When Your Cat Wakes You Up

How to curb your kitty’s early morning antics.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on April 13, 2011
5 min read

Romeo, a Persian cat and star of the cat humor blog "Romeo The Cat," is famous for his early morning wake-up tactics. Here are just a few, documented by Caroline Golon, Romeo’s "chief of staff."

  • Alternately meowing at Golon and her husband
  • Flipping laundry baskets
  • Breathing loudly in Golon’s ear
  • Sitting on her head

Recently, Romeo made an ill-planned leap and landed belly first on Golon’s face. "Romeo is usually on the bed all night long," she says. "That’s the funny part about it, he loves to sleep. But in the morning, he is ready to go."

Your cat may not be as acrobatic as Romeo, but if your feline is ruining a good night’s sleep, here’s some help to better understand -- and address -- the problem.

"I think cats are cooperative and nice about how often they try to complement our schedules," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified cat behavior consultant and author of several books, including Psycho Kitty: Tips for Solving Your Cat’s "Crazy" Behavior.

However, if left home alone all day with nothing to do except sleep, cats will be more active at night.

African wildcats, the presumed ancestor of today’s domestic cats, hunt primarily at night. But that doesn’t mean modern housecats are staunchly nocturnal. Our feline friends do respond to certain cues at dusk and dawn, but cat behavior researchers have found that feral cats or domestic cats adapt their activity cycles to food sources or human activity.

In other words, the environment dictates cat behavior. So you cannot blame cats’ nighttime and early morning activities entirely on a feline internal clock.

"The biggest myth," Johnson-Bennett says, "is that cats cannot be trained." She says if your cat keeps waking you up at night, the idea you can't do anything about it can "drive you to lock the cat out of the room, put the cat outside, or relinquish the cat to the shelter -- all for something that actually can be changed."

A cat's let's-get-up-and-go behavior takes root in boredom. Many cats live a lonely, boring life, with families gone all day and then sleeping all night.

"We say that we need to keep cats indoors because it’s safer," says Valarie Tynes, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. "But as we’ve promoted this indoor lifestyle, we've forgotten how much we’ve taken away from cats."

By waking you up, your cat achieves certain goals:

  • It's made something exciting happen, even if it is only grumbling or movement.
  • It gets social interaction, no matter how you respond.
  • It gets fed.

"The cat meows for food," Johnson-Bennett says, "so you get up and throw some food in the bowl so you can go back to bed. What you’ve done, though, is cemented that behavior. Even if you wait as long as you possibly can, the cat thinks, ‘Well, that took a ridiculous amount of time, but she finally got up and fed me.'"

According to Katherine Miller, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist with the ASPCA, this process -- called intermittent reinforcement -- mirrors how slot machines work. "If you pull that handle 50 times, and the slot machine pays off," she says, "then next time you’re going to be willing to pull it at least 51 times, or 52, or 100 times before you start to think it isn’t paying off. So, the delayed gratification can actually reinforce the behavior more than immediate gratification."

You can prevent nighttime activity in kittens if you understand that kittens go all out, then crash. "With kittens," Johnson-Bennett says, "it’s bursts of energy. They go 90 miles per hour, and then they fall asleep."

Johnson-Bennett suggests creating a routine based on a "cycle of four," in which kittens get everything they need before bedtime:

  1. Hunt: Let the cats pretend to hunt by playing with interactive toys.
  2. Feast: Let the cats eat the final portion of their meal, either in a bowl or from an activity feeder.
  3. Groom:Grooming helps the cats unwind
  4. Sleep: At the end of the routine when it's bedtime, the cats fall into a nice slumber.

You might also consider crate training, a mainstay of puppy training that Terri A. Derr, DVM, recommends for kittens as well. Crates can prevent mischief and help kittens learn that nighttime is quiet time.

"If you’ve got a laid-back cat or one whose behavioral needs are being met, then I wouldn’t be quite so concerned [that] the kitten continues to sleep in the crate once you’ve established the pattern," Derr, who runs Veterinary Behavior Options in Minneapolis, says.

Annoying as nighttime and early wake-ups are, try seeing them as your cat’s cry for more. When you do, you can offer more of what the cat wants:

  • Social contact
  • Interactive playtime -- try interacting with fishing pole toys
  • Interesting meal delivery -- look into using food puzzle toys
  • Environmental enrichment -- create opportunities for more sights, sounds, smells, and things to do

Johnson-Bennett says her cycle of four - hunt, feast, groom, sleep - also works on adult cats, but it may take longer and require more patience. In fact, it’ll get worse before it gets better. Called an extinction burst, cats ramp up behaviors that have worked in the past. So, even if you up the ante on daytime activity and play, you’ll likely have a tough week or two where your cat ups the ante as well.

Tynes suggests confining your cat to another room at night until the cycle of attention-seeking behavior subsides.

Miller recommends these strategies to help you cope during the time you're training your kitten or cat:

  • Ear plugs or white noise machine
  • A box fan placed outside the bedroom door (blowing outward as a deterrent)
  • An automatic feeder set to release food at certain times
  • Room-darkening shades because sunlight at dawn or even street lights in urban areas can trigger activity

"You can ignore [your cat's] attention-seeking behaviors at night, and you should ignore it once you’ve set up other options," Johnston Bennett says. "But you cannot just ignore it and leave that vacuum there because he’ll end up doing something else out of frustration. Animals generally do not repeat behaviors unless they serve a purpose. So ask, ‘What does my cat need? How can I supply it in a way that satisfies us both?’ If you just keep shooing him off the bed, it’s never going to change."

One caveat: If your cat suddenly develops annoying nighttime habits, it could be a sign of a medical problem, including pain, infection, or hyperthyroidism. Check with your veterinarian right away.