Why does my cat meow at the same time every night?
Every cat parent can confirm it; kitties tend to be more active at certain times of the day: right after sundown, and very early in the morning. This is especially noticeable in younger cats as well as roaming cats and can be explained by the crepuscular nature of cats. Crepuscular animals are most active at dusk and dawn, and sleep during the day; their preferred prey being either nocturnal or diurnal, they are easier to catch during twilight. Housecats instinctively follow this cycle, which, while being perfectly normal to them, tends to clash with the diurnal nature of humans, who usually sleep at night.
A cat waking up at 3 am finds itself alone in the house and will find ways to keep busy… however possible. It will try out a bunch of things and, through trial and error, will repeat whatever behaviours have the biggest payoff in terms of fun, food or attention. Our reaction to these behaviours, even unconscious, leads to a chain reaction of unpleasant nightly awakenings.
Assuming the cat meows for food
When Kitty meows its life out at 3 am, we often think that it’s hungry. The worst mistake one can make is to get up and feed the cat. Even though we’ve temporarily solved the problem and can go back to sleep, the cat has just learned that meowing makes food appear; food is a significant payoff, and the cat is most likely to try again the following morning. If the cat was really hungry, a few more hours of waiting for its breakfast won’t hurt a healthy cat.
Of course, hunger can very well wake a cat at night. A great way to avoid this is to feed your cat in an interactive feeding station when you go to bed. By having to work for its food, the cat will eat more slowly and stretch its meal overnight.
Letting the cat out when it meows for the door
Likewise, a roaming cat can ask for the door. The easiest way to solve this is to install a cat door, which allows the cat to go in and out when it feels like it, without waking you up. However, this is not suited everywhere or for every cat. The best thing to do in this case is not to answer the call and ignore the cat completely.
A properly enriched environment provides the cat with plenty of autonomous activity, and busy cats may not ask to go outside.
The new kitten wakes me by scratching at the door
Cats are really good at figuring out what makes us react, especially when it comes to waking us for attention. Adult cats and kittens alike want to spend time with their humans, and will do so on their own terms; if a cat is awake, it will try to wake you. By not giving in to its demands at night, you’re telling the kitten that it’s time to sleep. Of course, you should make sure to spend plenty of time with the kitten during the day and play with it.
Long-term issues can be avoided by establishing a daily routine in which the cat’s needs for play and attention are fulfilled and ignoring its pleas at night.
I trained the cat to meow louder!
When we tell you to ignore the cat, we mean ignore the cat completely and perfectly. This means no peeking, no talking, no sighing, no petting. Don’t do anything that could be perceived as attention. Yelling, spraying the cat or punishing it are forms of attention and can encourage the cat to keep it up.
Ignoring the cat properly after previously giving in for a while will likely cause the cat to amplify the behaviour before stopping it completely. It may meow louder or find new ways of waking you, such as tripping things off the shelves, walking across your face… this is called extinction. It means it’s working! Reacting then would be a big mistake, because the cat would understand that whatever it did worked, and will start with that going forward. Ignoring the cat through the extinction burst is of the utmost importance in order to stop the cat meowing at night, or to avoid worse behaviours.
Does my ageing cat need to be comforted?
When an older cat suddenly starts meowing at night, you should pay attention. A change of behaviour should never be taken lightly. Without giving the cat any attention, for example under the guise of a trip to the washroom or the kitchen for some water, check on the cat discretely to make sure it’s okay. That way, you can take care of the cat if something is wrong, or keep ignoring the cat and go back to bed if everything seems normal.
If your senior cat keeps meowing for no reason, we recommend having it checked by your veterinarian; several medical conditions may cause meowing at night and other sudden nightly behaviours.
In conclusion, when your cat meows at night, you must ignore it completely and perfectly in order not to encourage the behaviour. Keeping the cat busy at night may prevent it from getting hungry or finding creative ways of getting your attention. If your companion is an older cat, make sure to rule out any health concerns. Finally, if you still can’t sleep despite our advice, don’t wait any longer and contact us!
Translated and adapted from French by Elen Dupuis, Cat Educator and Biologist
French written by Karine Gélinas, Cat Educator and Veterinarian