Ask #48,259 about an obnoxious cat.
January 2, 2020 10:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm desperate for sleep. Help me AskVets, you're my only hope.

kitty tax paid

Our adopted calico is ~11. She was nearly utterly silent for, oh, about the first 9 years. She's not motivated at all by food. We play with her regularly and often and even take her on walks (on a leash). She's been to the vet, is healthy, has not lost or gained weight and her coat and teeth are fine, I trim her nails, she's always been a meticulous litter-boxer and that is the same. She's a smart cat and generally follows our habits and a good learner, she's very interactive with us and while food isn't a motivator, pleasing us is, I think. She dislikes shut doors about as much as any cat. But I don't see how to use click-training to help us here ...

We are living away from our regular home for a year. She's traveled very well, and adapted to our first home-away, a townhouse in a smallish town, where we stayed for 2 months, very well. We're now in place 2, in a 1-BR city apartment on the 6th floor. She loves the view.

Since we've been here, she's been waking us up at night. Some "help I'm lost right next to the bed!" yowling but mostly "hi, i'm here!" greetings while jumping on the bed or on us. Most frequently, in early morning. Repeatedly, over ~2 hours.

We totally understand that she just wants to talk to us. We've tried hard to: wear her out before bed (altho, she doesn't seem interested at that time). I try to shush her and socially penalize her for yowling, but that's hard to do immediately upon getting yowled awake, our first instinct is to (try to) coo her back to sleep (which I think is positive reinforcement, ultimately). Mr. Dash is hardset against anything remotely drug-like, like Feliway or the Composure chews that I've seen recommended. We keep the blinds closed so she's not excited by the view/city life. Getting another cat, or shutting her in the basement, are not options.

I take the hit hardest because my body clock is later, so I end up getting tortured (woken, try to sleep, woken, try to sleep, etc) for about the last 2 hours of my sleep. I'm just about shattered by sleep disruption, at a time when I really need to be taking advantage of the opportunities I have where we are. You've probably correctly guessed that we do not have children so I'm not experienced with this. But I'm at the end of my rope.

I think I've gotten everything down here. Please help us keep her quiet in the morning. Please.
posted by Dashy to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like all the changes have been unsettling for her. Maybe focus on establishing a very predictable routine for her so she can feel more secure? And find a way to keep her out of the bedroom at night.
(good thing you don't want another cat. Having to cope with a feline invader would probably be her worst nightmare)
posted by Zumbador at 11:13 PM on January 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Don't want to thread sit, but it's a very small apartment, closing the only door in it has only made it worse.
posted by Dashy at 11:21 PM on January 2, 2020

Feliway is not a drug, FYI. It's a pheromone. It soothes some cats because it is an analogue of the pheromone they rub on all "their" things using their chin. Nor is Composure: the active ingredients are a vitamin, an amino acid and a peptide complex.

These things work to soothe some stressed animals. I'm not sure why, if they are indicated, that you'd avoid using them. Anxiety is not a healthy thing for any animal, human or cat.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:27 PM on January 2, 2020 [15 favorites]

We keep the blinds closed so she's not excited by the view/city life.

How thick are the blinds in this new home? Circadian rhythm is impacted by total available light, regardless of whether or not you can actually see outside. If kitty's normal resting space is accidentally well lit by early morning rays, that could trigger early waking. And any ambient light in the apartment from appliances or what have you at night would probably worsen the situation.

And as far as I know, cats are crepuscular, so you may not be able to prevent kitten from waking, in which case, your best strategy may be distraction. For all we know your cat was always up early and just had ways of self-occupation previously. I imagine a small apartment is going to bore a cat more quickly and the venue change may just be revealing something you were previously unaware of?
posted by pwnguin at 11:28 PM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

A few thoughts:
On the medical side of things, double check that you've tested thyroid (TT4 and freeT4) and blood pressure.
On the behavioral side of things: download the Cat Mastery app (from The Ohio State University) on your smartphone and reassess her environment.
posted by dum spiro spero at 11:49 PM on January 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Try leaving the blinds open.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 11:58 PM on January 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

When we moved from a 1200 square foot house in Seattle to a 450 sq foot temp apartment in the middle of central London, our cat Hound behaved similarly. I believe he just didn’t have the same amount of room to prowl around at crazy cat time (approximately 4am) that he was used to, but all of the business and excitement outside had really stimulated him. Could you get him more toys, a cat tree, something for him to climb or investigate? It got better when we moved to a bigger place. Also +1 on the Feliway. It’s not a drug and it helps. You are being physically affected by this and your partner should put physical impact on you above trying (very safe) things out that might affect your cat!
posted by pazazygeek at 12:41 AM on January 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

Can you hiss? Cats pretty much understand that it means their presence or behaviour is not finding approval with the big person. If you can't make an authoritative hiss, canned air makes a cat stop whatever they're doing and leave. I don't spray it at them, just nearby, a quick hiss. My smart cat learned after the very first time. Just moving my hand toward the can is enough to make him stop now. Less smart cat took about 3 exposures to canned hiss.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:39 AM on January 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

