It’s 3am and your cat is sitting on your chest and pawing at your nose. Wake up, wake up, it’s time to play. Well, it’s time to play if you’re a cat but if you’re a sleeping human this is probably last on your list. So why does this pattern repeat itself every time? Why does your cat routinely bite at your toes, paw at your face or systematically push items off the bedside table in the wee hours of the morning? You may not like this answer but it’s actually very normal behavior under the circumstances. First of all, cats are crepuscular, which means they’re most active between dusk and dawn. Also, for most of us, the end of the day is when we’re winding down so we come home from work, eat dinner, check our email, relax and then head off to bed. Poor kitty has been sleeping all day and when we walk through the door at 6pm, he’s ready for the fun to begin. If there hasn’t been adequate stimulation throughout the day through environmental enrichment and we haven’t engaged our cats in playtime in the evening then at some point we’re going to get reminded of that fact. That reminder comes in the form of 8 lbs sitting on our chest hours before the alarm clock is set to go off.
You Need a Plan
If your cat wakes you up in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn, there are a couple of things you can do to help “reset” that little fuzzy alarm clock. First on the list though is absolutely the most difficult of all – you have to ignore him. If you’ve gotten up to put food in his bowl in an effort to shut him up then you’ve only succeeded in reinforcing that behavior. If you’ve given attention to a cat engaging in attention-seeking behavior then he now knows that method worked and he’ll repeat it night after night.
If your cat is preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep, try this easy technique. It’s based on the typical activity cycle that a cat goes through as a predator.
Why This Method Makes Sense
This behavior cycle is based on the cat’s normal routine. First, a cat goes through physical activity hunting prey. He then feasts on his capture. When finished, he grooms herself to remove traces of the prey from his fur. This is important in the wild because a hunter doesn’t want to alert other prey to his presence, nor does he want to risk becoming prey to a larger predator. Digestion is next on the list and since the cat has a full stomach that usually means it’s time for a nap.
Here’s how you’ll use this behavior cycle to your advantage: Just before bedtime engage your cat in an interactive play session using a fishing pole-type toy. Technique is important here so don’t create a game where you’re waving the wand frantically around and kitty never gets to capture anything. Creating a frustrated cat isn’t the goal here. Instead, move the toy like prey and allow your cat opportunities to stalk, pounce and capture. The game should last at least fifteen minutes. Customize the game to your cat’s physical ability, age, and health. Remember that playtime is as much mental as it is physical so let him have plenty of opportunities to capture his treasure. Wind the action down at the end of the game so your cat is left relaxed and satisfied and not still revved up.
Once the game is done, it’s time for the feast. If you feed your cat on a schedule, divide up his normal daily portion so you can offer him a final post-game snack. If you free-feed, take up the food earlier in the evening and then make a big visual display about refreshing the food in the bowl.
After the meal, your cat will most likely engage in a grooming session and then be ready to snooze.
Spruce up the Environment
In addition to the four-part behavior cycle, set up the cat’s environment so that there are activities available for him should he wander around the house looking for more stimulation. You can use a timed food dish so he can get a moist food snack without having to wake you up. Hide treats or dry food in puzzle feeders or in boxes (such as empty tissue boxes). You can even make homemade puzzle feeders with plastic water bottles or the cardboard inserts from toilet paper or paper towels.
The bottom line is to ignore the behavior you don’t want but also set your cat up to succeed by recognizing his natural, normal needs and creating opportunities for him.
Want More Information?
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.