Let us guess: Your precious furbaby is becoming a bit of a night terror, suddenly finding the energy to zoom around the house in the wee hours or pouncing you in your bed just as the sun is about to rise. You’re here because you need someone to confirm that cats are nocturnal, because it’s too difficult to believe that your sweet kitty is just a jerk. Good news: You’re right! Whiskers is not a jerk. Cats are nocturnal* and there’s nothing abnormal or spiteful about what yours is up to. Of course, this may also seem like bad news with a lifetime of sleepless nights in store, but here’s the really good news: Just as you can be trained to work a night shift and sleep all day, your cat can be trained to play in the day and sleep at night, and it doesn’t take much more than some intelligent cat furniture, scheduled play time, and some personal discipline on your part.
*Okay, there’s some debate that cats are, in fact, crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk, but this has the same result of interrupted sleep for you and the jury will never reach a consensus on nocturnal versus crepuscular for our domesticated felines, so feel free to move ahead in life accepting that cats are nocturnal.
Start with a cat tree
Every kitty should have a cat tree of some sort for a variety of reasons—elevated resting places bring a sense of security and an appropriate place to scratch spares your human furniture, just for starters—but if you have a nighttime menace on your hands you’re ready to upgrade to a more interactive tree, like the Rizzo from Mau. Step one is to inspire your cat to play more and sleep less in the afternoon, when your kitty would otherwise disappear to a cozy spot and snooze the day away, and the Rizzo is a perfect stepping stone to this new lifestyle. Whenever your cat approaches the tree’s beds to doze off, he’ll find a variety of toys to inspire some exercise and play before the laziness sets in. Mental stimulation is as important as physical in keeping your cat occupied during the day, so the multi-tiered approach of a tree like the Rizzo, along with toys placed in unusual locations, promotes plenty of decision-making and additional activity. These choices and movements may seem small to us, but they’re a big deal to your kitty. Every minute spent considering, scratching, swatting, climbing, and choosing is a minute spent not sleeping. It doesn’t take much daytime activity to start changing a cat’s patterns, so consider some 5-minute activities here and there throughout the day to be a huge win in training a cat to sleep at night.
Play in the day
It’s a wild misconception that house cats are aloof and antisocial creatures, and every cat will benefit from play with those it trusts. If your kitty doesn’t have another cat in the house to play with during the day, it’s especially important that you initiate play daily. As with the tree above, this can be as simple as a few minutes with a laser pointer, waving a feathery wand for a bit, or batting a ball or noisy mouse around together. It doesn’t take much, but it has to happen, and if you’re trying to change nighttime patterns, you want to do this as far away from your own bedtime as possible. If you’re out working all day, try to play as soon as you get home instead of unwinding or doing chores first and playing later when you’re relaxed. This is closer to bedtime, and only encourages nighttime activity. Likewise, if you’re an early riser, don’t play as soon as you wake up, because this is equally too close to your sleeping schedule. If you’re home all day, play later in the morning. If you need to leave for work, play as close to leaving time as possible.
Ignore at night
We’re certainly not advocating that you neglect your cat (ever!), but you’ll need to practice a little selective hearing while trying to retrain kitties-of-the-night. Let’s start out with the most important message here: Never scold or punish your cat for waking you up, either from activity or vocalizing. First of all, this is still attention and, as with troublemaking children, even negative attention is attention, and reinforces outbursts. More importantly, cats are very emotional creatures and punishing is more likely to deteriorate your relationship together than to stop a behavior. Keep in mind that your cat has no reason to believe play or communication are bad things, and will never understand that they shouldn’t be done when you’re sleeping (by the way, don’t you wake your cat up all the time with noises, or to pet her when she’s napping in such an irresistible position?), so your goal is not to punish her for either of these activities, but to slowly change the times she chooses to do them. The most common offending activities (pouncing, vocalizing, rattling doors) are attempts to get your attention, so your best defense here is to stop providing it. Don’t reply when your cat meows, don’t get up to open a rattling door, and don’t pet your cat as you fall back to sleep after she wakes you up an hour before the sun rises. Ignore, ignore, ignore. Yes, it will be annoying for you for a bit but, like training children to sleep in their own rooms through the night, it’s better to put up with a few weeks of irritating behavior than years of interrupted nights. Your cat will change.
If you’re interested in speeding up the process as much as possible, consider adding any or all of the following to your strategy.
-Use an automatic feeder that dispenses food throughout the day. This triggers your cat’s hunting instincts and is a surprisingly effective activity for mental stimulation, and also reinforces that interesting things happen during daylight hours.
-Get another cat. Cats are so social that an increasing number of rescues won’t even adopt solo kitties to a home that lacks another kitty playmate. How to introduce new cats to each other is an entirely separate topic that should be taken very seriously but, done right, this is a highly effective longer-term strategy for stimulating your cat(s) throughout the day.
-Close your bedroom door. If your cat sleeps in your room, this reinforces that this is a retreat, not a play zone (and make sure you don’t have toys in this room). If your cat roams the house, it separates you from the activity, provides a barrier to noise, and makes it much more difficult for your cat to get your attention. Cats are smart, and will not waste too much effort on something that doesn’t often succeed.
-Try earplugs. Seriously, if your cat is calling for you or knocking on the door and you just can’t bear it while you try to re-train, ear plugs, a loud fan, and other white noise elements can be your new best friends until behaviors change.