Who needs an alarm clock if you live with a cat like Puccini? Puccini wakes me up earlier and earlier every morning by yowling and wailing. He used to wake me at 6 a.m. with soft meows, now he wakes me up at 4:30 a.m. with ear-piercing shrieks. His screams now are so loud that last night, my neighbors, thinking someone was dying, called the police. I have no choice. In order to stop the screaming, I have to drag myself out of bed and spend time with him. He quiets down only after I feed him cat cookies and cuddle with him on the couch. Good for him — not so good for me. Please help me stop Puccini from practicing arias in the early morning. Puccini and Bill
Bill, exhausted and cranky after only a few hours of sleep, contacted me, requesting a cat behavior consultation. Although he dearly loves Puccini, he was tired of being tired. Bill was on the verge of giving up and finding a new home for his cat.
At my urging, Bill took Puccini to the veterinarian for a thorough examination. A variety of medical issues can cause cats to vocalize incessantly. These include thyroid disease, elevated blood pressure, hearing loss, and cognitive dysfunction. Puccini’s vet found that the cat was in perfect health. Once it was determined that Puccini’s problem was behavioral, I got to work sleuthing out the triggers for his early morning operatic performances. Behavior always happens for a reason. I had to determine those reasons and design recommendations that would make everyone happy — Puccini, Bill, and the neighbors.
I found that Puccini was a smart little attention seeker. It was clear that the cat enjoyed his interactions with Bill, and he quickly figured out how to successfully solicit affection and attention from his favorite human. Additionally, Puccini was bored. Although Bill’s home was lovely, full of antiques and art, there was very little that would inspire and interest a cat.
Bill reported that Puccini’s early morning concerts started about a year before he contacted me. He responded to the cat’s songs by softly singing back to him and calling his name. In the beginning, Puccini’s vocalizations were not loud, and he quieted down almost immediately after Bill sung to him, allowing Bill to get back to sleep.
The consequences of a behavior will predict whether the behavior will be repeated. Consequences also predict the frequency of the behavior. Within days, Puccini’s annoying behavior escalated. The arias became louder and longer. The songs morphed into drawn-out wails and howls. Bill, thinking the cat was in pain, rushed out of bed, swooped Puccini into his arms and reassured him with cuddles and cat cookies. Bill inadvertently reinforced the behavior he was so desperate to stop.
Life was good for Puccini. Each day the performance became louder, and it started earlier than the previous day. It ended only when Bill cuddled the cat and tossed cat cookies his way. Bill became cranky and tired, and the neighbors complained.
Although Bill understood that somehow he was reinforcing the behavior through affection and treats, he was afraid to stop. He tried once — he ceased cuddling and treating Puccini when he vocalized. The cat responded through escalation, yowling louder and pushing breakables off the table. The neighbors responded by calling the police.
Bill can put an end to the vocal raucous through activities that address the reasons for the behavior, and also through behavior modification and enriching the environment. Additionally, he will have to change his own behavior.
The first step to stop the behavior is in two parts. Bill has to quit cuddling and tossing cat cookies to Puccini when he starts yowling. He also needs to refrain from calling out or interacting with the cat while he is demanding attention through vocalizing. That is only one-half of the pie. Bill also must address Puccini’s need for attention and reinforce the cat with affection when he is quiet.
This translates into a few more sleepless nights for the neighborhood. When Puccini starts serenading, Bill needs to practice the fine art of no action.
The second part involves reinforcing desired behavior. Puccini’s usual MO is to howl and wail for attention. The cat will have to stop at some point to take a breather. When the howling stops and Puccini is quiet, Bill reinforces the silence with a short cuddle or a cat cookie. It will take a few repetitions, but Puccini will finally make the connection — his needs are met when he is silent. The quiet times will gradually lengthen while the wailing decreases.
Clicker training, a science-based training method, works perfectly for this. The click from the clicker marks the quiet when Puccini stops wailing. After the click, Bill immediately cuddles and treats the cat.
Play is also an important compoent. It will help satisfy Puccini’s need for attention. To be effective, Bill should use a method of playing that imitates the hunt. He will also need to play every night right before bed. After the last catch of the session, Bill immediately feeds his little attention seeker a meal. After eating, the cat will groom himself and then go to sleep.
From a cat’s perspective, Bill’s lovely home was boring. There were no toys to bat around or high places to climb. Bored cats often engage in behaviors that might not appeal to their people. Puccini’s environment needs enriching. Bill can make his home more cat-centric by outfitting it with vertical territory, cat toys, puzzle boxes, and scratchers. Vertical territory comes in many forms, including cat trees, window perches, and shelves. Additionally, household furniture such as armoires and bookshelves can become hangouts for Puccini. Placing a cat tree next to a secure window will keep Puccini entertained with the goings on in the neighborhood.
Toys will help keep Puccini mentally stimulated. Good choices for toys include those the cat can interact with by himself. Ball and tract toys and puzzle boxes are usually a hit with cats, especially when treats are hidden in them. Toys as simple as ping-pong balls and cardboard boxes will also keep Puccini entertained for hours.
An automatic feeder that is timed to open a few times at night and in the early morning can help stop the wake up calls by satisfying Puccini’s food cravings. There are commercially available auto feeders for canned as well as dry food.
Puccini’s concertos will not stop immediately. Success depends on consistency and implementing all of the suggestions. Because it will take time for the early morning arias to cease, Bill should alert the neighbors. Fresh baked cookies may help calm their raw nerves.
Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.