I agree with pazazygeek.
Feliway and Comfortis are so mild my cats barely registered either one. I tried both for cat anxiety during travel. Your sleep is absolutely a priority here. Also, as for the basement, my mother used to put hers (two) in it every single night. The cat were fine. Bumped around down there and had a grand old time. I had to shut my own in another room for a period when the one cat wouldn't stop rattling the door latch and generally complaining/mwao mwao mwao. They can handle it better than you'd think.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 1:47 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Our cats did this, and they have mostly stopped. It was a combination of hissing and making angry cat noises when they woke me up, and removing them from the bedroom when they were being repeatedly annoying. We couldn't shut them out all the time because we also have a small apartment and when we tried one would try to batter the door down, repeatedly, night after night (nope, never accepted it, we caved after about three weeks of escalating door barricades) We had to put up with some lost sleep from door banging whilst they learned their lesson, but eventually their little kitty minds understood "if we wake up the human, we lose bedroom privileges." Now they're very well behaved.
posted by stillnocturnal at 2:43 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Reinforcing the behavior by giving her attention is probably the worst thing you can do. Obviously, in the moment you're desperate and will do anything just go to back to sleep, but in the long term it's going to make it harder to change the behavior.

Have you tried a combination of ear plugs plus white noise machine? This is ultimately what I had to do when my cat decided to yowl forever. I can still hear her, but unless she yells riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight in my face, it won't wake me up. She gets no reinforcement from me, and instead torments the roommate, who is weak and gives in.

I do find ear plugs a bit uncomfortable if I wear them all night, so I usually just keep some on my nightstand so I can put them in if she starts up in the morning. So I wake up, but can get back to sleep quickly.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:29 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

external signal idea:

Set up an external cue for when waking/attention time starts, like a waking light alarm clock with nature sounds, or a special chime sound from a cell phone. Teach her that that sound / signal is when interaction happens, and NO OTHER TIME. Start this program on a weekend or another time that you can make yourself fully conscious super early in the morning, so you'll be alert enough to NOT ENGAGE and/or discourage her before the chime. Also use the chime during the daytime to signal playtime and feeding time.

Unfortunately, what you're teaching her here is not to initiate interaction with you generally -- all interaction is "caused" or initiated by that external signal -- but you can walk that back later when you are getting enough sleep.


Have you changed time zones so her internal clock is expecting to wake up two hours earlier? Just a thought -- not sure what to do about this other than regulating light.

Could you set up an interesting video for her to start about at the same time she needs attention? Maybe that would help. OR make sure she doesn't sleep during other times by getting her that interesting video, automated play, setting up an automated feeder.

She does sound legitimately bored. I'd focus on occupying her mind fully when it's a good time for her to be awake, and, yes, making it clear to her that waking you up makes you unhappy.
posted by amtho at 4:16 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I had a similar issue with my cat when I moved to a smaller apartment. The only thing that worked was to train myself to give absolutely no reaction, positive or negative, to his early morning hijinks. This required earplugs, clearing every surface in the room, and literally strapping a board in front of my bookcase so he couldn't pull the books out and scratch at them. I spent about 2 weeks just laying silent and perfectly still in bed, awake, ignoring his escalating behavior -- it got worse before it got better -- but eventually, he learned that he was not going to be able to get my attention until my alarm went off, at which point I would snuggle him, play with him, and feed him. I also lavished him with a ton of attention and playtime in the afternoons and evenings, so he wasn't neglected -- he just learned that I wasn't worth trying to play with when I was in bed. If you try this route, you and your partner will both have to commit 100%. It was a difficult couple of weeks, but well worth it!
posted by ourobouros at 5:18 AM on January 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

She's probably bored. You need to train her to have some self-directed play time or to go back to sleep.

Basically, you need to "play dead" until your cat goes away. I did the same thing as ourobouros - I basically cat-proofed my room and refused her any interactivity at all until it was alarm time. Of course now that means that the very second the alarm goes off she's purring in my face, but at that point, I care a lot less. There has to be no value at all to her behavior or else she will continue it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:45 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Yeah, it is going to suck, but give the "play dead" strategy two solid weeks before giving it up, that has been the magical time period that has worked on training our cats out of annoying behaviors. I know that this will work, because our cats only ever bother my wife in the morning, apparently because I am a sound enough sleeper that I do the "play dead" thing naturally.

Also, no reason to not try Feliway. Every veterinary professional I know who has cats uses it religiously.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:56 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

Feliway is not a drug and is amazing. Think of it like you smelling lavender or vanilla if those calm you. It is designed to put the pheromone for safety that they give off by rubbing things in the apartment with their body. It marks it as their territory.

