Feeding a furry little dictator at 4 a.m. sucks. Help fix it?
September 16, 2018 10:44 AM   Subscribe

The cat who allows my caregivers' family and I occupy the same home as he does is an asshole. He wakes my primary caregiver up between 3 and 5 every morning to eat. It's affecting her quality of life, which, in turn, affects mine.

Complication: Can't leave food out, because we've got roaches, and he won't eat anything if they're in his food. (Can't say I blame him.)

Can we adjust his sleep cycle so he's sleeping til 6 or 7? Is there a great feeder that's inaccessible to roaches that doesn't cost too horribly much? Can we give him Benadryl before the humans go to bed so he'll sleep longer? Is there some other idea I'm missing?

Obligatory photo of Sascha, right after he booped my face.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
By feeding him at oh-dark-thirty you've trained him to behave this way. Stop doing it, thoroughly and completely. He will redouble his efforts for a while and be an even bigger jerk. If you give in, you will make this worse. Don't give in, and he will eventually give up.

Stop responding to the cat's promptings for food. Randomize the pattern of when you feed, but don't feed when he's doing something you'd rather he not do.
posted by jon1270 at 10:52 AM on September 16, 2018 [18 favorites]

In addition to jon1270's advice, it's a good idea not to feed the cat immediately when you get up, even after you've shifted his sleeping schedule back by several hours. I wait 30 minutes to an hour after getting up before feeding. This way, the cat doesn't associate human waking up with immediately getting food, so it cuts down on the likelihood of kitty feeling the need to wake up the humans.

You could also look into getting one of those automatic feeders, where you set the time that food is dispensed. (The food should be inaccessible to cats and roaches until the designated feeding hour.) I can't personally vouch for this method, as I haven't tried it myself.
posted by litera scripta manet at 10:56 AM on September 16, 2018 [11 favorites]

Your caregiver is going to have to power through a period of extra-intense cat-nagging if they're going to train this behavior out of the cat. Right now the cat is trained to expect that if he wakes up your caregiver, they will feed him. They need to stop doing that, totally and completely, and only feed the cat after they've woken up at their chosen time and have gone through at least half of their morning routine. If the first thing they do when they wake up is feed the cat, the cat will understand that "person waking up = getting fed," and will wake them up to get them to feed him.

When they implement this new regime, there will be a period of days to weeks when the cat will become extra insistent about waking them up. This is called an extinction burst and is totally normal and to be expected. They need to stay strong and stay in their bed until their chosen time no matter what, or the cat will win and all they'll have done is train him to be even more annoying. If they can stay strong, the cat will eventually give up and change his ways.

Again, it's important not only to adjust the feeding time but also to break the association between waking up and feeding, by not feeding the cat until they've already been up for a bit and done some other things. And it's super important not to give in during the extinction burst, or the problem will only worsen.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:57 AM on September 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have friends who used Eyebrows McGee's method to retrain their cats from waking them for feelings at 4 am. It worked for them after about a week.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:58 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Never feed a cat before 10am. Never. I had to break mine of 4am begging after she spent a month with my parents and got used to 6am tuna, and it took about two weeks of her whining, meowing, knocking every loose object off of every flat surface in the house, and pouncing my sleeping face, but I held steady, she gave up, and I never fed her early again and she never begged before dawn again.
posted by xylothek at 11:00 AM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is this a recent change? My cat started asking for food at 4am about a week ago, and that's because fear following the introduction of a new cat has pushed him to be more nocturnal (other cat is asleep then). So maybe consider whether there is a reason for it?
posted by paduasoy at 11:04 AM on September 16, 2018

oh dear god don't randomize the feeding times, that'll make it so much worse. it trains him to believe that any time can be time for food if he just wants it badly enough. the worst schedule is worse than no schedule.

