Treating the Cat That Won't Sleep at Night

By Nancy Dunham


You love your active cat, but when night-time rolls around and the meowing, running, pouncing, and scratching thwarts your plans for a good night’s sleep, love may take a backseat to annoyance.


Cats are genetically programmed to hunt at night. But it is within your power to help your cat to overcome his built-in impulses and adjust to your sleep patterns.


“One of the most important things every pet, and pet parent, needs is an education,” said Russell Hartstein, certified cat behavior consultant and founder/CEO of Fun Paw Care, Los Angeles. “All of these behaviors – scratching, running, excessive meowing – are manifestations that indicate basic needs aren’t being met to some degree.”


Meeting Your Cat’s Social Needs Before Bedtime


First, pet parents need to cover the basics. This starts with providing your cat with healthy food, plentiful clean water, and a clean litter box in a safe place.


Cats also have a basic need for social interaction, and they rely on us to meet this need. If a cat is left alone all day and ignored when his pet parents return home, he may meow, scratch, pounce, defecate outside the litter box, and otherwise act out at night as a way to get the attention he needs.


“Cats have a great need to exert energy,” said Healthy Pet Coach Jodi Ziskin, Santa Rosa, California. “When they are not provided with proper stimulation, such as interactive playtime, vertical structures to climb and jump on, and places to stretch their muscles and scratch, they can become anxious, reactive, and even aggressive toward their people or other pets in the home.”


More attention often can solve behavior issues, like making time for brushing, cuddling, and playing with their cat. The problem is that many pet parents just don’t have the time and energy to dote on their beloved cats.


“Everybody’s lives are so busy, we can’t all afford to spend a lot of time with our cats,” said Sabrina Castro, DVM, of Vetted Pet Care in Los Angeles, CA. “The real key is to provide lots of enrichment when we’re not home.”


Pet parents should provide their cats with cat towers that allow them to climb, scratch and perch, brightly colored balls and other moving toys, and outlets for their hunting impulses, such as a ball that dispenses treats as the cat bats it around, said Castro.


It can also help to turn on the TV at low volume to visually stimulate your cat when you’re away, said Castro.


Scheduling a late evening feeding time can also be an opportunity to curb your cat’s nighttime antics. Cats, like people, are often sleepy after a large meal, said Hartstein.


How Illness and Anxiety Affect a Cat’s Behavior


If your cat has suddenly begun odd nighttime behaviors, the first step is to analyze the cat’s life to see if there are new stressors that might account for the change in behavior.


Excessive meowing in the middle of the night may be a sign of feline cognitive dysfunction in senior and geriatric cats,” Ziskin said. “It can also be a signal that a cat is in pain.”


Physical illness can also be a manifestation of psychological upset and chronic anxiety. “Prolonged anxiety can trigger physical ailments, including infectious and chronic diseases, so a vet visit is always in order,” Ziskin said.


“Vets can recommend behavioral therapy, changes to a pet’s environment, and pharmaceuticals to treat anxiety,” said Ziskin, adding that your vet may also be able to recommend natural remedies for various ailments, including anxiety.


Even Small Changes at Home Can Be Stressful for Cats


“Has there been a recent change in family members? Have you moved? Are there new people involved in the cat’s life? What is happening with their vertical space?” said Hartstein. Even a change in the scent of a favored human can stimulate or irritate a cat’s nose and trigger a change in behavior, Hartstein explained. “Cats are extremely sensitive to noise and smells, so there are many factors that you need to consider.”


Once the potential stressor is discovered and addressed, the cat may stop its nighttime capers.


Does Punishment Work on Cats?


It’s important not to use punishment, or negative reinforcement, with your cat. “Cats don’t respond to negative reinforcement,” said Castro.


Cats don’t make the association between their inappropriate behavior and negative reactions from you, Castro explained. However, they will associate the behavior with getting attention from you. Reprimanding your cat when he’s clawing your rug, meowing excessively, or otherwise keeping you awake may encourage him to continue that behavior, because you are giving him the attention he is seeking.


So if reprimands won’t work, what will?


“Ideally, ignore them,” said Castro. “And whatever you do, don’t respond with food.” If you do, she says, the cat will think that each time he acts the way he did the last time you responded with food, you will feed him.


Training Your Cat to Stay Calm at Night


Although many people doubt it, cats can be trained, said Hartstein. It’s been shown that cats, and especially kittens, are receptive to clicker and other types of training. But training is not a universal remedy for poor behavior.


To get to the root of your cat’s behavior, a pet behaviorist or cat-savvy veterinarian can help determine the reasons for why your cat is behaving oddly, and whether training is a viable response.


“I wish there was a simple black-and-white solution to this issue,” said Hartstein. “Cats are individuals. Sometimes the cause is obvious. Sometimes it’s subtle. If you think your cat is doing something that is not normal behavior [and you can’t resolve the issue], that’s a good indication you should look for professional help.”





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