Help! My cat wakes me up at 4 am!

Since they got a kitten, Dave and Cynthia have been taking turns getting up at 4 am every day. That’s when the kitten comes to their bed attacking their feet, ready to play! Each morning, one of them will stumble out of bed to feed the kitten when the play attack occurs, hoping that someday they’ll magically be able to sleep through the night. But by now, both Cynthia and Dave are sleep-deprived zombies who almost wish they’d never heard of kittens.

For the past two years, Deb hasn’t slept past 5 am, even on the weekend, because her cats come and meow and purr and lick her face at that time every morning. It’s affecting her social life, because she knows she’d better go to bed early to get ready for that cat attack, so she routinely says no when her friends want to do something that would keep her out past 9:00 on Saturday evenings.

When I first got my two cats, they’d wake me up at 4 am every day. If I closed my bedroom door to try to keep them out, they’d jump up at the knob making a terrible scratching sound and mewing despite my yelling at them and even squirting them with water a time or two! I was getting more and more desperate, fantasizing about leaving them in their cat carriers in another part of the house overnight just so I could get some sleep!

Sound familiar?

One of the most common problems people have with cats is their tendency to play during the night or at least wake up in the wee hours of the morning and seek attention and food from their humans! This problem of cats waking owners up early is so common that cat owners often joke about it, yet most people don’t realize that this unwelcome trait in their beloved pet can be changed.

How to start modifying the cat’s behavior

When our cat causes us to lose sleep, of course we want to do something about it right away. Some people feed their cats right before bedtime, thinking the cats are waking them early simply because it’s been a long time since dinner the night before. Some keep a squirt gun by the bed in the hopes that the cats will steer clear of their bed while they’re in it. Some people even get up at 4 AM to play with or feed their cat then will return to bed, thinking the early morning ritual is just part of having a cat!

Sure, you may have a new kitten who doesn’t know what you expect of him at first, but cats can learn to adjust their habits so that they’re playing when you’re available to play and sleeping when you want to sleep (as well as getting in some more cat naps while you’re at work or doing other things).

We humans have a wake/sleep pattern that usually involves waking up in the morning, being awake for around 16 hours, and then going to sleep for one long stretch at night. Cats have their own natural pattern, but theirs includes a lot of naps around the clock, then waking well before dawn to hunt rodents. In fact, each cat has his or her own individual pattern too, with some of them being awake for a long time after breakfast while another might go snooze in the laundry basket during that same time each day.

These patterns may come “naturally” to your pet but they are not set in stone! Your cat forms patterns of sleeping time, play time, and feeding time based on his need for those things but also in response to what goes on in your household. Whether you have a cat or a kitten, your pet can shift his sleeping and feeding times to fit in with the rest of the family.
It goes without saying that before you start trying to change this habit of early morning attention-seeking you should first make sure your cat is healthy and has a good supply of fresh water and relatively clean litter 24 hours a day, because we don’t want to deny the needs of a cat that is sick or needs something from us in order to stay healthy. We’re just trying to reshape the play and feeding times of a healthy, normal cat. If your cat was previously a “good sleeper” and suddenly starts yelling or crying all night, please tell your vet so he can be checked for hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism can damage the heart and other organs and is ultimately a fatal (but curable) illness.

How does your cat learn to “fit in” to your household as far as leaving you alone in the early mornings, and why would he be motivated to do that? Actually, you and your cat notice and react to each other’s behavior all the time, and that’s how every household develops its own routine. You get home in the evenings and your kitty rushes to the door, meowing frantically. That’s because what you usually do, after dropping your laptop and the mail into the first convenient spot, is to feed her some delicious food! She doesn’t want you to forget to do that or to underestimate how important it is, so she vocalizes like crazy. You respond to all that meowing and rubbing by hurrying and getting some food into the bowl!

Once you sit down, especially if you’re trying to read a paper newspaper, your cat will probably find that a great time to climb into your lap and onto anything you’re trying to read. Or she may take a quick nap while you fix dinner, returning to play with you when you’re finished cleaning up after the meal. If there are toddlers in the house, Kitty may hide herself in a chair that’s pushed under a table until after the toddler’s bedtime, when she’ll suddenly emerge ready for play!

We currently have two cats, and they have two different daily routines between the time the alarm clock goes off in the mornings and the time we all go to bed at night, but each cat pretty much sticks to her same routine every day. I know which one my after-breakfast napper is, and she’s the same one who wants to be petted in the evenings while the other one grabs a cat nap. Notice your cat’s current routine, and notice how your actions can change a lot of it without much effort at all. You can wake her to play if she’s asleep, or you can provide an irresistible sweater on your bed, which may provoke her to take an unscheduled nap. A lot of your cat’s routine will be based on habit, but changes will occur when she reacts to something or someone else.

Some ideas that might help

There are a lot of things you can do to start changing your cat’s behavior so that he’s not pouncing on you at dawn (or before!) every day.

1. You can try reserving part of the cat’s dinner until 8 or 9 pm, hoping the cat won’t get hungry so early in the morning. Personally, I feed my cats when I get home from work each day, or at that same time on the weekend days, so their stomachs are accustomed to two daily feedings roughly 12 hours apart and it works fine for them. Even if I’m home all day on the weekend, I refuse to give them their dinner any earlier than normal unless I won’t be home during their usual dinnertime, because I realize that if they eat dinner earlier they’ll be hungry for their breakfast earlier too. Sure, they start vocalizing at me a couple of hours before dinnertime, but I’d rather they meow on a late Saturday afternoon than to be awakened Sunday morning at 4!

2. If you don’t have to dash out of the house very early each day, you may want to feed your cats later in the morning instead of as soon as you get up. Then the cats won’t consider your sleep the roadblock that’s keeping them from getting fed, and they won’t think that daylight is the signal for them to start ordering breakfast!
Instead, use some other daytime signal, such as going and opening the draperies or making your bed, or even clicking a clicker that’s made for pet training, then feeding the cats. Believe me, they notice everything you do, and they’ll soon start meowing as soon as you signal them that breakfast time is near by doing those pre-breakfast tasks each day. I do feed my cats as soon as I get up, but first I reach over and turn off my alarm. That way, my cats know that if I get up just to go to the thermostat or the bathroom, I’m coming back to bed and there’s no cause for them to get up and start meowing. I’ll click that alarm even on the weekend to indicate to the cats that now I’m now awake and “open for business,” and they always take that as their signal to start meowing at me and running ahead of me to the kitchen!

3. Cats don’t have calendars to consult, so if they get fed very early on weekdays they may wake up hungry on weekends and holidays at the time they normally eat. If that’s the case, you can try letting an automatic pet feeder administer that early feeding each day. Some people have good luck with them, but if you do consider buying an automatic feeder, be sure to read the reviews of each model before you buy it. Some of them work best with a certain size of kibble, and of course like anything else, some brands work better than others.

4. Some cat owners try to make sure the cat has an active evening of play before everyone goes to bed, hoping that tiring Kitty out will help her to sleep later. I haven’t seen any difference in my own cats’ early morning behavior no matter what they do all evening. I have one who naps a lot in the evenings, even up to bedtime. But if you have a cat who sleeps all day while you’re at work, of course Kitty wants some playtime with you while you’re home, so make sure he gets that time before you head to your bed!

Note: Be sure to check out the conclusion of this series and find out the absolute solution to your cat waking you up early.

Photo credit: dprevite

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