his owner has to set and stick to a firm schedule instead of following his. since you can't use automated feeders without human supervision, try setting an alarm that goes off right before he's fed so that over time he gets conditioned to it as much as or more than the time of day (this can work even if you don't plan it that way -- my cat expects to be fed as soon as I'm visibly awake, no matter what the hour is.) but pick a morning and evening time and just never deviate from them. yes, it will be very bad for a week or two when he's being ignored and doesn't know why; no, you can't trick your way around the transition time, just wait it out. drugging him is not appropriate until standard training & behavior modification have been thoroughly and consistently tried and failed.

also someone should play with him to exhaustion in the evening during his energy bursts, it won't solve everything but it will help a lot.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:04 AM on September 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

The retraining period was easier to take when we had the litter box in a separate room with a door (in our case our laundry room), so I could shut the cat in there (with a water dish) when she woke me up to try to advance her breakfast time by another half hour each night. That way I could try to sleep the remaining hours until time to get up, instead of listening to the cat cry that whole time.

Our subsequent cats have never gotten fed except after I've had my own breakfast, and then not until they are behaving nicely. They have all been quick to pick up on the fact that the best way to get fed is to sit quietly and look cute. I do allow excited meowing after I am already preparing their food, just not to get me to start doing so.

When the kitten wakes me up during the night, I have to lie there for five minutes, pretending he hasn't, until he's forgotten about it. Then I can get up to use the restroom or whatever. I can't reward him with attention for waking me up, but I do want him to keep me company when I get up on my own in the middle of the night. The results have been excellent.
posted by chromium at 11:08 AM on September 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Cats are exceptionally good at training humans to feed them when they want, as they are typically more stubborn and patient than we are. The only way to break the cycle is for us to do better than they do. This is hard because as the above comments will attest, this takes weeks of commitment and tolerance of excessive cat-nagging. But it can be done.

The only way is to ignore it. Use physical barriers (doors, etc) if necessary. Eventually, eventually, they will give up. But do not give in, even once, as it will make future attempts to break the cycle even harder.

Says the person who's cat wakes her up at 6:05 on the dot every morning by escalating forms of convincing, ranging from headbutts to loud meowing to the clawing of body parts. And if for some reason I can ignore first cat until she gives up, second and third cat swoop in to relive their leader. I have failed miserably at the above advice. So maybe I really shouldn't be commenting.
posted by cgg at 11:09 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Alternate approach -- you could leave food out -- if you put the bowl in a moat to keep the bugs away. Moat as in put the bowl in a larger bowl with a layer of water in it. We moat our cat food because otherwise we'll get opportunistic ants. Just a thought.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:40 AM on September 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

As others have noted, the cat does this because he's been rewarded for doing it. He hassles you early and you feed him. He's essentially been trained to hassle you.

I once had a cat who did this too. The way I solved it? I switched feeding schedules. Instead of feeding the cat in the morning, I fed her in the evening. When she went to bed with a full belly, she let us sleep instead of waking us for food.
posted by jdroth at 11:49 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Using an automatic feeder has helped in our household!

The automatic feeder is helpful in other ways, too - e.g. the cat will still be fed at the proper time even if we're late home.

We use this one.
posted by HoraceH at 12:03 PM on September 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I bought one of these for my mother in law's cat when an unfortunate confluence of circumstances meant that she was going to need to stay home alone for three days. Dry food only, but the actual dispensing mechanism is a small barrel-style revolving-door kind of affair that doesn't feature gaps that a roach could use to gain entry to the food storage hopper.
posted by flabdablet at 12:38 PM on September 16, 2018

The only way I was able to stop Zach from waking me up at 5 am to ask for food was by switching from feeding him when I woke up to feeding him at 8 pm every night.

He still would start nagging me for food 2 hours before every meal, but there's a biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig difference between "cat nagging you at 5 am before a 7 am feeding" and "cat nagging you at 6 pm before an 8 pm feeding".

I think it only took like a couple days to adjust - I fed him one morning the way I usually did, then I fed him again at 8 pm that same day. He ate that slower, but still scarfed it. He was a little too full to start up with the nagging at 5 am the following morning, and begged for food a little at 7 am, but I ignored him and waited until 8 pm that next day and fed him again. Then I just stuck with the 8 pm feedings thereafter.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:06 PM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cats are naturally and instinctively crepuscular; the desire for food at bird-chirp-o’clock is not a misbehavior to be punished but rather a default state of being. The trick for interspecies peace is to dissociate morning meals from human involvement.

