Important Reminders about the Behavior:
- Cats are crepuscular, which means they tend to be 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 coincide with the cat guardian’s schedule of leaving the house early, working all day, and returning in the evening to relax and unwind, and to sleep at night.
- The cause(s) for a cat’s nighttime wakefulness must be determined and addressed appropriately and effectively. Don’t just ignore your cat without making an effort to discover what needs he has that might not be getting met.
- Avoid all forms of discipline and punishment, as they can make your cat fearful of you, can damage the bond you have with your cat, and can also cause him to direct frustration-related behaviors toward other animals or people in the home. Also, avoid closing the cat out of the bedroom, or in another room or separate area of the home, at night and/or using other deterrents, as they can cause undue stress and lead to further behavior problems. Such methods also risk breaking down the bond between cats and their people.
- Underlying medical issues can contribute to disrupted sleep patterns and cause cats to wake up and become restless at night. For example, an increase in hunger or thirst, or the need to urinate or defecate may be symptoms of many disease processes and can cause nighttime wakefulness. It is important to rule out medical causes for your cat’s nighttime wakefulness, especially if it is a new behavior.
- Also, consider that it is common for senior cats and cats with sensory deficits to have variable sleep-wake cycles. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between 7 and 10 years of age. See your feline health practitioner to ensure your feline family member does not have an underlying medical issue.
- There are five main categories of wellness testing for senior cats: complete blood count (CBC), biochemistry profile, urinalysis, thyroid hormone testing, and blood pressure assessment. Comprehensive testing is recommended for senior cats due to the higher risk of underlying disease. These important medical profiles are recommended every six months for senior cats. Most cats enter their senior years at 8 to 10 years old.
Management and Safety Information:
- Avoid playing with your cat on your bed.
- Make sure your cat’s litter boxes are clean and well lit (use nightlights if necessary).
- Make sure your cat has access to fresh, clean water before going to bed. Wet food or raw food tends to complete the hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle much more effectively than dry food alone, creating a more content kitty.
- Locate water separately from your cat’s food, and keep both food and water far from litter boxes.
- Make sure your cat has plenty of cozy and quiet sleeping places. Consider providing a heated cat bed or self-warming mat.
- Create a detailed spreadsheet of hourly behavior of both humans and cat(s) in the home:
- Write down a 24-hour timeline of what behavior is occurring when. For example, 6 a.m. cat pounces on face/bites feet in the bed until around 8 a.m. Human feeds cat at 8:15 a.m. Cat uses litter box at 8:30 a.m. Human goes to work at 9 a.m.; comes home at 6:30 p.m. (giant time gap unknown to human(s) while they were away). This helps to put into perspective why the cat is so active at night. It is not natural for a species who, in the wild, would be hunting 18-20 times during dusk and dawn to sleep all day.
- If the humans are working from home, they can create the same kind of spreadsheet, but with an hourly rundown of behaviors for both the cats and humans.
- As your family modifies their routines (adding in more playtime and foraging sessions during the daytime) they can track the changes of unwanted behaviors and wanted behaviors. This helps you to see what's happening and when, with the cat's activity levels and how they can increase them to decrease nighttime wakefulness.
Behavior Modification Skills:
1. Set up a bedtime routine that taps into a cat’s natural cycle of hunt-eat-groom-sleep. Give your cat a vigorous play session (hunt) just before you go to bed. Then give him a meal (eat). This will help him settle down to groom and sleep.
2. Use your cat’s scent to promote feelings of calm and contentment. Collect your cat’s scent by rubbing his favorite sleeping or resting spot with a clean cloth, then rub the cloth on corners of walls and furniture and on doorjambs about 8 inches above the floor (the height of your cat’s nose).
3. If your cat sleeps most of the day:
4. If your cat is hungry at night:
- Give your cat opportunities to “hunt, chew, scratch, and view” during the daytime and evening.
- Interactive play with wand-type toys twice daily. Give your cat a play session immediately before bedtime followed by his largest meal of the day. If you free feed, pick up the cat’s food bowl in the early evening so he will be eager to eat this last meal before bedtime (see How Cats Play for tips).
