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When Your Cat Wakes You Up

How to curb your kitty’s early morning antics.
By Roxanne Hawn
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

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."

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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.

Wired to Wake You Up

"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."

Cats Gambling for Attention

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."

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