Cat Behavior Problems - Nocturnal Activity

Why is my cat most active at night?

Cats are crepuscular animals. This term is used to describe animals that are most active at dawn and dusk. Free-roaming cats that do not rely on people for food or entertainment are most active at dusk and dawn. This behavior makes sense since the prey that cats hunt is also most active at these low-light times. So, it is somewhat ‘natural’ for your cat to be active just as your day winds down.

Most house cats override this natural behavior pattern and readily adapt to the schedules of the people in their household. Cats pounce and play and find things to ‘hunt’ during the day while their people are up and about. If your cat is alone for many hours during the day while you go to work or school, then your cat may spend the day sleeping. Once you return home, your cat’s activity begins and there may be a few hours of play to catch up on before your cat is ready for bed.

How can I determine whether my cat’s nighttime activity is normal or excessive?

Though some cats are more active than others, excessive nighttime activity can occur due to learning or an underlying illness. Learned behavior occurs when a cat is rewarded for a behavior, and it is easy to accidentally reward your cat’s nighttime activity. If you wake up to give your cat attention, whether you speak kind soothing words or if you verbally admonish your cat for waking you up, your cat gains attention. Over time, your cat could therefore become more active just to get the reward of being noticed. During the daytime, if you respond to your playful cat by playing back, then you are providing reinforcement as well, but since you are awake, you probably do not mind. After all, you and your cat do want to enjoy each other’s company! But there may be a need to change the dynamics if your cat continues to wake you up at night. For example, you might refrain from on-demand playing and instead schedule play when your cat least expects it.

If your cat has always slept all night and only recently has begun to keep you up, there may be a more serious problem. First, check for anything in the environment that might be attracting your cat’s attention. There could be critters inside or directly outside the house or there could be a novel noise that is disturbing your cat. If you do not find anything wrong, have your cat examined by your veterinarian. Many treatable conditions can contribute to the development of restless behavior, including pain or hyperthyroidism.

"Many treatable conditions can contribute to the development of restless behavior, including pain or hyperthyroidism."

How can I stop my cat from keeping me up at night?

There are two strategies for reducing normal but inconvenient nighttime activity. The first strategy is to encourage your cat to be more active during the day, whether you are home or not. Provide some of your cat’s daily ration in food-filled toys or puzzles. Hide food dishes and toys in assorted locations so that your cat gets some exercise and mental stimulation while hunting for the meals. This activity is particularly important if you are planning to leave the house for a long day away.

Note: At the end of the day, be certain that your cat has finished all the hidden food, as cats have very strict dietary requirements.

Second, be sure to schedule playtime with your cat several times per day. When you come home after a long day, include interactive play early in your evening routine to give your cat a chance to unwind before bedtime. Sometimes, too much activity just before bedtime can be overstimulating.

Is there anything else I can do to get a good night’s sleep?

Many cats that are busy at night can play happily whether or not you are in the room with them. It may be helpful to simply close the door to your bedroom and let your cat play in another area where you will not be disturbed. If you make this decision, be sure to remain committed. Otherwise, your cat may ‘knock’ on the door to be let in and out of the room many times through the night, a new behavior that may be even less convenient for you.

Whether you decide to let your cat sleep in your room or to keep your door closed, be sure to provide a very comfortable sleeping spot based on your cat’s preferences. For example, your cat may appreciate a raised perch cushioned with a soft fleece or a covered cozy cup bed.

"... be sure to provide a very comfortable sleeping spot based on your cat’s preferences."

If your cat sleeps through most of the night but wakes very early for food, try an automatic feeder in the room and set the timer to go off early, just before your cat is likely to begin asking for breakfast.

How should I respond to my cat’s nighttime activity?

Do your best to refrain from engaging with your cat unless you believe your cat is distressed. Attention or acknowledgment will strengthen the behavior. Vocalization can be particularly difficult to ignore (see the handout “Cat Behavior Problems - Vocalization”).

Should I punish my cat for vocalizing?

Punishment is not an appropriate solution for managing active cats. First, punishment can lead to fear and anxiety. Your cat may become frightened of you even if you try to deliver the punishment from a remote location. Second, punishment causes frustration because it does not address the cat’s motivation for vocalizing.

Is there a medication that might help?

Before considering medication, a thorough medical and behavioral workup would be needed. Medication can be helpful if it is determined that the nighttime activity reflects an underlying behavioral disorder. Conditions such as frustration intolerance, hyperactivity, and anxiety can keep cats awake at night and may improve with medications. Medication should not be used alone—a treatment program should include behavior modification, environmental enrichment, and a management strategy.

Note: Although tranquilizers are available to help cats sleep, they are not appropriate for long-term use. Tranquilizers have undesirable side effects that affect your cat’s quality of life and can mask the signs of a more serious problem. It is important to learn the cause of your cat’s nighttime activity.

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