How does my cat Lola wake me up in the mornings? Let me count the ways...
There's the 'flying squirrel jump onto the bed from the top of the cat tower', the 'aggressive nose lick' and finally, the nuclear option... a paw, poised spring tight, ready to deliver the softest but most insistent 'boop' to mum's sleeping nose.
For a long time, the cute factor of being woken by a little bundle of fur outweighed the 'oh my goodness what time is it?' inward groan.
But like a criminal whose greed forces them to do one last job, Lola has been inching my morning wake up time 5 minutes earlier each day. And when I started getting the morning boop at 5AM, I decided things had to change.
Thankfully in my research, I've discovered I'm not alone - it turns out that kitties the world over are playing the ‘Help! My cat wakes me up at 3am’ game. So I set out to explore how we can all get the peaceful sleep we need, while encouraging our kitties to chill out and stop devising ever more devious ways to rouse us!
I should also just say that there are a few methods available, but quite a few of them require the rather obvious option of keeping your cat out of the bedroom at night. I'm still not quite ready to relinquish the cute factor of waking up with my cat around, preferably in her own cat bed, so I'm going to share the option that strikes at the heart of changing the behaviour and lets you stay close to your kitties at night.
So... how do you stop a cat from waking you up in the morning, or in the dead of night?
1. Rule out any medical causes for your cat’s nocturnal meows or yowls
Before we get into the nitty gritty of training, the first thing to do is check whether there is anything about your kitty's wake up calls that is a cause for concern. Yowling at night can be a cat's way of expressing pain or discomfort.
If any of the below apply, it's worth taking your cat to the vets for a check up and mentioning the wake up calls to them.
- This is a new behaviour that has just come on
- Your cat is an older cat
- Your cat has a known medical issue that may be causing them discomfort
- It has been a long time since your cat's last check up
2. Is there something 'off' around the home?
Next thing to check is whether there is something around the home that your cat is trying to alert you to.
- Is their litter tray clean?
- Is their water bowl full of fresh water?
- Is there a cat outside that is upsetting them?
If any of these apply, fixing them might get you the good night's sleep that you're after. If it's a neighbourhood cat that is unsettling your kitty, try drawing the curtains so that they aren't eyeballing each other all night. If you have a cat flap it might be an idea to install a selective one - we used to have a big tom cat that would come into our house at night and eat all of the cat's food! That triggered some outraged yowling, let me tell you...
3. Let the training commence! Setting your cat up to sleep through the night.
If you've been through steps 1 and 2 and nothing has sprung out, the chances are that your cat, like most other cats, is waking you for two reasons: attention and food.
The wonderful news is that with some simple training, you can break your cat's association between waking you and getting those two things.
We're going to tackle this with a bit of a pincer manoeuvre. First, let's look at what you can do to make your cat less likely to need attention and food while you are sleeping.
The answers come from studying how our cat's wild relatives spend their time in the wild. They typically work on the following cycle:
If you can recreate this cycle in the home, the chances are higher that your cat will do the 'sleeping' bit at the time that you want them to - i.e. when you are sleeping!
1. HUNT: Several hours before your bedtime, tire your kitty out with some energetic hunting-based play. Feather toys and fishing rod toys are great for this.
2. EAT: About an hour before bed, feed your cat their final meal of the day.
3. GROOM: Chill out with your kitty, let them get their groom on.
4. SLEEP: If the first three steps have gone well, this shouldn't take any action from you - your cat will naturally doze off, so you can too.
4. Breaking the wake up routine
Now it's time to turn train our cats that waking us up is not the holy grail to being lavished with food and attention.
The answer is simple in theory but pretty challenging in practice - play dead!
In other words, when your cat starts using its arsenal of wake up techniques to try and get you out of bed, there's really only one thing you have to do. Totally ignore them.
Don't fuss them and try and get them to quieten down. Don't give them a bit of food to make them go away. Don't play dead for a while and then get up anyway. Don't tell them off or remove them from the bed - they'll still see this as attention. Literally do nothing!
When you do this, in an ideal world your cat would think 'Huh, this doesn't work any more. Guess I'll stop'.
In reality, you're more likely to come up against what behaviourists call THE EXTINCTION BURST.
The extinction burst is just a fancy way of saying that when your cat is conditioned to believe waking you up = food + attention, when it stops working as well as it used to, they'll actually try harder. Much harder.
It's likely that for a week or so of you playing dead your cat will just up its wake up routine, trying every trick in the book to try and get you up. Stay strong! If you break now your cat will think 'OK, so this is my new wake up routine. It takes longer but it still gets results!'
If you keep your resolve, you'll eventually be rewarded, as your cat unlearns its behaviours and the link between waking you up and getting everything it wants.
5. Create space between wake up time and feeding / fun time
To compound this 'new world vision' for your cat, it helps to create some space between your wake up time and the time that you become the giver of all things great for them.
That means that instead of leaping out of bed and feeding them straight away, it's better to wait a little while - maybe have breakfast yourself, take a shower - and then give them their playtime and food (in that order preferably, in keeping with their natural behaviour cycle that we saw in step 3).
And that's it!
I would love to hear what strategies your kitties have invented to wake you up - does your cat wake you up to be petted? Have you been wondering why your cat meows loudly every morning? Have you come up with any other ingenious ways for how to stop your cat from waking you up? Let us know in the comments below!