs to see your cat to make the diagnosis.
They will perform a complete physical exam plus a sedated laryngeal exam. Your veterinarian needs to look deep into the back of your cat’s mouth and examine the larynx. I don’t think I’ve met one cat that would tolerate this without a sedative to help them relax. The sedation takes away some of the stress on your cat and also protects your veterinarian’s fingers from a tooth or claw. Once your veterinarian makes the diagnosis, they can recommend any additional diagnostics they feel are warranted such as bloodwork or radiographs to determine the cause.
It’s important to know there is a wide range of clinical signs that are related to laryngeal paralysis, a lost meow is just one of them. Cats can also sound “wheezy” when they breathe, occasionally cough, or even pant. A veterinarian should address any sign of respiratory distress or panting immediately as that is a medical emergency in cats.
If you’re ever concerned about your cat or have any questions, your veterinarian and their staff will be happy to discuss them with you.