This Damn Cat
February 17, 2015 6:59 AM   Subscribe

How can we stop a senior cat's behavior when it does not appear to us that the behavior is being rewarded? Alternately (although we'll mention it at his annual exam in April) is this a sign of some sort of elder cat illness?

Boutros is nearly 15 and he has always been very cuddly. If I am seated somewhere in the house, he is in my lap, and for nearly 15 years straight, he has slept on the pillow next to my head pretty much all night long. He sticks close to me all day, every day, except when I'm at the office. Then he tends to sleep all day in the window or on the bed.

In the last few months, he has introduced a new nightly behavior that is extremely disruptive. There have been no changes in the household (we have two other cats, but have had them for several years now and have lived in the same house for 6 years, with the same bed, same pillows, same food, same work & feeding schedules)--just changes in Bou's behavior.

At least once a night (usually around 4:00 am, but occasionally earlier), he climbs directly on my head--or attempts to force himself in between my head & my husband's head), purring very loudly and kneading my head with all four paws. Other than removing him from my head, we pretty much attempt to ignore him when he does this. We don't pet him or talk to him and we sure as hell don't get up and feed him.

HOWEVER, it goes on for 20-30 minutes every single *^!$@%$!@%*!& night and the sleep disruption is killing me. The cat cannot be locked out of the room (there is an interior window that does not close) and cannot be locked in a separate room (the cats will scratch and howl at the door--regardless of how many are locked in and how many are locked out). Also, I find it difficult to sleep without him in his usual place on the pillow as much as I find it difficult to sleep through the nightly assault on my head.

Is there some way to change this behavior? Is the behavior recognizable to anyone? Is he just getting dementia? Like I said, there've been no changes to his diet; he does not appear to be drinking water excessively and his litter box habits appear the same. We usually play with the other two cats right around dinner time, but Boutros just sits there and watches for the most part.
posted by crush-onastick to Pets & Animals (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea how to stop it, but wanted to chime in that it's just about 100000% normal cat behavior. Sometimes they just get more needy. (Ha, kneady...)
posted by Crystalinne at 7:05 AM on February 17, 2015 [13 favorites]

Oh man, he is a pretty boy. And I feel your pain, because my cats essentially take turns doing this every few months. The thing that I have found most effective is to just immediately give them what they want - hugs, pets, even food. Yeah, maybe it's reinforcing the behavior, but I've had cats every one of my 38 years and honestly, when can you ever get a cat to do what you want it to do? It's easier to adjust my own behavior than to try to mold theirs. Maybe if you reposition Boutros from being immediately on top of your head and pet him for a few minutes you will both go back to sleep. Being mad about his behavior is probably keeping you awake longer than the behavior itself.
posted by something something at 7:05 AM on February 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

Well, cats are crepuscular, so his becoming active in the predawn hours isn't too surprising.

It sounds like he wants cuddles, and the easiest thing is probably to give him cuddles.

He'll move on to something else disruptive eventually.
posted by tel3path at 7:20 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Does he want breakfast? Food makes my cats shut up in the morning.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:26 AM on February 17, 2015

My five year old Malcolm does this. He sleeps on the pillow by my head and for some reason, in the early hours of the morning, he feels the need to knead me, paw at me and 'make biscuits' on the pillow, making little holes with his claws. He also quacks.

I can't keep him out, if I shut my door, we'll all freeze (not so great heat circulation) or Eartha will whine about being excluded.

It's really funny because he's really all about Husbunny, but HE locks the cats out of his room. I guess I'm a port in the storm. I get it, but they do what they do and sometimes we just have to roll with it.

Right now the little asshole is in Husbunny's bed, sleeping. I'm going to go bug HIM now!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:29 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is it at all possible that his waking up is related to his getting cold? Here's my thinking: cats' body temperatures are higher than humans', outdoor temperatures fall through the night (and maybe your room temperature does too), he's not under a blanket, his body may not be staying as warm by itself as before, and your head is probably exuding a lot of heat.

If you want to test this, you could a) set up a space heater on a timer (or modify your thermostat settings if you have a fancy one); or b) (less likely to work) set up a padded "cat cave" and teach him that it's really warm by letting him go in there during the day, then put that next to your head at night so he can go in there when it's cold. example cat-warming cave.

You can make it even warmer with one of these, although they are a bit hard.
posted by amtho at 7:43 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Do you have a new haircut? new shampoo or conditioner?

