Cat waking you up at night? Does he or she meow loudly seeking your attention? Or maybe Kitty jumps on your bed and bats at your face with a curious paw?
You're not alone.
Many owners come to this site with a similar complaint, asking how they can keep the cat from waking them up at night. Sleep deprivation is hard to deal with, but do not despair. This is actually a behavior problem that's often easy to solve!
Some people suggest locking Kitty outside your bedroom at night.
How about this instead:
We can save you and the cat some stress and aggravation by showing you how to let the cat spend the night with you without waking you up. After all, wouldn't you prefer to have that sweet fluffy furball with you at night? You know that's what the cat prefers too.
Yes. It really is possible.
We're going to walk you through understanding the reasons behind this nighttime behavior and work with you on establishing a new evening routine. One that will keep your cat active when you are, and more likely to sleep - or at least keep quiet - when you sleep.
Why is the cat waking you up at night?
The first step in solving any cat behavior problem is to understand the reasons behind it.
For two reasons:
- Understanding the behavior will help you implement the solution correctly and even adapt it to your own specific situation as may be necessary.
- Once you figure out the reason behind those feline alarm calls in the middle of the night, you'll probably appreciate your cat a bit more and won't be (as) angry.
Could it be a health problem?
Before we begin, a word of caution.
This article deals with behavioral problems in healthy cats. Almost always, the issue with cats that wake up their owners at night time is entirely behavioral. However, sometimes that's not the case. Kitty could be feeling poorly during night time. With some cats, a change in nighttime behavior can be the first sign of deteriorating eyesight or even dementia.
How can you tell the difference?
If vocal nighttime behavior is a new thing for your cat, especially if he or she is a senior kitty, you should talk to your vet. Do not attempt to "correct" the behavior before ruling out medical problems.
Read more: When Physical Problems Turn Into Behavior Problems.
So why do some cats wake the owner up at night?
Assuming that your cat is healthy, it's time to try and figure out what the behavioral motivations are.
First, there's that internal biological clock to take into account. Humans are diurnal creatures, that means most of us wake up in the morning, stay active during the day and go to bed at night.
How about our precious cats though? Maybe you heard that felines are nocturnal by nature, that is to say that they sleep during the day and are active during the night. You may be wondering at this point if we can even co-exist in the same home with such different sleep patterns. Don't worry, it's not as bad as that.
Are cats really nocturnal?
Experts today agree that domestic cats are probably not truly nocturnal. They are - brace yourself for a big fancy word here - Crepuscular. What does that mean? It means our cats are naturally programmed to be awake and hunting (i.e. alert and active) during dawn and twilight.
At which point, you may be asking yourself this: If cats are not nocturnal animals then why is my cat waking me up at night?
There are several possible answers to this question.
First, it's about what you consider night time. Think closely about the times when your cat is actually up and awake. And active too. Many of us are familiar with the "11 o'clock fever", for example. In some climates that means the 9pm-11pm time window which for your indoor cat is actually twilight time. If you see your cat running amok from one end of your house to the other, you're actually seeing the crepuscular biological clock at work.
The same is true for morning time. For us diurnal humans, 4am feels like the middle of the night. Our body is telling us that the sun isn't above the horizon just yet. The crepuscular cat however, senses that the sun is about to come and responds accordingly. It's about one hour before sunrise in many areas - and that's high time to be active if you're a cat.
Secondly, cats can and do adjust their sleep patterns to better match ours. At least to some extent. In one study, scientists compared between a group of cats who lived with their owners 24 hours a day, and another group that was kept outside in an enclosed garden during the night. The results clearly showed that the cats who spent the night with their human owners tended to adjust their sleep patterns accordingly. They were less active during the night compared to the cats who stayed outside.
In other words, when the cats were exposed to the rich stimuli of the garden from the evening until the morning hours, they stayed up to explore. This tells us that cats can control their sleep patterns to some extent. Also, it tells us what keeps kitties up while their owners are sleeping: They have things to do in the garden.
A bored cat is a sleepy cat - but only up to a point
Felines are predators. Most cats find the stimulation of prey irresistible. Even if the prey is out of reach - as in the case of birds seen through the window. Even if the prey is "pretend" - like a toy mouse or Da Bird. Keep that in mind for now - we're going to use that useful piece of information later on as we try to solve the problem.
