Mind of the Cat: 08/05

Changing your cats nocturnal habits can be a challenge. Heres some help for a good nights sleep.

Where do housecats like to sleep? Most often, it seems, right in bed with their favorite people. And for most of us, that is just fine. Theyre so soft to snuggle, admittedly best on a chilly night – but not so very bad on a warm night, either.

Luckily, most cats enjoy a good nights sleep. Some may get up to do a little nibbling, or just some wandering. But most seem ready to return to the crook of an arm until their person is ready for the new day.

What happens when a cat must be denied this prime sleeping spot? Sometimes, a person develops an allergy to a cat. Or a spouse or young child may need to share a bed, and that person is not able to sleep with a cat.

In some cases, cats appear to understand. When they encounter a closed door, they quietly seek an alternative resting place. But other cats do not readily take no for an answer. These cats can make it difficult (or impossible) for a person to sleep.

The Determined Cat
Cats are very creative in their attempts to make their preferences clear. The most basic response is to get directly to the point. Some cats simply throw themselves against the closed door. Others will scratch the new barrier. Still another popular response to the loss of a bed is a plaintive wailing. It is quite common for a disturbed cat to demonstrate these behaviors for hours on end.

There are less direct approaches as well. Cats have been known to systematically knock framed pictures off their hooks. Other cats specialize in clearing shelves and tables of valuable items. (Particularly attractive are the most fragile pieces.)

How do most people respond to these messages? After all, it is likely that the person is just as unhappy as the cat at the loss of this special companionship and comfort. Often, the sleep-deprived person finally elects to open the door and let the cat in. Thus, the cat gains access after she has been extremely persistent. She has undoubtedly been engaging in the undesirable behavior, scratching or wailing, for example, for quite some time. As the door opens, the cat earns her reward. She quickly discovers that half-hearted attempts do not yield results. Rather, a door opens only when a very high level of performance has been offered. Future performances will be equally intense.

The lesson? It is essential to wait for the behavior to peak, as difficult as that may be. It is highly likely that the cats unacceptable behavior will intensify before it resolves. But it really should resolve.

Still, it may seem impossible to wait even one more day. People really do need to sleep. Earplugs do not always do the trick. And cats are capable of smashing some very valuable items.

Are there other options? Of course. First, consider whether your cat is particularly demanding when you are awake. If so, you might begin to resist giving your cat access to privileges in response to her insisting. Instead, try to help her learn to wait until you are ready. Practice closing a door when you get dressed, then open it when you are done. Try offering food and play on your terms, so that your cat learns that she must be patient if she expects to receive nice things.

In addition to modifying your cats expectations and helping her to be more patient, try a management strategy: Change the door to the bedroom. Some cats just want to be able to see you. A screen door or tall gate will allow a view without physical access. Since your cat may want to park near the door, offer a small cat tree or bed just outside the door. Offer cozy sleep stations in other areas as well.

Finally, if your cat is truly distressed and does not seem to be accepting this new change of sleeping quarters, then the temporary use of an anxiety-reducing medication may be considered. A thorough physical examination and laboratory work should be done to be sure that there are no health issues that preclude the use of such medication.

If the behavior does not resolve within a week or so, then professional help should be sought. More specific behavior modification techniques can be designed to help your cat tolerate this lifestyle change.