A veterinarian provides a guide to help with preventing ‘my cat waking me up’ too early. Almost always this has to do with when the cat is fed, and the cat is campaigning to be fed earlier and earlier.
Sometimes the cats are just angling for attention or play time. Cats can certainly be more active at night, but they are not truly nocturnal. Cats are ‘naturally’ more active at dawn and dusk, which means that they are crepuscular animals. So it makes perfect sense that they are ready to get their day moving earlier than most people are ready to wake up!
Establishing the Rewards and Triggers in ‘The Cat Waking Me Up’ Game
The first part of figuring out how to correct an unwanted behavior is determining what the rewards for the behavior are and what the cat likely perceives as the trigger to getting those rewards.
Obtaining food is a great reward, and so is obtaining attention and play. Rewarded behavior is repeated. Practiced behavior is also repeated. So if your cat succeeds every morning with the ‘cat waking me up’ game then there is powerful reinforcement for that ‘game’ to continue.
Cats are extremely persistent when campaigning for something they want. They outshine even the most stubborn iron willed terriers and toddlers. In order to succeed you have to be even more persistent AND consistent. Ever seen a toddler harass their mother by asking for something 45 times and she keeps saying no, but finally gives in on the 46 ask? Cats live for that 46th time, it gives them hope for trying 75 times next time in hopes that the 76th time with be the charm. Consistence and persistence.
Cats tend to focus on routines that establish a pattern. When you feed them every morning within 10 minutes or so of waking up and getting out of bed, then that establishes for them that the trigger to being fed (or getting attention, or whatever other reward you identify) is that you wake up and get out of bed. The problem with that routine pattern is that smart cats figure out they they can actually control when you wake up and get out of bed!
Feeding a cat immediately when anyone gets out of bed sets a bad precedent. They learn to cue that the human being getting out of bed means that they will get fed. The smart cat starts working out how to campaign to awaken their people and they almost always succeed. After a little time goes by, the cat now firmly believes, and has been rewarded each and every day, that if they just wake their person up then they will be fed immediately.
Practice will have proven to them that they are correct and that their efforts in the “cat waking me up too early” game WILL be rewarded. Usually rewarded instantly upon succeeding to wake the person up every time. Instant self rewarding behavior is powerful motivation to continue for a cat.
If you want the behavior to stop, you have to develop a new plan that does NOT start with the cat being fed the minute someone gets up out of bed. I can suggest several things, but honestly you will have to come up with a plan to accomplish that which makes sense for your household.
Reframing the Outcome of “The Cat Waking Me Up too early” Game
The cat needs to learn to cue for impending feeding (or other identified rewards) from a series of events that come about roughly an hour or more AFTER anyone gets up from bed. If possible. If that is not possible then make it as long as is possible before you leave for work or whatever.
Recently about a year ago, we got a new young adult cat. Marvelous fellow. One morning shortly after he came into the household, my spouse popped a top on a can of food right after she got up. Talk about a cue! I leapt up from a dead sleep at that noise and said, “Don’t you DARE!” I was given a stare like I might be insane. I said, “Have you lost your mind? Don’t you feed that little nut the moment you get out of bed!” We laughed later at the way that transpired.
But, our cat does not get fed until after the dogs go out, come back in, and get their morning feeding, and THEN the cat gets fed his morning feeding. We do not get awakened because the cat knows no food will appear until the dogs go out and come back in. And a key factor to that success is that he cannot ’cause’ that to happen.
So maybe you decide to interrupt “The cat wakes me up” game by not offering food (or whatever other identified rewards) until after coffee is brewed, toast made, and coffee cup placed in the sink. Whatever routine that the cat cannot actually initiate which immediately results in food (or other reward) provided within 10 minutes of their efforts. Focus on some routine that involves some time frame and events that he cannot ’cause’ relatively quickly by getting you out of bed.
Will they get worse before they get better = yes, likely so. You have to be uber persistent AND consistent to win with a cat training at any time, and even doubly so if there has been a long period of instantly rewarded behavior.
Other Points to Consider in Foiling “The Cat Waking Me Up Too Early” Game
The Cat Feeding Schedule
Even if the cat is not being fed immediately after waking, if a feeding is occurring around that magic time that “The cat wakes me up” game begins, it may be providing some level of positive reward. So evaluate when the cat’s feeding are and see if you can alter them slightly.
Most animals are quite excellent and estimating and anticipating routine times. Some are better than others but, in general, most seem to start their ‘anticipatory’ campaigning within an hour or so of the regular event. So make sure that you schedule that first feeding of the day such that early campaigning (by an hour or so) will not end up routinely awakening everyone in the house.
For instance, if you feed them once in the morning then part of the problem may be they are actively hungry by the next morning. So split some of their daily portion of food out to provide a night time feeding. Reduce some of their other feedings in the day to allow for a portion to be fed last thing before bed. Consider giving some canned food at night instead of just dry food (decrease their dry food daily allotment so you do not just increase calories taken in unnecessarily and cause weight gain). Canned food in general tends to be higher in protein content (when you adjust for water content), and so it can leave them feeling full longer.
Consider using timed feeders. They are not cheap, but you could opt to feed at least their morning meal from one to try and help reduce the campaign to wake you up earlier and earlier. If the cat is just iron focused on eating at certain time, then an automatic feeder may be used to provide food at their preferred time and then perhaps begin to slowly habituate them to a later morning feeding routine. There are timed feeders for dry food and timed feeders with ice packs for canned food.
Confinement To Interrupt “The Cat Waking Me Up” Game
Often just closing the bed room door does not seem to work. The cat can yowl louder, assault the door, scratch at the door or floor, or other such shenanigans and keep waking you up that way. Consider whether you can confine the cat in another part of the house when you go to bed so they cannot get to your bedroom door and wake you up.
A suitable room that the cat can have all their resources in (toys, food, water, litter box, bed, etc). You can make sure that the floor or door facings have protective shields put on them in order to prevent clawing damage. If they are expert at rattling the door then use weatherstripping to make that less satisfying AND less noisy.
Consider arranging for some motion activated toys that they can play with in the evening on their own when confined. New stuff that is not left out all day, perhaps ONLY used for the evening time period. And change them up every few days.
When you have a cat that is so very persistent and intelligent enough to work out how to manipulate you, then you have a cat that needs a more varied and interesting enrichment plan. The smarter the cat , the more mental engagement they need in a day and some cats have very high mental and physical energy to burn.
This is THE most often forgotten aspect of any cat behavior issue and that is unfortunate. It does not matter in the slightest if they have 100 toys lying around that they never play with. That does not mean they do not like toys. That means they need something new to think about and do in the day.
If your cat has trained you to do their bidding successfully then I guarantee you that your cat needs a richer mental enrichment plan. Please check out our article on Feline Enrichment Plans (How to keep your bored cat happy), and help engage their bright little tiger minds more fully.