Let's take a look at what your cat's daily routine looks like. If you're away from home and the cat is home alone, are there enough birds and mice to keep him busy? Probably not? At least not interesting moving ones, right? And we just said that a bored cat is likely to fall asleep during the day. That cat is obeying its internal clock. The biological clock of the crepuscular cat is saying: "No mice around now, let's go to sleep so we have enough energy to hunt them later."
Cats do need more sleep than humans do, about 12-16 hours a day. That's a lot but it's definitely not 24 hours a day. A cat that has spent the entire day sleeping will be up and about at night. Especially during "dawn" and "dusk" but we already said those can be flexible.
So now it's 4AM. Your cat has had is beauty sleep all day yesterday and then some more between midnight and "dawn". Now what? The sun is about to rise in a couple of hours and Kitty can sense that. What's more, that cat is bored. He wants your company and he craves some form of stimulation to keep boredom at bay.
What's a bored cat to do? Let's try and look at this from your cat's perspective:
I'm bored. I want someone to be with me. I'll meow really loudly in frustration. Hey, it's working! The human is up, mumbling those strange sounds at me! Less boring now! Oh, wait, they got back into bed. Ummm, let's try again...
How owners reinforce the behavior - even if they never meant to
What do you do when your cat wakes you up at night?
Most people respond. They talk to the cat. They may not be saying the nicest of things but cats don't know English that well. Some owners feel sorry for the poor cat, thinking he might hungry. So they get up and feed the cat.
By responding to your cat's calls, you have trained her or him to continue with this kind of behavior. If you feed the cat - just to make sure he or he is not miserably hungry - then you have reinforced the behavior even further. Let's eavesdrop to Kitty's thoughts once again -
See the problem?It's working again and I even got a prize! They opened a can of cat food for me. They must be really pleased with this new game!
In fact, your cat may be doing what he thinks you expect him to do! As one of our members said -
Cats are really into routines. She probably now thinks it is her JOB to wake you up at 6 am to go to the bathroom.
How to break the cycle of your cat waking you up at night
If we want to change the pattern (and we do!) we have to address two issues here -
1. Solve the boredom problem, and
2. Break the pattern of rewarding Kitty for waking you up at night time.
The good news? It's entirely doable! Compared to some behavior problems, this one is relatively easy to fix! Most cats respond very well to the method we're about to explain.
First, we'll have to deal with Kitty's boredom. We need to eliminate (or at least decrease) the cat's need for your company at night time. Then - and only then - we start working on how you stop giving Kitty that nighttime reward. It's going to take some discipline on your part, but we're going to show you just how that can be done. It won't take long. Most cats figure out the change in a few days and stop trying to wake up a tired owner.
How to deal with boredom in cats - general guidelines
There are many ways to keep an indoor-only cat properly stimulated. Kitty doesn't have to spend the entire day asleep! With a few tips and tricks you can help your cat become more active during the day. It's good for Kitty - physically and mentally.
Some things you could do -
- Add cat shelves and cat trees that will encourage your cat to jump, climb and exercise. Read more: How to create more vertical space for your cat
- Provide enticing cat toys which should be given out in rotation so your cat doesn't tire of them.
- Put a perch by a window, preferably with a bird feeder placed not too far away.
- Play cat movies/TV while you're away.
Beating Boredom What Indoor Cat Owners Need To Know
7 Proven Ways To Get Your Cat To Be More Active
How to set up an anti-boredom evening routine
If you want to enjoy a good night's sleep, you simply must set up an anti-boredom evening routine. It's how you make sure Kitty gets all the entertainment he needs at the hours when you are ok with being awake. This routine should take you about 15 minutes every evening.
The stages of your new anti-boredom routine include -
1. Play with your cat for at least 10-15 minutes using a rod-like cat toy.
This is not just playtime. This is therapy for your cat. You have to do this correctly to achieve the full benefits, so please take a few minutes to read this article -
Playing With Your Cat 10 Things You Need To Know
2. Once the play session is over, feed your cat. This wraps up what essentially was a simulation of a hunting session, leaving Kitty relaxed and happy.
That's it. Not very complicated, is it?
