Many cat owners know the dread…
It’s three in the morning, and suddenly you’re woken from your slumber by a cat standing over you, meowing, or banging on the cupboard, or running around the house like they are trying to set the land speed record…
As a cat behaviourist, this is a surprisingly common issue that clients come to me with. Often sleep-deprived, they’ve already tried locking the cat out of the room, yelling, throwing socks and other clothes within reach, and even feeding their cat… just to get her to be quiet for a while!
I usually tell my clients that I have good news and bad news for them. The good news is that it’s a simple issue to fix. And if they do it right and stay the course, I can almost guarantee it will stop. But the bad news is… it’s not easy. Simple, but not easy.
Sound ominous? It should! You’re going to have to put up with some short term pain for long term gain.
To understanding how to fix it, let’s look at why she does it.
First of all, your cat is probably full of energy at this time. She may have been napping during the day while you’re at work and/or she just hasn’t expended enough pent-up energy.
Secondly, she is doing it because she’s getting rewarded for it. It’s that simple.
To put it in behavioural science terms – behaviour occurs because of a history of that behaviour being reinforced (rewarded).
If she wasn’t being rewarded in some way, the behaviour wouldn’t occur.
It’s at this point that I suspect that some clients would like to throw me out and get a refund. “Rewarding her?! No way. I yell at her, throw her off the bed, and throw socks at her!”
Yep, this is a reward. Any reaction from you is rewarding. Remember, she’s ready to play and get attention, and is behaving in a way that she knows will get a reaction – because it always has in the past!
Some clients also do the absolute worst thing (with the best intentions) and that is to feed her. I totally get it. You just want some peace and quiet, so you give her what she wants so she’ll leave you alone. That’s inadvertently conditioning the opposite of what we want. This is getting short term gain, in exchange for long term pain!
So how do we actually stop this behaviour?
Let’s break it down into some manageable steps.
1) Reset her rhythm
Firstly you need to reset her rhythm. Remember, she’s full of energy at this time, so you need to plan for her to sleep (or at least not be too energetic) through the night.
This is generally quite easy. Simply have an energetic play session just before bedtime, and then her last feed (if you are meal feeding). A good play will deplete her energy, and the food should keep her satiated until breakfast in the morning.
2) Change the behaviour by changing the consequence
This is the “simple but not easy” part of the process. For however long now, she has been (inadvertently) rewarded for her night-time antics. This has created a long history of conditioning that will take time to undo.
Let’s quickly look at some simple behavioural principles. There are 3 things that can happen after a behaviour: Reinforcement (reward), Punishment, and Extinction.
Reinforcement and punishment are self-explanatory, so we won’t go into those, except to say that punishment doesn’t work with cats. Cats haven’t been bred over thousands of years to serve humans, so any punishment is likely to instead fracture the bond between you and your cat. So instead, we are going to focus on extinction.
Extinction is when nothing happens after a behaviour. That is, the behaviour isn’t reinforced or punished. And over time, if the behaviour results in nothing, it stops. It’s that simple. In fact, research has shown again and again that an extinction process is far more effective than punishment in the long term.
So, what does this mean for your cat’s night-time antics? It means that, from now on, they must not be reinforced (or punished) ever again. Any type of reaction from you is going to reward the behaviour, so it has to stop in order for the behaviour to stop.
And when I say don’t react, I really mean don’t react! Don’t roll over, don’t cough, don’t speak, don’t even breath heavy! And please don’t use this time to get up to go to the bathroom if you can help it. It should be as it your cat is trying to get a reaction from a log!
After about 2 weeks, the behaviour should improve drastically, like clockwork. But not without the dreaded extinction burst.
Almost every client has told me – “Chris, it won’t work. I’ve tried ignoring her in the past but her meowing got way worse”.
Yep, this means you’re on the right track!
An extinction burst is a behavioural phenomenon that is seen when modifying behaviour. It’s when the behaviour gets worse before it gets better. Think about it… if your cat is used to getting a reaction from you by meowing and pawing at your hair, and then suddenly that reaction stops, is she going to be satisfied? No way! She’ll wonder what’s wrong and then start meowing louder, for longer, and pawing more aggressively. If you give in at this stage, you’ve done yourself a massive disservice – this new level will now become normal!
No wonder clients who eventually come to me are at the end of their tether!
So, no reaction, whatsoever. And be prepared for it to get worse before it gets better. Buy some ear-plus if you have to!
3) Enrich her environment
Undoubtedly, your cat will get up during the night, looking for things to do. If you’re doing your best to ignore her, that’s great. However you still need to give her something else to do!
The easiest way to do this is to organise some things for her to do, ideally away from the bedroom. Toys, food puzzles, and even a treasure hunt where you place treats around the place in hidden locations, should satisfy her.
That’s it. The tried and tested formula for getting your cat to stop annoying you at night. Play and feed before bed, ignore her behaviour completely, and give her other things to do at night!
If you do it right and stay the course, it’ll work. Trust me!