Does this sound familiar? You have just fallen asleep or you’ve been snoozing away for hours when suddenly your adorable kitty startles you awake, insisting you feed or interact with her. It might be a one-time event or it’s something that happens predictably like clockwork, every night.
These precocious cats will do whatever it takes to get their favorite human’s attention. Some find they can get the desired reactions by subtly vocalizing, pawing and touching their sleeping person. Other kitties find they get results only after they’ve escalated their message by knocking things off of shelves, rattling window shades, and pouncing on their owners. Usually, these tactics are not appreciated by those who are abruptly awakened.
Although frustrating, there are legitimate reasons for the behavior. The first step for enjoying an uninterrupted, full night of sleep is to identify the causes for the annoying behavior. Sometimes it’s not just one reason but a combination of factors.
Here are the common reasons for the behavior, along with suggestions that will help you sleep through the night:
Changes in behavior are sometimes the only indication that a cat isn’t well. Although it can be difficult to know when felines are under the weather, their behaviors often provide clues that something is amiss. Many diseases including thyroid disease, high blood pressure, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and painful arthritis as well as cognitive dysfunction can cause kitties to excessively vocalize at night and act out.
Before assuming that your kitty has a behavior problem, have her thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. Only after all possible medical issues have been ruled out, approach it as a behavior challenge.
Some cats’ worlds begin and end with food — no matter how much they’re fed, they never seem to get enough to eat. Others might eat only twice a day or they’re not fed quite enough to take the edge off of their appetites. These hungry cats might make their demands known night and day.
You can stop the behavior by modifying how and when you feed your feline. After making sure you are feeding her enough, divide the food and feed her multiple times a day. Timed automatic canned-food feeders work perfectly for this — especially if the cat is alone all day. At least one of the meals should be automatically delivered while you are sleeping — ideally just prior to when she usually starts demanding food. Additionally, make eating fun. Hide treats and dry food in her toys, on cat trees, and in boxes for her to find.
It’s not just cats. Animals repeat behaviors if the behaviors are getting the desired results. At times, exhausted owners will unintentionally reinforce the night-time antics by interacting with the perpetrators. Some people will feed, pet, or play with the tenacious cats in their efforts to stop the behaviors and get some sleep. Felines are smart — it doesn’t take long for them to figure out that their tactics work. Naturally, they repeat them.
Ignoring the behavior isn’t enough to stop it. There are two other parts to the equation. The first is addressing the reasons behind the demanding behavior, but in a way that won’t deprive you of sleep.
Start by playing with your little attention seeker just before you go to bed. Don’t give in and play with her when she interrupts your sleep with her night-time antics. Play, using a pole type toy, in a way that imitates the hunt — dragging the toy away from the little hunter while encouraging her to catch it. After the last catch of the play session, immediately feed her. She will eat, groom, and go to sleep. Clicker training is another fun activity that is mentally stimulating and will give her the attention she seeks.
Instead of reinforcing food-driven behaviors with food when she wakes you, use a timed automatic canned-food feeder. Set it up so it opens one or two times while you sleep. Some models come with ice packs, keeping canned food fresh. Additionally, enrich her environment with objects she will enjoy. Ball-and-tract toys, scratchers, and tall cat trees placed near windows will keep her entertained and her attention is focused away from you.
The other part of the equation is to reinforce the behaviors you want. Pet, cuddle, and stroke your cat when she is settled down and not acting out.
Often, kitties who are left alone for hours every day without enrichment or buddies to interact with become bored. Sometimes they resort to annoying behaviors when their people are attempting to sleep. These cats live in boring environments — they have very little enrichment and no one to interact with. They often resort to waking their owners in the middle of the night for a little affection or play.
These little ones need the same enrichment program as those cats who are unintentionally being reinforced for their midnight frolics. Vertical territory, toys, play and cuddle sessions every day will help keep them mentally stimulated. Also, depending on the personalities of the cats, adopting and gradually introducing them to new kitties can keep them stimulated.
Kittens and young cats are nonstop playing machines — soliciting play any time of the day or night. A foot moving under the covers or a small noise can be irresistible to kittens who want raucous play sessions.
As these youngsters mature, the intensity of their play tones down and they usually start adjusting to your schedule. That can take months. You need your sleep now. You can reclaim your slumber by tiring the youngster out before you go to bed. Using a pole toy, engage her in an intense play session, immediately feeding her when she catches the toy at the end of the session. Treasure hunts can also help tire out young kitties. Hide treats all over the house — in cat toys, on tall cat furniture, on shelves and in boxes — your cat will spend time and energy, focused on finding the hidden goodies. Also, consider adopting another kitten who is the same age and as energetic as yours. In addition to tiring each other out, they will learn important social skills by playing and interacting with each other.
Although it will take a little time and consistency, the midnight frolics will stop, allowing you to finally sleep through the night.
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Do you have 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.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.
She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.
She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.