Updated November 28, 2020
It’s 6:30am. There’d still be another 30 minutes before your alarm if another sort of alarm wasn’t already going off. Incessantly.
It’s hard to ignore a cat when they want something. It’s what makes them a great first-time pet. However, being woken up too early is no laughing matter. So welcome to my new support group: Friends & Family Of Pushy Cats.
Before I share with you some practical tips, there are six essential principles you need to know:
- Cats don’t have the same sleep cycle as us so we can’t expect them to be tired when we are
- Cats are hunters and do best when given hunting-style things to do
- Despite what people say, cats genuinely seek and value our company
- Rewarding a behaviour intermittently is extremely negative, and often worse than not trying at all
- Cats don’t waste energy and will eventually extinguish any truly unrewarded behaviour
- Punishment is completely ineffective
Now let’s put all this together into a plan of action.
Ways To Stop Cats Waking You Up At Night
Not all of these tricks will be possible, and yes, some are very obvious, like…
1. Shut The Door
Keeping your cat out of the bedroom won’t work on its own, but it’s a good start.
Without steps 2-4, the only change will be that now your cat wakes you by meowing or scratching at the door. You could easily confine your cat overnight, but that’s not what we’re trying to do here.
Ignore this step if your cat sleeps on the bed, as many happily do. In fact, here’s a thought: if you currently try to keep your cat out, part of the answer might be actually allowing access. Especially if combined with steps 4-6 below.
2. Provide Things To Do
As an owner of an old house, I get mice from time to time. When I do, Grendel goes from restless, pushy cat to Zen meditation master.
I’m not suggesting you release mice each night just get a good sleep, but the principle is sound. If your cat has something to do, things are better for everyone.
The classic approach here is to feed your cat late at night using puzzle feeders or activity toys. You can even buy mouse-shaped food holders designed to be hidden around the house. Don’t forget the daytime too. Unless you make an effort, indoor cats tend to sleep most of the day and then want to stay up with you at night.
Our indoor cat page has examples of puzzles feeders, but also many other ideas for keeping cats busy day and night (wait til you see what I’ve done to my kitchen!)
3. Replace What’s Missing
Does your cat have another place that’s as warm and comfy as your bed? Probably not, and it’s hard to fix. Cats are notoriously fussy about beds. Everyone’s brought home a you-beaut cat bed only for Tiddles to take one look and never step near it again.
It’s worth persisting though. Grendel loves his Catcave, especially when fully optioned with a Snugglesafe heat pad in winter.
4. Provide Clear Messages
Most cats wake their owners because they want something, usually breakfast. And most people give it just to keep the peace. It’s a classic case of who exactly trained who?
If you want your cat to let you sleep, you waking up needs to have no link with them getting what they want. Your cat needs to know that getting you up is not going to get them fed any faster, or let outside any sooner etc. So you need to create an alternative system your cat will come to understand.
In our house, Grendel is fed after the person who feeds him has showered. He can see the routine and knows he just has to wait. Other ways would be to use the clock if you’re a regular riser or another event, like leaving for work or at breakfast. Just never straight after waking, and always using a rule that your cat can predict.
5. Never Surrender
Remember the psychology: occasional lapses are a very, very bad idea. In fact, they verge on totally destructive. If the whole family can’t be 100% reliable in your new strategy, it’s doomed to fail.
Remember the extinction burst, too. You’re going to get a ramping up of the effort when you first try to change things, and it can last for up to three months. There’s no alternative to just gritting your teeth and getting through it.
6. Automatic Feeders
Depending on the cat and the house, a desperate owner can try an automatic feeder. They actually work quite well, and are the perfect technological fix so that waking you up doesn’t equal feeding. The microchip-reading sort are also great for multi-cat households where one cat needs weight loss, but that’s another story.
7. See The Vet
Illness is top of the list if a cat starts nagging for food when they didn’t do it before. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out that several diseases can cause cats to change their routines.
Most common is hyperthyroidism, when cats both get less restful and more hungry. Diabetes is another. Age-related behaviour change is also possible, as are many other things. A checkup is never a bad idea.
8. Genetic Selection
Lastly, it’s probably too late to say this, but there are big differences between individual cats. However, if you’re still choosing, certain breeds (like Siamese) are noisier than others. You can also usually pick which kittens in a litter will be quieter.
For the rest of us, gene therapy is not an option. The steps I’ve given you here should help, but what’s left is to accept and love the cat we have. Even at 5:27am.
Related: Teach Your Cat To Eat When YOU Want
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!