We often hear that cats are nocturnal. In fact, they are crepuscular, meaning that they most often are awake and active in the evening and early morning.
How do we shift such a cat to a sleep schedule we can tolerate, eliminating the insistent 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. calls from our feline wake-up service? To do so, we first must find out what our cat wants or needs, says Katherine Houpt, VMD, a veterinary behavior specialist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Most often, its either attention or food.
Is it hunger or the need for attention?
To tell which of these needs most likely is prompting him to wake us, look first at whether hes hungry. If you get up from bed and your cat leads you to the kitchen and his food bowl, which is empty, you have your answer. If the bowl holds food, though, and your kitty proceeds to chow down with you in the kitchen, the problem is probably not just food; to eat, cats must take a posture looking into their food bowls. For some, taking that stance makes them feel vulnerable enough to want the security of their human companion or another cat when they eat. Whether or not this pattern involves a straightforward need for food or a combination of food and company, feed him as late at night as you are normally awake, not when you rise in the morning. Otherwise, you may inadvertently reward him for waking you whenever he feels hungry. If he appears to want company while eating, putting a bowl of the dry food he likes in your bedroom may do the trick, as it allows him to eat at night with your protective company – albeit while asleep.
If your cat simply wants to play, then his need is for attention and activity. While you can leave favored toys overnight, he may want interactive play. Thus, tire him with play before your bedtime. Most toys that provide such play involve fishing pole designs, such as those that hang a feather or tiny cloth at the end of a string dangled from a pole (CatWatch, July 2002). An inexpensive variation, says Houpt, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, is a Cat Dancer (800-844-6369; http://www.catdancer.com/), which swings little rolls of cardboard from a flexible wire. Another is the Heard That Bird Door Hanger (877-364-8697; http://www.cattoys.com/) that dangles a prey-surrogate from an elastic string that you hang from a doorframe. When your kitty swats the bird, it makes a realistic chirping sound, so make sure you place it far from your bedroom.
Another approach is to meet both his needs to play and eat, if he doesnt need interaction in his play. Certain toys offer food after play. One consists of a ping-pong-type ball with a hole through which you insert food that is released intermittently when the ball is manipulated enough by your cat.
When none of these approaches works and you are exhausted by your cats attentions at dawn, you may turn to interventions that are more drastic. You can isolate him from your bedroom by locking him in a room where you will not hear him; be sure to pad the door on his side because most cats will scratch on a door enclosing them. Alternatively, invest in at least two child gates, stacked vertically, choosing a model with a mesh small enough to prevent him from crawling through.
Some people prefer to punish a cat by wrapping him in bedclothes immediately after a waking meow. One problem with most of these strategies, says Houpt, is that the cat will probably look for other ways to get your attention, such as standing out of range, meowing. If need be, a veterinary behaviorist can prescribe anti-anxiety medications. Its best, though, to continue your detective work searching for your cats nighttime need and experimenting with healthful ways of fulfilling it. Your kitty alarm clock can be reset.