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Managing noctural behavior in cats

“My cat is keeping me awake at night!”
This very common complaint has a completely natural cause:  cats are nocturnal, which means they are more active during nighttime hours than during the day.  Living peacefully with them entails shifting their schedule slightly and managing their environment so that you, their owners, can sleep.  The following tips can help:

  1. Don’t reward the wrong behavior.  Many people reinforce boisterous nighttime activity without meaning to.  They might get up to feed the cat (since “that’s what he wants”), try to play with him or simply chase him out of the room.  All of these responses teach the cat that disturbing you works, and that they will get some kind of a payoff.   The first step, therefore, is to avoid rewarding the disturbing behavior with your attention.
  2. Provide adequate exercise and stimulation earlier in the evening.  Cats will sleep all day if allowed, so make time for regular sessions of interactive play early in the evening.  Many cats enjoy “cat teasers”, plastic wands with dangly feathers and streamers at the end.  Be creative:  drag it over Fluffy’s scratching post, in and out of hiding areas, making it flutter like a bird.  (Avoid dragging it over furniture, as this can reward cats for scratching it.)  Some cats actually fetch (seriously!), using small wads of crumpled-up paper or lightweight cat toys.  If you enjoy clicker training with your dog, do it with your cat!  Even making time for these activities during commercial breaks from your favorite TV shows will go a long way to stimulating and tiring out your cat.
  3. Provide daytime activity in your absence.  One option is feeding your cat one of her meals from a food-dispensing toy.  Products such as Roll-a-Treat, Go Cat Go and others consist of a hollow, plastic ball with a single hole:  the kibble/treats go inside, so that small pieces will fall out when the cat bats it around.  This simulates a wild feline’s hunt-catch-consume behavior, providing both mental and physical stimulation.
  4. Manage your cat’s environment during the night.  If your cat is jumping on the bed and disturbing you, confine her elsewhere so she can’t practice the wrong behavior.  You can keep her in a kitty-proofed room with a litter box, water, bedding and (quiet) toys.  If this isn’t possible, a large dog kennel – big enough to allow the cat to sleep away from the litter box – can also serve this purpose.  (If you choose this option, let your cat out immediately when you awake.)  You can also place a towel between your closed bedroom door and the door frame to prevent door-rattling.  White noise machines in the bedroom and ear plugs can also help you get a good night’s sleep.
  5. Don’t punish.  As frustrating as this behavior can be, it is not generated by spite, resentment, revenge, or any other human emotion.  Persisting in this belief will only set cat and owner up for a hostile, stressful relationship, and will not ultimately solve the problem.  Never, ever, under any circumstances, strike your cat, or you risk adding human aggression to your cat’s behaviors.   Focus on teaching appropriate behavior (by following the guidelines above).

Above all, remember that all living beings do what works for them:  if your cat is allowed to disturb you at night – or worse yet, is rewarded for doing so – the behavior will continue.  Managing your cat’s behavior and environment can set both of you up for long-term success.

This material is copyright of Animal Humane Society and can only be used with written permission.