Last month, we launched our new “Ask the Cat Behaviorist with Mikel Delgado” segment. Once a month, we’ll post a reminder for you to post your questions for Mikel. She’ll answer as many of them as he can each month, and I’ll publish her answers in a subsequent post.
Mikel is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant at Feline Minds, offering on-site consultations for cat guardians, shelters, and pet-related businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area, and remote consultations around the world. She is currently completing her PhD in Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she studies animal behavior and human-pet relationships.
Sleep deprived cat guardians
I am becoming sleep deprived! My Kat wants my attention all during the night, yowling and pushing at me. Could close door but she doesn’t like closed door. She refuses to play at bedtime to tire her out..I need my sleep! (Patricia LeBlanc)
I adopted 5 yo littermates Bo & Ellie last summer (days after saying goodbye to my 19 yo Evi). Their daddy, who’d raised them together from the age of 6 weeks with a ton of love, was being shipped overseas and they were in desperate need of a home together, so in they moved.
The problem is the habit dear BoBo has of meowing ever so loudly outside my bedroom door every morning starting around 5:30am. I’ve been sleep deprived since they moved in. Sadly I must keep my bedroom door shut because I’m allergic to cats. I adore cats, have always had cats, will always have cats, but I have to sleep in a “clean room” to prevent attacks of allergy-induced asthma. These kitties always slept on their daddy’s bed, so being shut out of the bedroom now must make them feel sad, lonely, forlorn, confused. I’d hoped they’d just get used to the new normal, but nothing’s changed in 9 months. I leave plenty of food out before I go to bed, and there’s usually some left in the morning, so it’s about attention, not food. I do give them a long play session at night to tire them out. Earplugs fall out by morning. I tried to just ignore it and stay in bed, knowing that if I got up when the meowing started then I was just cementing this bad habit — but he won’t stop meowing (I waited 90 minutes once!), and eventually I do have to get up for the day — so of course he’s learned that if he continues meowing, mama will get up. Apparently they’re 1/2 Siamese (and 1/2 Maine Coon), so that might explain some of the vocal volume. Help! I’m sooooo sleepy. Thank you! (Karin Moore)
Patricia and Karin,
Your complaints are similar enough that I’m going to address them together. Cats waking up their humans in the middle of the night is one of the most common reasons I’m called for help. Sleep deprivation takes its toll, on our well-being, and on our relationship with our cats!
This behavior is usually being maintained for a few reasons, the key ones being that the cat gets something out of it and that they aren’t sleepy when we are – and so they need a “schedule shift.” Sometimes the situation is complicated by the fact that there has been a change (such as with Karin’s kitties, where they were used to sleeping on the bed) or a housing situation or cat that doesn’t allow for the cats to be separated from humans at night.
So, to sleep through the night: the first step is to keep the cat more active throughout the day, and for some cats this means more than just a play session at bedtime. Food puzzles, bird feeders attached to a window, and vertical space can encourage more activity during the day. At least one or two daily play sessions with interactive toys will help.
Patricia, I wasn’t sure if Kat is only difficult to play with at night – so there may be a special toy that you reserve for a night time play session, OR you may want to shift your feeding schedule so she plays FIRST, then gets a meal. A lot of humans feed their cats first thing when they get home from work, and it can be difficult to get cats to play when they’ve recently had a meal – just like we don’t like to exercise with a full tummy!
Food can also get cats more on your schedule. I recommend meal feeding (or some variation thereof) so that your cat has exercise and the largest meal of the day shortly before your bedtime. That will make them more likely to settle down for the night. If you don’t want to meal feed, then perhaps pick and choose when your cat has food freely available, picking up their bowls in the early evening so they are hungry at bedtime.
Now is when things get a little gnarly. To really stop this behavior, you have to ignore it consistently. If you give in after 5, 10, or even worse, 90 minutes, then you have just rewarded persistence. Now it is true, Karin, that at some point, you have to get out of bed. Why not use clicker training and reward your cat for going to a perch when you leave the bedroom – only click when he has settled and stopped meowing. You can reward with treats or praise.
A few other things that may help you out: a piece of cardboard with double-sided carpet tape outside your bedroom door will make your cats less likely to sit there (just be careful not to step on it when you get up!). I’ve also found that a heated bed that is turned on only at night can be really helpful for getting cats to give up their human sleeping habit – turns out a lot of them just use us for body heat!