What is it about a suitcase or overnight bag that makes my cats lose their minds? The last time I participated in a competitive run, my two cats Phillip and Jack saw my packed bag with my clean, post-race clothes and took that as a cue to behave like lunatics. All. Night. Long.
This nighttime circus — which included random jumps onto my bed, repeated opening and closing of cabinet doors, and a curious need to groom right by my head — is out of character for my two current feline residents. One of my previous cats, however, went through a prolonged stage of waking me up every night. After weeks of sleep deprivation, I finally figured out how to discourage his efforts. I also turned to the advice of certified cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett for proven ways to stop such behaviors. I hope these tips will help you if you are struggling with the same issue.
Pay Attention To Me!
Like my situation with Jack and Phillip illustrates, changes in a cat’s routine can affect her behavior and result in unsuitable nocturnal activities. For example, if a new baby joins your family, or an older child moves out of the house to live at college, your cat’s sense of predictability may be upset. She may also feel the effects if these changes impact the amount of interaction she normally receives from family members.
Keep in mind, however, that any sudden changes in your cat’s behavior can also signal a medical condition. A visit to the veterinarian will rule out any feline illnesses.
To compound the issue, by necessity, some owners must leave their cats home alone during the day without playmates or entertaining activities. During this time, a cat will likely spend her time sleeping. She will probably continue to nap while her owners are engaged in evening activities that don’t involve her, such as preparing meals and doing chores. Then, when you finally settle down for the night, your cat seizes the opportunity to capture your attention — by waking you up. As Johnson-Bennett points out, when your cat wakes you up at night, she is able to:
- Create some entertainment. I bet when you’re startled awake and feeling groggy, you may react in some unusual and funny ways.
- Receive some attention from you. In your desperation to go back to sleep, you may pet or snuggle your cat until she settles down for the night.
- Have a midnight snack. As a last resort, you may cave in and feed your cat. This action, however, strongly reinforces your cat’s attempts to wake you up and will prolong her nocturnal efforts.
When my daughter moved out to attend college last year, Phillip and Jack definitely reacted with frustrating nighttime behaviors, with Jack in particular wandering through the house loudly calling out for a family member he couldn’t find. Within a few weeks, however, Jack adjusted to our “new normal” and stopped keeping me and my son up at night. Ignoring Jack’s behavior helped him adjust even more quickly and return to our regular routine.
You can help establish a good nighttime routine as soon as you bring home a new cat or kitten. Johnson-Bennett suggests establishing a routine that includes activities that will meet three of your cat’s basic needs:
- Hunting: You can satisfy this need by playing with your cat, using interactive toys and giving her your full attention.
- Eating: To stave off her hunger in the middle of the night, give your cat a small bit of her daily food allotment in the last half hour or so before bedtime. (I can attest that this has worked wonders for me in the past!)
- Grooming: A gentle session of brushing or grooming can help your cat relax before it’s time to settle down for the night.
By meeting three of your cat’s needs each evening, you naturally set up a progression to your cat’s fourth need: sleeping.
Hopefully the pre-bedtime routine actually results in your cat settling down for the night. If, however, your efforts fail and your cat continues her midnight antics, you will need to proceed to the next — and perhaps most difficult — step: ignoring your cat. This means you don’t yell at her, you don’t get up to play with her and you definitely don’t feed her.
Johnson-Bennett reminds owners that a cat will likely continue her nighttime behaviors for a week or two and may even increase her level of effort. This is the result of what is called an “extinction burst,” where a cat increases an activity that has worked in the past to achieve a desired result. If you are meeting your cat’s four basic needs, Johnson-Bennett recommends that you resist the impulse to give in to the antics, as doing so will simply reinforce her behavior.
Try one of these methods to help you sleep through the shenanigans:
- Confine your cat to another room.
- Wear earplugs.
- Use room-darkening shades so that ambient light from streetlights or early morning sunlight does not trigger your cat’s behavior.
- Use an automatic feeder to release food at certain times (and allow you to continue sleeping).
Keep in mind, though, that you can’t simply ignore your cat’s behavior if you are doing nothing to meet her basic needs.
“Animals generally do not repeat behaviors unless they serve a purpose,” Johnson-Bennett says. “So ask [yourself], ‘What does my cat need? How can I supply it in a way that satisfies us both?’ If you just keep shooing him off the bed, it’s never going to change.”