I don't think he's doing it because he's stressed or sick.. cats really only do what you're explaining when they love you to pieces and feel very comfortable.
posted by royalsong at 7:43 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have either of you guys started using any new hair products? One of my cats periodically goes bonkers over my hair and starts grooming it and biting my head like its the most delicious thing in the world. She could also just be trying to eat my brains. Either seems equally plausible.
posted by MsMolly at 7:45 AM on February 17, 2015 [8 favorites]

My cat does this too. Worse, she actively digs in my armpit; I'd be happy if it was just kneading! The only thing that sort of works is i've trained her to stop with a sharp "No!", but that lasts about 90 seconds before she's back at it, and obviously can wake up others in the room. If you really cant lock the cat out (and maybe you need to revisit that permanently open window for your own sanity's sake), then all i can suggest is make something else more attractive to the cat - whether is be a heated blanket, food, head scritches, whatever...
posted by cgg at 7:46 AM on February 17, 2015

If it seems like food-seeking behavior and it's new, you can try moving his feeding times around to see if he will be less disruptive. It also might be kitty thyroid if it's food-seeking and some meds will fix that right up if that is the case.

My cat is currently pounding around the house at like midnight and then going nuts chasing things that do not exist up the walls. It's new in the last week. I think she's just a little crazy. Cats are weird.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:52 AM on February 17, 2015

I've heard cats do this for a couple of reasons:
1. If they are cold (I guess since heat escapes from our heads it is especially warm?)
2. To get your attention (maybe if they aren't feeling well?)

I'm really no expert but I did have a cat do this once one winter out of the blue. She was about 17 years old at the time so probably had some health concerns developing that I wasn't aware of at the time. Not sure if that's what she was trying to tell me, or if she was cold, or just being a cat.
posted by Shadow Boxer at 8:10 AM on February 17, 2015

Hm. "Cold" seems a likely culprit and I'm surprised we had not thought of it. It's been a frigid winter here in Chicago, the house is 150 years old and the only night recently he did not do it, he was uncharacteristically curled up against one of the other cats. We'll talk to his vet about thyroid issues.

Do you suppose it would be safe to put one of those automatic turn off heating pads in the pillow case and flip it on when he gets agitated? Getting up and preparing a hot water bottle would guarantee I could not get back to sleep.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:18 AM on February 17, 2015

Don't laugh, I have a dog (Rat Terrier) that does the same thing. About 4 in the morning he pokes me in the head with his foot until I lift up the blanket & let him climb down into the warmth. I just figure he's cold. He also now has my husband and I both so trained we can do the whole poke poke lift the blanket routine without waking up. If you don't want the cat "in" your bed get him a heating pad or a little blanket to snuggle under.
posted by wwax at 8:18 AM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

It could be so many things, but if you don't already have some type of thermal bed(s) for your cats, they have gone a long way to addressing clingy bed cats. I always thought my cats just loved me like crazy and wanted to sleep next to me, and it turns out, they were just cold. The minute I put these out they decamped. They still will come sleep with me when they are upset about something, or just some kind of whim, but Sweetpea spends most nights (and days) in one of her two hot beds. And this is Zafu, may she rest in peace, who spent most of her last years here.
posted by nanook at 8:28 AM on February 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I hate to say this, but for a cat, kneading is its own reward. It feels good because it just does.

Can you give him something else to knead? Like a fuzzy pillow or a hairy pillow or something. Direct him on to that object each time he goes for your head.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:35 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Snuggle Safe I linked to stays warm for maybe 8 hours, so you should be able to prepare it and it will warm the cat all night. (It goes in the microwave for ~8 hours). The thermostat-controlled pads should be good all night, also. With any luck, the cat won't wake you up at all.

In fact, you might be able to make a warm bed at the foot of your bed and the cat will love it.
posted by amtho at 8:40 AM on February 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

Bonus: the cat could stay warm and comfortable while you're gone all day, too.
posted by amtho at 8:40 AM on February 17, 2015

I have no idea if it's a universal kitty thing, but my friend's cat was trying to do this to her, and we suspected he might be cold. A heated kitty bed was the solution for her! Put this or this (it's just the heating pad, not that big blanket pictured in the first photo) between your pillows and kitty will loooooove it. I've sent this heated kitty bed to multiple friends and all of their cats have been obsessed with it in the winter! That's probably too big to put next to your head on the bed, but I link to it in case you have extra funds available for another heated kitty bed in the living area.
posted by barnone at 8:53 AM on February 17, 2015

Cats can get clingier as they age, and they do feel cold more acutely. A warm pad/cat bed would be a good place to start.

We've just been through a bout of hypertyroidism with our old girl. It manifested in her as increased activity, leading to hyperactivity. There's a blood test for it to be certain. Many older cats get it. The cure is expensive , but has a high success rate.
posted by bonehead at 8:54 AM on February 17, 2015

If it turns out not to be a medical issue or a warmth thing (let's say it persists into the spring), you might think about a small feeding right before bed time. We do it, mostly for nutritional reasons based on what we are feeding our cats, and we call it "night food." We've found it makes the cats somewhat nocturnal.

