Feline night time vocalizations and wakefulness is a common complaint amongst cat owners. Many cat owners note that their cats tend to become wide awake and vocal between 3 and 5 am each morning causing them sleep loss. Time and time again I hear cat owners state that they simply suffer with this sleep loss, believing that there is nothing that can be done, or that they have already tried ‘everything’ without success.
First it is important to determine why your cat is vocalizing and active during the small hours of the morning. It is a myth that cats are nocturnal, awake and hunting all night. In truth cats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most actively hunting during the dawn and dusk hours. Therefore, cats who are awake, active, and vocalizing between 3 and 5 am are doing what is natural for their species. I like to think they are on ‘cat hours’.
Most pet cats, particularly indoor only cats, spend their day time hours sleeping and napping. It is only natural that they will have more energy and feel more wakeful during the night hours.
It could be that your cat’s last feeding of the day is too early and his body is waking him up early due to hunger.
A change of environment can be to blame if you have moved to a new home and there is more light coming through the windows in the morning than in your previous home, thus waking your cat up earlier.
A change in the household schedule, the changes of time due to daylight savings or the natural daylight cycles of the seasons can cause cats to wake up earlier.
Perhaps you have inadvertently reinforced the behaviour by feeding or giving your cat attention as a response to his vocalizations.
If the behaviour is sudden, with no changes in environment, it can be the sign of a medical problem. Common medical issues that can cause vocalization include hyperthyroidism, kidney dysfunction, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction, arthritis, and pain. It is never inappropriate to seek veterinary advice with any sudden onset behaviour change in cats.
So, what can you do to help your cat sleep through the night past the small hours of the morning?
If you determine it is a sudden behaviour, not related to any change in the environment, and particularly if you have a cat 7 years or older, please seek veterinary advice. It could be that your cat is showing early signs of a medical problem.
Try feeding your cat later in the evening. Cats are not designed to eat two biggish meals per day. In nature a cat will eat multiple small meals per day. Most working people aren’t able to feed their cats 5-7 small meals each day but there are timed feeders available for both wet and dry food. Food puzzles are another great way to keep cats active during the day. There are a variety of food puzzles ranging from the simple to the more complex that will allow your cat the pleasure of ‘hunting’ for his meals. It stands to reason that if your cat is keeping more active and awake during they day he will be more likely to sleep at night.
Engage your cat with routine evening interactive hunting play. Wand type toys like ‘Da Bird’ are best for this type of play. Get onto a schedule of playing with your cat for 10-15 minutes before feeding him his final evening meal. It can take several weeks of doing this religiously before you will see results, so don’t give up!
Elizabeth Llewellyn is a feline welfare and behaviour specialist with 30 years experience working with cats in a variety of settings including rescue, breeding, boarding, grooming and veterinary. She lives in Chittenden County Vermont with her three cats.