Ever wonder why your cat sleeps all day but suddenly finds your toes, ears, and every toy in the house to be the most amusing thing ever as soon as you are ready to go to bed?
Or do you find yourself sleeping with one eye open to because your cat pounces on anything moving under the covers? Or how about getting your ankles chased if you get up at night?
If you’re wondering why your cat wakes you up at night and how to get your cat on the same sleep schedule as you, you’re not alone.
Why Your Cat Won't Let You Sleep at Night
Often, it seems like cats are just out of sync with our wake/sleep cycles—and indeed, this is the case.
By nature, humans are diurnal, which means we are awake during the day and asleep at night. You may think that cats must be nocturnal, but that isn’t exactly the case. Cats are what is known as crepuscular.
Crepuscular animals tend to be most active during the late evenings and early mornings—so just as we are winding down, they are winding up. This is the peak time that cats prefer to play, hunt, and do all their basic activities.
In the wild, this is also the time when many of their prey animals (such as rodents) are waking up and starting to move around, so it is the perfect time for a predator (like your cat) to be up and hunting.
Many domesticated cats have retained these behaviors. As a rule, cats will sleep 18 hours per day, spread over a series of naps that average 78 minutes each. They sleep during the day as well as in the middle of the night, only to get up and become active right when we are heading to bed, and again shortly before we want to get up. This can be a definite clash!
So how can you get your cat on a more compatible schedule so that you can get some sleep?
How to Get a Cat to Sleep at Night
Just like some people are night owls and others are early birds, most cats can be pretty set in their sleep/wake cycles. It isn’t always possible to convince them to change. But if your cat seems to be waking you up at night, there are some things you can try.
One important exception to these guidelines is an older cat that is restless and howling at night. There are multiple medical issues that occur in older cats that can result in them seeming to be “needy” at night. As a rule, these cats have a history of being well-behaved, but then suddenly start pacing at night, howling, and just seeming anxious. If this is the case, have your cat seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible for an exam and bloodwork to determine if there is an underlying illness.
Otherwise, here are some techniques you can try.
Try keeping your cat awake longer.
Perhaps the easiest step is to keep your cat from taking a few of those late-in-the-day naps. If you can keep your cat awake for much of the evening, they may then be tired enough to sleep once it is time for you to go to bed.
Playing games with your cat, such as catch the laser pointer dot, fetch, and feather teasers can be very effective in tiring out willing cats. The longer you can keep your cat awake, the more likely they are to “crash” and sleep when you are.
Keep your cat entertained while you’re out.
These play sessions also address another common reason cats keep you up at night, which is that they are bored and lonely. If your cat is home alone all day while you are at work, they may be anxious to spend time with you in the evening. Unfortunately, this may conflict with your unwinding time for bed.
Keeping them awake and engaged during the day while you’re away may help them settle down in the evening. Here are some techniques you can try:
Leaving the television on for your cat to watch (try nature shows)
Feeding your cat using a puzzle toy instead of a bowl so your cat needs to work to get their food
Setting smart bowls to open at certain times to dispense treats
Using food and treats as motivators is great for keeping cats busy and entertained, but it’s important to not feed your cat too much or give them too many treats.
Divide up a healthy portion recommended by your veterinarian over the course of 24 hours. Canned food has fewer calories per volume than dry food, so using canned food for the bulk of the meals may help balance out any dry food you feed in puzzle toys or as treats.
Feed your cat a small meal at bedtime.
Cats also tend to fall asleep after they eat (much like we do!), so offering a small meal right at bedtime might encourage your cat to have dinner and go to bed. And if your cat likes to wake you up for food—especially in the early morning hours—try setting a smart bowl (automatic pet food feeder) to deliver some food at that time.
Set up a separate sleeping spaces.
If none of the other ideas have worked, you may have to take control of your own space and close the door. You can also set up a comfortable “cat space” where your cat can spend the night but can’t disturb you. This could be as simple as a room outfitted with food, water, some toys, and a litter pan.
Try not to respond to demands unless necessary.
If this is not the case, and your cat just wants you to get up (for example, to play or to deliver food), and you react by getting up just to get them to leave you alone, you have now been trained by your cat to respond rather than the other way around.
Pushing away a kitten that is pouncing on you becomes a game. Getting up to give food to your cat at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning because you want to sleep in teaches them that if they pester long enough, they get what they want.
As hard as it is, ignore the behavior entirely and take steps the next night to prevent it in the first place. However, if your cat is older and suddenly seems more needy at night, take them to the vet and do not ignore the behavior.
Many—if not most—cats can be trained to sleep normally through the night. However, it does take time, patience, and understanding—but not punishment—to adjust these behaviors.
Kittens may take time to develop healthy habits, and mature cats need support to change these habits they may have developed. Older kitties need to have a medical workup before starting a behavioral modification program.
But it is, indeed, possible that both you and your cat can enjoy a good night’s sleep—together!
Featured image: iStock.com/NKuzmanovic