How to stop your cat waking you up – get him tired when you’re tired

The title to this article implies that people are trying to find out how to stop their cat waking them up at night. This is a problematic exercise because, depending upon the cat and the circumstances, domestic cats are quite likely to be active during the night. This is particularly so if they are allowed to go outside. Cats are not, strictly speaking, nocturnal creatures. They are active during the day and at night (diurnal) and within that 24-hour timeframe they are more likely to focus on dawn and dusk as times when they are most active. This is because prey animals are active at those times.

Domestic cat becomes wild cat at night
Domestic cat becomes wild cat at night. Image: PoC.
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Circadian rhythms are at odds

You might know this, but if you didn’t you can see why it is problematic to try and stop your cat waking you up at night. The domestic cat is distinctly out of synchronisation with the human in terms of their body clock. The circadian rhythm of the domestic cat is at odds with that of their human caregiver.

You are not going to be able to rewire the domestic cat’s brain to eliminate their desire to be active between 3 AM to 5 AM in the morning when you are probably fast asleep. And, for example, my cat is in and out of the cat flap most of the night. For my cat, midnight is 2 PM in the afternoon (human time). I am sure that this applies to many domestic cats.

It isn’t just the fact that cats want to be active at those hours, they often want their human companion to be active with them. And thus, they try and wake you up. And cats are very clever at waking up their human companion. They might walk on your face or nip your nose or use any manner of clever trick to arouse you from your slumber. A classic is to do something that they know will annoy you. They may be seeking food as a substitute for hunting prey.

Punish to train?

Sometimes cat owners resort to locking their cat out of the bedroom at night or even locking them in the kitchen or bathroom at night. They might use negative reinforcement techniques such as squirting water at them to try and change their behaviour. These are ill advised methods. There are better ways.

Accept it

Myself, I accept all this commotion at night. I basically sleep through it. I’ve adjusted my sleep patterns to fit in with him more or less. I can do this because I’m retired. In a way it’s the easy option.

A man said he couldn’t breathe when sleeping so he installed a camera to see why
A man said he couldn’t breathe when sleeping so he installed a camera to see why. Now he knows!

Jackson Galaxy’s thoughts

However, I can rely on Jackson Galaxy, the American cat behaviourist to provide some thoughts on how to stop your cat waking you up at night (Total Cat Mojo). And he rightly states that if humans can reset their body clocks it’s about getting your cat on the rhythm of your household. It’s about changing your cat’s habits while working within the boundaries of their inherited behaviour.

Ensuring that your cat is tired when you are tired

His policy is to get your cat into sleep mode when you are in sleep mode. And cats are in sleep mode when they have hunted, eaten, groomed themselves and then it’s time for sleep. So, the idea is you don’t free-feed your cat but feed his last meal at around 9:30 PM if you go to bed at 11 PM. And right before that meal you tire him/her out by engaging in play. Play substitutes hunting. And in this way, you are replicating what a cat normally does in the wild. He recommends two sessions to ensure that he is genuinely tired out and then after that second play session, when he has burned more energy and eaten, groomed and is ready for sleep you can go to sleep yourself. This requires, it has to be admitted, a considerable input from the human caregiver.

Secondly, you should try and keep your cat active when the family is active. Once again it seems to me that Jackson is reconditioning a domestic cat to fit in with the human family routines and rhythms in terms of activities.

The third part is that when your cat wakes you up at 3 AM because your efforts have not been rewarded you must ignore him completely. Jackson Galaxy emphasises this uncompromisingly. He says you must ignore her completely. That means you don’t get up and comply with her requests to be fed or play or to be active with her. You don’t even say her name. You play dead. And he understands that this will be difficult to do (impossible for me). The concept is based upon the idea that if you don’t respond to your cat’s requests to interact, she will not request interaction in the future. This is because there is no reward for her.

We know that cats train their human companions. They do this by requesting something and the person responds positively. The cat receives a positive reinforcement when the human responds as requested. This is the way you train your cat i.e. through positive reinforcement. In this instance the cat instigates the training process. In not responding you are refusing to be trained and at the same she won’t be self-trained either. Eventually she will stop waking you up at 3 AM in the morning. He says that it will be tough for 10 days to 2 weeks. After that “you will be good” he writes.

Cat active at night disturbs some cat owners
Cat active at night disturbs some cat owners. Picture in public domain.

Lock out of bedroom?

One last point; he asked whether it is a good idea to lock your cat out of the bedroom. His response is that it is not. This is because the bedroom is full of your body odour (‘scent’ is a better word) which is something that your cat will enjoy to be in and around as it is reassuring. He recommends that cats be allowed into the bedroom for this reason. If you lock them out you are entering into a battle with your cat which cannot be productive or useful to the human-to-cat relationship. The alternative is to place your cat’s bed on furniture in the bedroom with a heating pad to encourage use. This will keep her off your bed but within the bedroom and a pleasant environment for her.

Th section below was written 12 years ago – there will be overlap but there are some added ideas

Cats sleep lightly and come dawn and dusk they often want to be out and about, depending on the weather and whether they are allowed outside. This is hard wired. Mine just has to go out in the evening, when I am settling in for the night. And she doesn’t like using the cat flap because she is a little bit overweight and old. She is in and out and it is me who opens the door (and she knocks on the door too! — see the vid…).

The same goes for the morning. It might be 3 or 4 or 5 in the morning but she’ll wake me. First, she will simply ask. Then her voice changes to a demand and then a kind of p**ssed off scream! The last stage is to either scratch the bed to wake me or jump on the bed and pretend to jump on invisible prey! It invariably works. I accept it but many simply won’t or can’t. What to do?

Well, as I said, I accept it but for those who don’t here is what the experts say, if you want to play tough:

  • Understand this and don’t blame her or become upset. It is normal behavior.
  • Don’t give in to your cat’s demand not even partial or small responses as these reinforce her behavior (i.e. encourages it – cats will remember what works and repeat it).
  • Keep your bedroom totally dark (I personally would not like to do this but it is recommended).
  • Feed your cat 2x daily but not first thing in the morning
  • Tire her/him out in the day – play!
  • Feed her last meal at bed time
  • Get another cat to keep your cat company

The key is not to inadvertently train our cat to bother us in the early hours by responding to his or her demands. Personally, I do respond (slowly sometimes, I confess) but the experts say not to. The alternative to these rather tough actions is to accept it. Make sure there is sufficient food down in the evening and, yes, lets change our habits to fit our cats!! We can go to bed a bit earlier and get up earlier and in short become more in sync with our cat. There is no quick fix as it is natural for a cat to do as he does.

The key element in the dilemma is to train our cat by not reinforcing behavior. My last thought on this: do we ignore a child who is crying and seeking our attention? No. But a cat is not a child. For some, indeed for many people, a cat is no less important, however. For me, my cat is a part of the family just as a child would be. That is why I bend a little to her needs rather than make her bend to mine.

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