We use the same automatic feeder as HoraceH above. We give our two cats wet food in the evenings, usually around 7:00 pm, and while they’re distracted by that we put their breakfast dry kibble into the automatic feeder. It’s programmed to spin and reveal the food at 4:15 AM.

Upon introduction, it took a scant two mornings for them to associate breakfast with the machines rather than us. They will beg and beg and beg for dinner from us if we’re home in the preceding hours, but they no longer wake us up starting at 3:00 AM for breakfast, because as far as they’re concerned, we aren’t its source.

We often have problems with ants during the rainy season and will sometimes find them swarming the dregs of the wet food dishes come morning if we forget to take them up before bed, but they have so far ignored the kibble.
posted by jesourie at 1:07 PM on September 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

The advice of jon1270’s and Anticipation of a New Lover’s Arrival, The is spot on. But also prepare your caregiver to, if the cat gets into the bedroom to insist on a feeding by meowing or bopping faces, to pick up the cat, put him on the floor and ignore. Expect to repeat a zillion times.

Also, I’ve never seen a cat look more like an asshole than the one in your picture. What tude!
posted by vivzan at 3:33 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have never had a morning-fed cat, and so have never had this problem. Nighttime feeding FTW!
posted by uberchet at 4:14 PM on September 16, 2018

For the two years prior to my cat's death last spring, I used this automatic feeder. My cat had been driving me crazy in the morning, screaming for food. When I got this feeder, I set the times for 4:00 am and 4:00 pm. Problem solved! It doesn't take long before a cat stops seeing you as the food dispenser.
posted by Dolley at 4:41 PM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is why god invented bedroom doors. And earplugs.

(Yeah, the doorframe on the outside of my bedroom has been horribly damaged by cat claws, what's your point??)
posted by nirblegee at 6:32 PM on September 16, 2018

Automatic feeder x n. This one is ours. Ours is set for 7am and 4pm. She dutifully sits in front of the timer about an hour before it releases the food. It's only when we forget to refill it she comes and bothers us to complain, which, fair enough. And even then it's after 7am.
posted by like_neon at 2:30 AM on September 17, 2018

Automated feeder. Our cats used to drive us nuts in the morning, and now they don't. We have the same one HoraceH recommends above. It's durable, the cats can't break it open, and the batteries last forever.
posted by picea at 3:32 PM on September 17, 2018

Our cat doesn't whine for food until close to 9 a.m., which is when he's fed (long after we get up). His last feeding at night is around 9 p.m. He sleeps from 10 or 11 at night until 7 or 8 in the morning, just like we do. If he sleeps much in the day, he is woken up from time to time, so that basically his sleep schedule remains the same as ours. We learned from the cat rescuer we got him from that if you want him to sleep at night, he needs to be awake much of the day, especially evening, and you can't ever feed him when he demands it. A regular schedule is good, better than randomized feeding by far (if he feels there is any chance at all that he might get fed, it's worth it to him to beg, nag, fuss, etc.), but you have to stick to it and definitely do everything you can to dissociate your waking or their demands from any feeding reward.
posted by mmw at 4:42 PM on September 17, 2018

I only ever feed my cats in the evening before bed. Never in the morning. Works in our house, but cats can be jerks.
posted by latkes at 5:37 PM on September 17, 2018

Nthing the automatic feeder, and moating it if you're worried about bugs. Literally changed my life and quality of sleep.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:46 AM on September 18, 2018

Here something that helped a lot when we were training our cat. Actually got this tip from someone here on the green.

We keep our door closed while we sleep and have a vacuum powered on and connected to a power strip. When cat pounds the door, one blast of turning on the vaccum will scare them away. Only have to do this a few times initially - they learn fast.
posted by gregjunior at 9:11 AM on September 18, 2018

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