“How can I stop my cat from waking me up at night?” As a cat behaviorist, this is a very common complaint I get from clients. What can be done about this frustrating behavior? Let’s take a look.
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Myth: Cats Are Nocturnal
First things first, let’s understand a cat’s natural body clock. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not nocturnal. Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. They have evolved this way for a few reasons, all around survival. First, many possible predators are more active either during the day or at night. Second, cats have greater success hunting their prey at dust or dawn. Cats can see extremely well at dusk and dawn, whereas their prey items may not. Their prey items also want to avoid predators at night and during the day. Rabbits for instance, are also crepuscular, and are on the menu for most cats.
Humans often mistake crepuscular animals for nocturnal simply because we see they’re awake at nighttime, and don’t sleep throughout the night like us. In the case of cats, they sleep in multiple shorter cycles, often in lighter sleep. This is necessary to protect themselves and hunt. So while we sleep in one long chunk and have more concentrated deep sleep, theirs is divided up and their sleep sessions are more “cat naps.” This results in them being awake off and on throughout the day AND night.
However, it’s important to note that some cats do adjust to our schedules over time and are less active at night. And while some older cats do have problems sleeping at night (which we’ll get into), other older cats seem to have little issue sleeping through the night.
Tip 1: Play Before Bed
I like to drain energy before bed through playtime. The more you can get a cat running and jumping the better, so using wand toys will usually be your best bet. You can also use a laser, just be sure to give the cat a physical toy to touch before ending the play session. A cat is tired when they lie down and lose interest, walk away or if you see them starting to pant.
Tip 2: Feed Before Bed
Cats in the wild will hunt during the night as well, so it isn’t a bad idea to give your cats a meal before bed. If you play with them, play first and then feed them to complete the hunting cycle they would experience outside. This will also decrease the chances of them waking you up because of hunger.
Tip 3: Encourage Foraging Overnight
A great way to meet the needs of your cat is to give them an activity that gets rewarded. Teach your cat how to use puzzle feeders (like PetStages Buggin’ Out) or foraging snackers (like the Doc & Poebe Indoor Hunting Feeder). Once they learn, you can put food or treats in these items before bed and let your cat forage throughout the night. If they get better with the snacker, you can even start hiding it and make your cat work even harder for their treats.
Tip 4: Do Not Get Up
What happens when you get up for a meowing cat? You have trained the cat that their meowing is rewarded with your attention. That’s the exact opposite thing you want to do. It’s very difficult because obviously you want to sleep, and many owners try to stay strong but eventually give in. Unfortunately, your cat will never stop this behavior if you give in.
I had to train two cats to stop doing this, and I started by closing them out of my bedroom. For about two weeks, the cats would wake me up at about the same time (probably around 3 or 4 a.m.). I refused to get up, and the behavior eventually stopped. Then, I could allow them back in my room at night.
When you’re breaking this cycle, keep in mind that it’s going to be frustrating, and you’re going to go through a period of time when you will be woken up. Also, understand that before a behavior is exhausted, there’s often what’s called an extinction burst. This is when there’s an increase in the behavior, but it comes right before the behavior ends. Most people give up at this point. Don’t give up. The behavior pattern is about to break! Stay the course.
In certain situations, for example with high-energy breeds or senile cats, no amount of ignoring helps. That’s when the next tip come in handy.
Tip 5: Set Up an Automatic Feeder
Schedule an automatic feeder to go off shortly before the time that your cat starts to vocalize. They will get fed and you can continue dreaming away. Keep in mind that cats try to break into these feeders once they know what’s inside. Do a little research to find ones that are harder to break into. One I’ve used in the past and loved is PetSafe Smart Feed. You can schedule feedings or feed at any time from your phone. It will even feed when the power is out thanks to backup batteries.
Tip 6: Keep Cat in One Room Overnight
If you can create an effective routine by keeping a cat in a room they enjoy (whether that’s your bedroom or another place in the home), that can be very helpful. Some cats want to be near you all night or may want a break from other people or pets in the home. Just make sure they have access to a litter box and water at all times.
This tip can be especially useful for older cats that suffer from some dementia. Cats have a decrease in cognitive function as they age, just like people. Older cats can get confused about where they are, especially overnight when the house is quiet. Anecdotally, owners often say their cat stops crying when they hear or see their owner. Keeping your senior cat in your bedroom with you may help them easily establish 1) where they are and 2) where you are, calming any anxiety and limiting confusion.
Tip 7: Consider Medication
After trying everything you can think of, if your cat is still waking you up at night, you can talk to your vet about medication to help them relax and sleep through the night. Especially for seniors, a low dose of gabapentin can be beneficial. Administer 2-2.5 hours before bed, and you should both have a more solid night of sleep. There are also other meds and supplements that can help your cat relax. Explore all options with your vet and decide what’s best for your situation.
Reminder Re: Kittens
Kittens are kittens. Keep in mind they have what seems like endless energy, and there is actually nothing wrong with a kitten that is awake at nighttime. I would say it’s extremely normal, and I’d be more concerned if your kitten didn’t get up at night. Remember that it’s temporary. All kittens eventually become cats and their energy level declines with age. Of course, the tips above will still be helpful with kittens, but they also may need to just outgrow their 3 a.m. zoomies.