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Cat Keeping You Awake? Stop Annoying Nighttime Behaviors

Cats are active at night for behavioral as well as medical reasons; here's what you can do.

Rita Reimers  |  Apr 6th 2016


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

We don’t get enough sleep for many reasons: We work too much, stay out too late, watch too much television, our cats keep us awake. … Wait, what?! Cats can cause sleep deprivation? I get letters all the time from people telling me they can’t sleep through the night because their cats routinely wake them up. In fact, a recent client told me she gets up at 4 a.m. every day to feed her cat and then goes back to bed. She confided that she is very tired all the time.

Cat playing with owners feet

Cat playing with owner’s feet by Shutterstock.

Why cats are active at night

It’s a myth that cats are most active at night (nocturnal). Cats are most active at dusk and dawn (crepuscular) when they are likely to be hunting for food. If your cat is keeping you awake at night, here are some common reasons why:

Boredom: Cats who sleep all day are ready for action when you get home from work. But we’re usually so busy that we finally relax only when it’s time to go to bed. That makes us “sitting targets” for kitty. (This is also why cats often come to you for attention while you’re in the bathroom.)

Hunger: Cats have a set rhythm and routine by which they live: wake, hunt, eat, groom, sleep. If they get hungry in the middle of the night, they will wake you up so they can “hunt” with you for food. Batting at your toes or jumping on your head are your cat’s way of telling you it’s time to forage for food.

Habit: My friend, Iris, is guilty of this one. Her cats have gotten her into the habit of giving them attention in the middle of the night when they wake her by nudging her and forcing her to pet them. They don’t understand time of day; to them, it’s just their time to get mom’s attention. They have trained Iris to give them what they want, at the expense of her getting a good night’s sleep, and she reinforces their behavior by giving in.

Illness: Many illnesses can keep a cat awake at night. These include pain from arthritis or inflamed gums, and illnesses such as thyroid problems that cause restlessness, hyperactivity, and increased hunger. If your cat is in pain or discomfort, you’re likely to notice his reaction to it when the rest of the house is quiet. If you suspect your cat is in pain, it’s time for a vet visit.

Reproduction: Cats who are not spayed or neutered might exhibit increased nocturnal activity. Queens who come into heat often yowl in the night to let male cats know they are ready to mate. Unaltered males get restless at night if there are females in estrus nearby. This also is why outdoor unaltered male cats tend to roam.

Your cat wants you to get up and share a midnight feast. Woman and cat raid the fridge by Shutterstock

Your cat wants you to get up and share a midnight feast. Woman and cat raid the fridge by Shutterstock

Getting your cat to let you sleep

Okay, you’re guilty: You’ve made the mistake of giving in to your cat’s nighttime shenanigans, and you believe you’ll never get a good night’s sleep again. Well, it’s not too late to fix this. With a few tweaks to your cat’s routine, you (eventually) will be able to sleep through the night again.

Schedule kitty time: Schedule daily playtime with your cats. It will be the best 10 to 15 minutes of your day, because you will bond with your cats and help them use up their pent-up energy. Get out that feather toy or that ball (my Sonny loves to play fetch) and wear them out to the point where they lie down and stop wanting to play. Keep in mind your cat’s natural cycle (wake, hunt, eat, groom, sleep). This play activity mimics your cat’s hunting instincts, so doing this just before mealtime is most effective.

Regulate mealtime: Hand in hand with scheduling playtime is regulating meals by having a set time for breakfast and dinner. Cats love predictability and routine, so if you get them used to the “play then eat” routine and feed them just before bedtime, they will be more likely to sleep through the night. I know a lot of people free feed; I do, too, but only with dry food.

My cats get wet food at a set time of morning and evening, after “hunting” for it. By timing, I don’t mean time by the clock. There was a time my kitties would routinely wake me at 5 a.m. for food. So I taught them that they don’t get food until we have our pre-breakfast play/hunt session. It’s not so much the time of day as it is the actions we do in the morning and evening that set their expectations.

Kitty, go to bed! Cat at nighttime by Shutterstock

Kitty, go to bed! Cat at nighttime by Shutterstock

Ignore the behavior: It can be difficult to do, but if your cats are in the habit of waking you up, and even the “play then eat” routine has not stopped it, then the other option is to simply ignore the behavior. Don’t react at all, not even to scold them; cats also will accept negative attention as payoff for their behavior. Breaking the pattern by ignoring the unwanted behavior is the only way to get it to stop. Once there is no reward from the behavior, it will stop. Provided, of course, this is truly a behavioral issue.

Vet checkup: My 17-year-old Sweet Pea has hyperthyroidism as well as stomatitis, a mouth condition that causes intense pain and discomfort. Together, these conditions were causing her to pace and cry in the middle of the night. Once our veterinarian got everything under control, Sweet Pea’s nighttime restless antics stopped, and we now both sleep peacefully through the night. Get your cats to the vet to rule out any medical conditions that could be the cause of nighttime activity. Don’t simply assume it is behavioral in origin.

Spay and neuter: One of the best things you can do is to spay and neuter your cats. Not only does it help control the animal population, but it also will curb the nighttime activities associated with unaltered cats. Females will no longer experience the hormonal surges of being in heat, and males will no longer wish to roam about and yowl looking for females in estrous. Early spaying and neutering also heads off aggressive behaviors and prevents various cancers associated with the reproductive systems of both males and females.

Give these changes a good couple of weeks to take hold, and you will find yourself purring like a kitten all night long.