- Provide outlets for exploratory play with food puzzles and treasure hunts (see Food Puzzles for Cats).
- Provide scent enrichment with cat grass, catnip, silver vine, valerian, and toys and other items with your scent on them.
- Rotate solo play toys regularly. Cats habituate to toys in three short play sessions.
- Provide entertainment with “Cat TV.” Search You Tube for videos designed for cats to enjoy.
- Ensure that your cat has his preferred amount and type of social interactions with people and preferred animal companions during the day.
5. If you work long hours or your schedule changes a lot:
- Set out some food in a food puzzle toy for free feeding overnight.
- If free feeding isn’t an option, feed multiple small meals throughout the day, a pre-bedtime meal, and an early morning meal.
- Set up a timed feeder to open about 10-15 minutes before your cat typically gets hungry at night.
6. If your cat is just a night owl:
- Ask a friend or family member, or hire a pet sitter to play and interact with your cat when you are not home.
7. If your cats get into scuffles overnight:
- Set up some special enrichment that only comes out at night. This might be boxes, bags, tunnels, catnip toys, or anything your cat will explore and play with on his own. Set them up in a room that’s as far from your bedroom as possible, and put them away in the morning.
- Leave an outdoor light on at night to attract moths and insects, and give your cat a comfy perch near a window with a view of the light.
- Set up a bird feeder near a window where your cat perches to look outside.
8. If other animals outside the house (e.g., birds, squirrels, other cats) or environmental noise (e.g., garbage truck), light (e.g., a streetlight or car headlights shining in the window), or vibrations (e.g., from overnight construction or doors slamming if you live in an apartment building) are waking up your cat:
- Provide plentiful, separate resources and vertical space
- Ensure that all of the cats have appropriate outlets for natural predatory behaviors
- Hire a professional cat behavior consultant for help
9. If you have been reinforcing your cat’s behavior by feeding, playing with, or giving him attention when he wakes you up, your cat might continue to try to wake you up, even after ensuring that all of his needs are being consistently met. If this happens, play dead—don’t stir, get up, talk to your cat, or acknowledge him in any way.
- Play classical music or music designed for cats (consider Music for Cats) at low volume to help drown out other sounds and promote calm (if the cat appears to enjoy the music – we recommend playing the music in only one area so if the cat doesn’t like it, he can move to another area).
- Close blinds at night to block the cat’s view.
- Keep outside lights turned off and bring in any bird feeders to avoid attracting other animals to your home at night.
10. If your senior cat wanders and vocalizes at night:
- Your cat’s behavior might get worse before it gets better! This is called an “extinction burst”—the old behaviors don’t work anymore, so your cat might try harder to get a response from you. Stay strong and don’t give in!
11. If you have made great progress and then go out of town for the weekend, be prepared to have some setbacks when you return. Be patient and flexible and get right back to the schedule you set before you left town.
- Make sure his resources (food, water, litter boxes, scratching items, toys) are located close to where he sleeps.
- Add night lights in areas where the cat’s resources are located and in commonly used pathways
- Provide easy access to your cat’s favorite perching and resting areas by adding lower steps that lead to the higher perches.
- Provide heated cat beds or self-warming mats near your cat’s favorite resting spots.
- Play classical music or music designed for cats.
- Interactive toys, food puzzles, and toys for solo play.
- Boxes, bags (with handles removed), and cat tunnels.
- Catnip, cat grass, silver vine, and valerian.
- Timed feeder.
- Bird feeder.
- Radio/laptop/smartphone/iPad etc. (i.e. any device that plays music).
Supplements, Diets, and Medication:
Consider asking your feline veterinarian about safe supplements and medications to promote calm.
Approximately 2-4 weeks. (Note: this will vary for each individual cat and may take more – or less time – than this, which is intended as a guideline only).
It is important to keep up your behavior modification protocols to establish and maintain desired behaviors long-term.
Adelman, B. (2017). How Cats Play
Breyer, M. (2020). This Music Calms Cats the Best, Study Finds
Food Puzzles for Cats
Music for Cats
Find Your Feline Professional
Every cat is an individual, and behavior is complex. If you need help training your cat, seek out a qualified cat behavior professional.