With enough daytime stimulation, capped with an evening playtime routine, you have successfully ensured your cat can spend the night without waking you up! Once we've taken care of fulfilling the needs, it's time to break what is now nothing more than an annoying habit.
How to break the habit of waking you up at night
Retraining cats is far easier than some people think. Once the cat's needs have been met, all it takes is consistency on the part of the owner.
In this case, the cat's needs have been met with our new enriched environment and anti-boredom evening routine. Time to address the key to behavioral change: Your own nighttime behavior. For the first few nights your cat is likely to keep trying to wake you up again. That's ok. It won't take more than a few nights to change that habit.
What happens on the first night?
So, you've played with Kitty for 15 minutes, following the playtime guidelines. Time to say goodnight and go to sleep. Just as you're about to fall asleep - or maybe at 4AM - you can hear it again... that demanding meow.
What do you do now?
And by nothing we mean zero response.
Do not answer. Do not curse. Do not mutter. Do not talk to your spouse about it, not even in a whispering tone (cats have excellent hearing!). Do not show any indication that you are even awake. As far as Kitty is concerned, you are fast asleep. If your cat is in the room with you, keep your eyes shut and ignore her or him completely. No matter how long it takes - do not respond. This cannot be stressed enough.
The worst thing you could do at this point is "hold it" for a long time and then break down and respond. That will only teach Kitty to nag for longer. Remember - your cat has had enough fun and games. He is not hungry. Kitty is just used to getting a response from you, that's all.
Your cat will quiet down eventually. And if she or he is trying to wake you up again the following night, keep practicing zero response. It's going to take a shorter while this time for Kitty to stop meowing. Without a response from you, there is nothing to reinforce the behavior, and within a few days, it should simply disappear.
Voila! You have your nights back!
How to stop my cat from waking me up at night: The FAQ
How to stop my cat from waking me up for a feeding in the morning?
If you're the kind of person who doesn't mind getting up at 6 or 7AM to feed the cat, that's ok. There's actually nothing wrong with feeding your cat while you're getting your coffee. However, you should not get up just to feed a cat. Decide on when is the best hour for you to get out of bed. It can be 7AM or 9AM - whatever works for your schedule. Just make a decision and stick to it.
There are several things you could do to prevent a cat from waking you up for his breakfast -
- Keep some kibble in a food dish so your cat can munch on it during the night or in the morning, before you're up.
- Don't want to feed dry? Invest in an automatic cat feeder that can serve a portion of wet food in the morning.
- Just train your cat to wait. Your cat will be perfectly ok going without food for 10-12 hours at a time. Feed enough before bedtime (and after playing with your cat for at least 15 minutes).
My cat meows at night and that wakes me up
Some cats are more vocal than others. These cats may use vocalization to try and wake up the owner - even if they are in a different room. If your cat has taken to night time meowing as a new habit, start by talking to your vet. This could be an indication of a health problem, especially with an older cat.
Otherwise, treat this the same way as any other feline way for waking you up at night and follow the recipe above.
What if my cat doesn't like to play?
Playing with your cat is a science and an art form. With some cats, it's super easy to get them to be active and chase toy mice. Others require interactive play sessions with their owner. Take a few minute to read our guide about playing with your cat and see which tips and tricks can help you with making your cat pounce.
If your cat absolutely won't play and all other techniques for environmental enrichment have failed, you may need to consult with a qualified pet behaviorist. Your cat may be particularly stubborn or stuck in his ways. Which brings us to the last question.
What if nothing works?
If you've truly tried everything and followed all of the above steps very carefully for a week - what then? First, try to assess - was there really no change at all? Could it be that your cat's efforts to wake you up have become shorter and more sporadic? If so, you're on the right track. Don't give up just yet and carry on with what you're doing.
But if it's been over a week and there's no sign of change at all, then it may be time to consider the last resort: Keeping Kitty outside your bedroom during the night. We hope it won't come to this though because sleeping in the same area brings comfort to both felines and humans. However, sleep deprivation can be tough on our body and mind. If your cat's wake up tactics are driving you crazy, protect your sanity and keep Kitty out of the bedroom.
As always, if you have any questions or need help with specific advice, post about it in the cat behavior forum. If you want to share your own tips about how to regain a peaceful night's sleep, by all means, post a comment to this article!