By Paula Garber
Q: Why does my cat wake me up in the middle of the night? Is it because cats are nocturnal?
A: Cats are actually crepuscular, which means they tend to be most active at dawn and dusk when the animals they prey upon (e.g., rodents and birds) are most active. This activity pattern often doesn’t match the owner’s schedule of getting up, going to work all day, and then coming home to relax and unwind. Many cats adjust their activity patterns to those of their owners, but there are several reasons why this might not happen:
- An underlying medical condition is contributing to the behavior.
- The cat’s activity needs are not being met.
- The cat is hungry or thirsty, or the litter boxes are dirty.
- The owner’s schedule changes a lot.
- The cat is being bullied by another cat in the home.
- The cat sees or hears other animals (e.g., cats, birds) outside the house.
- Environmental noise, light, or vibrations (e.g., garbage truck, car headlights shining through windows, overnight construction) are waking up the cat.
- The owner is reinforcing the behavior.
The cause for a cat’s nighttime wakefulness must be determined so the problem can be addressed appropriately and effectively. As force-free behavior professionals, we already know that yelling, throwing things, squirting water, and punishment risk making a cat fearful and anxious around his owner. Shutting the cat out of the bedroom, confining him to another room or area of the home, and using deterrents like motion-activated air cans and scat mats can cause undue stress and lead to other, more challenging, behavior problems.
For any behavior issue, a veterinary check-up is always a good idea first to rule out any underlying medical causes, especially if the behavior is new. Increased hunger, thirst, and frequency of urination or defecation are components of many disease processes and can contribute to nighttime wakefulness. Senior cats or cats who suffer from sensory deficits are especially prone to variable sleep-wake cycles.
Ensure that your cat is getting plenty of playtime and other activity during the day and evening. This should be in the form of interactive play with wand-type toys, exploratory play using food puzzles and treasure hunts (hiding food, treats, and toys around the home), and social interaction with you or other humans. If you work long hours or your schedule changes a lot, hire a pet sitter to play and interact with your cat when you are not home. Setting up a bird feeder outside a window with a cat perch can also help keep your cat entertained and awake during the day.
To help your cat be more restful at night, engage him in a play session immediately before bedtime, and follow it with food. If your cat is free-fed, pick up his food bowl in the early evening. If you meal-feed, plan your cat’s largest meal for this before-bed feeding. Play with your cat until he is tired. When he starts to become fatigued, he will lie on his side to take a break—but don’t end the game just yet! Keep it going until he is lying on his side more frequently (about once every 20-30 seconds or so). Wind down the game by making the toy move more slowly (like injured prey) before allowing your cat to make one final “kill bite,” then drop the toy so it stops moving (it’s “dead”). Follow this up with food, and your cat should eat, groom himself, and then sleep.
Kittens and young cats may be playful throughout the day and night—they simply require more “action.” And some cats remain young at heart throughout their lives. Try setting up a treasure hunt and/or food puzzles as overnight activities. You can also place a perch at a window near an outdoor light and leave the light on to attract moths and other bugs for entertainment. Some cats might also benefit from having another cat with a similar temperament and play style in the home.
If your cat gets hungry overnight, set out some food for overnight free feeding. If free feeding isn’t an option, provide multiple small meals throughout the day, a pre-bedtime meal, and an early morning meal. You could also set up a timed feeder to open about 10 minutes before your cat tends to get hungry.
Make sure your cat has easy access to sources of fresh water that are not near food or litter boxes. Also make sure the litter boxes are clean and in well-lit areas. Provide easily accessible and comfortable sleeping places. Heated cat beds can promote relaxation and restfulness.
Some cats will seek out and bully other cats at night when humans are not around to intervene. Work toward improving relationships among cats by providing plentiful, separate resources and vertical space, and making sure the cats have appropriate outlets for predatory behavior.
Keep a radio on playing classical music at low volume to help drown out environmental noise like chirping birds. Close blinds at night to block your cat’s view of outside cats or wildlife and to prevent car headlights from shining into the home.
After you have determined the cause of your cat’s nighttime wakefulness and addressed it appropriately, avoid reinforcing the behavior by feeding, playing with, or giving attention to your cat when he wakes you up in the middle of the night.
For further assistance with feline behavior issues, see
PPG Feline Resources: https://petprofessionalguild.com/Feline-Resources,
or find your closest feline behavior professional: https://petprofessionalguild.com/Find-Your-Feline-Professional
About the Author
Paula Garber is the owner of LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions in Westchester County, New York. She is a Certified Animal Training and Enrichment Professional and Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist through the Animal Behavior Institute. She is also a Fear Free Certified Trainer and is certified in Low-Stress Handling for Dogs and Cats (Silver-2015). Paula holds a Master’s Degree in education and is currently earning a diploma in Feline Behavior Science and Technology from the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. She is Chair of PPG’s Feline Division and serves on PPG’s Steering Committee. She is also a founding member of the Cat Protection Council of Westchester, a local cat advocacy and outreach organization, and builds winter shelters for feral cats in her community.