Jackson Galaxy said that if you want your cats to sleep through the night you do the following: (1) Play really hard with the cat in question and wear him out. If you can get Boutros alone* in a room with a toy that he really likes, maybe coated in catnip if he's into that, and get him active and playing for 10-15 minutes, you prime him for (2) a feeding, then (3) grooming, perhaps with some cuddle snuggle bed time, and (4) sleep! Galaxy says this is a natural cycle that you can induce through play and feeding.

*One of our cats basically won't play unless it's on her terms, meaning she doesn't have to deal with the Other Cat trying to get in on the action, we must do the things she specifically likes, and also she takes awhile to warm up and will quit whenever she feels bored. But she will play if we do exactly as she likes, and she will specifically request play time sometimes by pawing at the drawer of toys. If there are no physical issues that prevent Boutros from being active, is it possible he might benefit from some one-on-one play time?
posted by brina at 9:28 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would definitely start with the heated cat bed. Even if this is food-seeking (or boredom, or senility), the heated bed should work as a pretty efficient cat-magnet, since getting up will mean getting cold.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:13 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sometimes they just get more needy.

That's been my experience with our big guy. He's around 12 years old and, over the past year or so, he's become very needy. He never used to be much of a lap cat, but now he demands to be on top of one of us. Especially when we are in bed, he demands to climb right up on my chest and lay down with his face in mine. Purring, of course.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2015

Our cats are making us nuts at night and only one of them is old. I think those heated cat beds need to be a thing we do.
posted by emjaybee at 2:41 PM on February 17, 2015

As far as heated beds go, we just bought this thing and put it inside a folded blanket on the floor. It's been plugged in for a year straight and my house hasn't burned down yet. It would fit perfectly between your pillows, if you have a queen sized bed.
posted by something something at 3:10 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Recently, I read somewhere that a cat's 'comfort zone', temperature-wise, is 86 to ??? (100? 98? I forget; it was the low end that caught my attention) degrees F.

This winter, I've kept my thermostat in the low sixties and just use heated throws and blankets to keep warm. The cats, all four, sleep with me, on top of the electric blanket. One of them, the one who has a thinner coat than the others, insists on sleeping under the blanket, curled against me.

All this to say: I agree with everyone who thinks this might be related to your kitty being cold. Then again, he might just be an @ss.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 9:12 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Cats are creatures of habit. Routine and rituals provide stability and make them feel safe. He may have had a legitimate reason the first night or two, such as being cold, but having done it once is a good enough reason for him to keep doing it.

All you need to do is break the pattern for a few nights or wait for him to break it himself. Then he'll be on to some new ritual.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:04 AM on February 18, 2015

If you want to try a non-electric heat option for your cat, I can vouch for this self warming pad being pretty effective. It has some reflective material inside that returns the cat's body heat. My elderly cat loves it (this in the bottom of cardboard box with the opening at the front = his favorite cat bed). It won't get as hot as an electric pad, but might be a good option on your bed to give him a spot between your pillows. It's soft and fuzzy and has a low profile. It makes a mild crinkly sound if you squish it around a lot, but shouldn't impede your own comfort.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 1:05 PM on February 18, 2015

Gorgeous kitty! In case the heating pad doesn't work - a friend turned me on to keeping cat treats in the bedside drawer for these sorts of times - I can rustle them out without hardly waking up and then everyone goes back to sleep until actual waking up time and proper breakfast. I started doing it to deal with some nocturnal yowling, but it's rare now that I do still have to. Cats are weird. It might just be a phase. Hope something helps you both sleep better soon!
posted by symphonicknot at 7:35 PM on February 18, 2015

Apparently mileage varies, and anyhow the behaviorist paradigm doesn't entirely suit cats, but when I start dishing out cat treats in response to some behavior, that behavior is repeated multiple times in a 24-hour cycle and is tough to extinguish. Not that you shouldn't respond to Boutros (who looks magnificently cuddlesome) by snuggling him or giving him head scritches or similar forms of affection. Sometimes it really is best to Just Give the Cats What They Want. But if the cat treat thing misfires, it could get ugly.

If you must try, then perhaps put the treats in one of those rolly balls? That way you aren't the crack-pipe, plus it gives him a way to entertain himself off your bed, albeit making rattling sounds.

But I'm nthing Thermo-Kitty or similar.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:40 AM on February 19, 2015

We have SnuggleSafes and if the cat is sitting on them all night long, they stay warm for longer than 8 hours, as they pick up body heat from the cat. We usually put them in a cat bed and under a towel, to make them slightly more comfy.
posted by telophase at 12:25 PM on February 19, 2015

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