What I did with a VERY LOUD ONLY AT NIGHT new cat was put him in my laundry room. He did not like this at first. But eventually he learned there wasn't much to do but sleep and roam around it so he slept. When he would just be quiet right away (he had food, water, toys, etc.) in the bed I made him, I started letting him out for trials. One yowl and it was back in.

Soon enough he stopped yowling when he put together that waking dad up meant dad swept him into the room and closed the door.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:51 AM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

nth-ing the "play dead" strategy. I used to live in a small apartment with a cat and I just had to roll over and pull the covers over my head when he did this. He also escalated to knocking things off the bedside table so get ready for there to be a series of other things that annoy you for a little while.
posted by capricorn at 6:58 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Right before bed, play with her in a VERY active/energetic way--laser pointed chase, say--for at least fifteen minutes, then give her a big meal of wet food. She should sleep longer after this.

Alternatively, shut the door, plan for 3 days of grief, and escalating grief as she goes through an extinction burst, and after that she'll learn to give up. We had to sleep train our cat this way when my spouse moved in and couldn't stand the 3 am wakeups. He is a very smart, very vocal cat who escalated to knocking things (including glasses of water) over on our head, but he eventually stopped. We had no door to shut so we combined this with a can of air to chase him away from the bed.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:14 AM on January 3, 2020

My current solution for my now-geriatric cat who's morning demands are getting worse as she ages. I totally know it's not ideal and I'm spoiling my cat, but these are the decisions we make. Accept you'll be woken *once* in the pre-dawn morning. Leave door open until the cat wakes you for the first time. Get up, pet cat, feed cat if it's kinda close to acceptable morning, and then dump cat outside door and go back to bed. It may take a few days before the pitiful crying, scratching, whatever subsides - ear plugs and the pillow over your head should help get you through these days.

Hopefully she'll begin to put the pieces together and that she gets a reaction - good and bad. The goal is she'll learn that either waking you up at night gets her banished, or she accepts the 2 hours she is banned from the bedroom in exchange for pets. You wont get a perfect sleep, but a 5 min interruption is better than a 2 hour one.

Ive also found feeding the cats the absolute last minutes before bed usually gets me another 30-45 minutes before my feline wakeup call, but this cat is extremely food motivated so mileage may vary.
posted by cgg at 7:39 AM on January 3, 2020

Have you talked to your vet about this issue specifically, and non-drug options?

Before my dog died, she had dementia and was really restless at night, and I asked a similar question and explored a bunch of options. The thing I found that ultimately helped (like- she slept peacefully through the night for the last month of her life without being remotely doped up) was probably too drug-adjacent to work for you. But one thing my vet suggested that I tried is a type of milk protein--literally just taken from cow's milk but in a capsule--that has anxiolytic properties. I think my dog was too far gone to benefit from it, but my vet said it often helps pets.
posted by quiet coyote at 7:48 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Closing the door will make it worse for a couple weeks, and then eventually better. Any kind of response you give her is reinforcing her behavior. Can you shut her in the bathroom at night to get a buffer between your room and her? A fan / dehumidifier for white noise helps, too. Don't give the cat attention immediately upon coming out of the room, either, ignore her for a few minutes while you start coffee / perform morning ablutions, etc.

I got an automatic feeder, so now my cat's attention is partially redirected toward pawing at the feeder to make it drop an extra kibble or two, and I'm also no longer the direct food provider, so that's helped. Rotating toys weekly and an extra bed have also helped some with the cat having things to do that don't involve me.
posted by momus_window at 8:45 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We had to go with the "negative consequences" option for our two persistent cats, who enjoyed rattling our bedroom doorknob and forcefully throwing themselves against the door, making it sound like a large man was attempting to break into our room at 4:30 AM.

What really worked: shut bedroom door. Position large floor fan outside of bedroom door, facing the larger living area. Run fan cord underneath door, to your bed, use extension cord if necessary. Have fan cord plugged into a power strip. Keep power strip turned off, keep fan turned on to 'high.' When the cat begins yowling outside of the bedroom door, reach down and turn on the power strip, which turns on the fan, which blows air at cat. Cat departs and will sulk elsewhere until you wake up.

As a consolation prize, we bought the cats some heated kitty beds, placed far away from the fan, so they have a nice warm spot to snuggle while they plot our deaths.
posted by castlebravo at 9:16 AM on January 3, 2020 [14 favorites]

Years ago, we went through this in a small-ish apartment. We tried everything: Feliway, play before bed, food, love, hissing, closed door with a vacuum in the hallway, tinfoil on the floor to discourage the cat from rattling the door knob for two hours. We attempted to play dead, and the cat punched my husband in the eye through a blanket. Yeah.

Finally, it came down to me or the cat, and we started putting the cats in our other bedroom at night so there would be two doors between us and the cats, together with some speakers playing some white noise. Blissful sleep. When we bought a house, we bought one with a door to the steps going up to the second floor.

Yes, in an ideal world we'd all be one big cuddly pile, but this isn't an ideal world. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to co-exist.
posted by past unusual at 11:13 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

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