Mind of the Cat: 08/06

You love snuggling in bed with your cat. But do her antics keep you up all night? Here's some help.

We try to believe that our cats are free from our idiosyncratic rituals. We like to think that our cats fit into our lives beautifully while remaining virtually untrained and free to do as they please. All we ask, it seems, is that they use a litter box for elimination.

In return, we expect little. Just the pleasure of the company of a cat is enough for us. Someone to talk to. Even better when our cat talks back in an understanding manner. No need to be lonely, chat all evening. And then, we are ready for bed. Say good night, Callie.

And so Callie is content to snuggle. For a bit. Until midnight, or even until two a.m. But Callie has slept all day. She is not ready to sleep all night as well. She wants a little action!

Why would a cat wake her family up at such inopportune times? There are many potential reasons, some of which are described below. In all cases, a medical problem should be ruled out, particularly if the behavior has surfaced suddenly. A condition that causes pain or a disease that affects thirst or appetite should be considered.

Another consideration is that, as some cats age, they experience a form of cognitive dysfunction that can affect the sleep-wake cycle. This diagnosis would be supported should a senior citizen cat also exhibit disorientation or a loss of apparent litter box skills.

Finally, any condition that creates anxiety or fear can cause a cat to seek the company of her family for comfort. Cats may be noticeably frightened by loud noises such as thunder. Other cats seek refuge from large animals in the yard. In such cases, the fear-related behavior would also be likely to be observable at more seemly hours of the day or night, whenever the trigger appeared.

Alas, a large proportion of cats that wake their people up at night seem to be young, healthy and perfectly calm. Their behavior is deemed appropriate when the family is awake. The results of their physical examinations and associated lab work are normal.

What can be done? First, please do not reach for a tranquilizer. Using a tranquilizer to treat this problem should be considered only after an exhaustive behavioral and medical workup has been done, and after appropriate environmental and behavioral modification has been attempted to no avail. Tranquilizing animals can be done on an occasional basis, but long-term use can have serious behavioral and physical consequences.

A more appropriate place to begin is with an examination of the household routine. Does your cat receive plenty of opportunities to play? Is there an incentive for your cat to remain active during the day when you are not available to provide entertainment?

If the answer to these questions is “no,” you are in luck, as treatment may be straightforward: Offer your cat an agenda. Leave toys hidden in novel places each day before you leave. Spread food around so your cat needs to spend some time on the prowl. Keep her moving!

Perhaps the most important question related to your routine is, “Upon waking up in the morning, what exactly do you offer your cat?” If the first order of business is to offer play, food or major snuggle time, then consider making an adjustment. Delay these benefits until you have been awake for a bit of time – 30 minutes to an hour would be ideal, if possible. Just when your cat has resigned herself to another nap, behold, you make yourself available, giving her that well deserved attention, followed by a nice meal.

Finally, consider the way in which you interact with your cat. Does your cat receive affection or a meal when she seems particularly demanding or disturbed? If she can count on calling for that little bit extra during your waking hours, then she will surely expect you to attend to her needs when you are asleep.

If this scenario describes the action at your house, try to deliberately avoid giving attention or food based on this insistence. Offer just a lap until she settles. When she has relaxed, bring out the food or the wand toy. If food is the driving force, you might also consider providing a dish that opens with a timer. No begging necessary, no person necessary, just a bit of kitty patience until the dish calls.

Do not despair. In nearly all cases, a satisfactory solution is available. As always, first determine the motivation for the behavior. The appropriate cause of action will then be clear.