Some cats are active at night, or are awake and ‘raring to go’ very early in the morning. Since many owners are out at work or school during the day, the cat may spend the daytime hours in rest and relaxation and sleeping, especially if it is the only pet in the household. The cat’s day then begins when the owner arrives home to provide the cat with feeding, play and social interaction.
Night time is also the most natural time for cats to be active since they normally are most active in exploration at dusk and dawn (this is known as crepuscular behaviour). Night time activity is quite a common issue for some cat owners and can include cats that nibble or pounce on the owner’s ears or toes in bed, walk across the sleeping owners, night time vocalisation, or highly energetic play sessions across the furniture and/or owners during the night or early morning.
Rule out medical causes
Talk to your vet as it’s important to rule out any underlying medical causes for the nocturnal activity prior to addressing any behavioural causes including pain and glandular issues like thyroid disease. Try changing the cat’s schedule gradually To manage night time activity cat owners can try to gradually alter the cat’s schedule by encouraging play time and feeding during the daytime and earlier evening hours, so that the cat’s schedule more closely matches that of the humans in the household. This is a behavioural modification technique and can help to shift the time when the cat is active.
Adjusting the timing of feeding may also help to alter the cat’s sleep schedule. For example, by offering smaller but more frequent meals and by feeding the evening meals at a different time. Owners can feed a meal earlier in the evening and then another meal closer to bed time. This way the cat is less likely to wake their owners for a meal during the night.
Cats naturally roam and hunt for their food, so finding it in the same place at the same time everyday is quite unnatural. One way of improving your cats quality of life and curtailing its night time antics is to hide food around the house – on windowsills, bookshelves, mantle pieces, hidden inside paper bags, toilet rolls etc. This way your cat needs to expend energy to find its food, and one of its natural biological behaviours is fulfilled. Often you need to show your cat how to find the food at first, but after a few sessions they usually become highly attuned at finding it themselves.
Another alternative feeding option is to buy an automatic timed feeder to provide food in the middle of the night. You can set the time of the feeder to correspond with when the cat naturally becomes more active, but as with the above method, you will need to teach your cat during the day time that this device is responsible for providing food. There are also a variety of puzzle feeding devices which require the cat to do a little work to get their food and which provide both mental and physical stimulation.
You may also consider offering a human-grade raw meaty bone such as a raw chicken wing for dinner a couple of times a week with a few days in between each serving. Always ensure raw meaty bones are raw and human-grade. Chewing on raw meaty bones takes a lot of work and energy and helps to tire cats out and keep them satisfied. Expending energy on chewing at night may help to settle them down for a good night’s sleep. It can also preoccupy them for a good length of time. Please see the feeding articles “What should I feed my cat?” and “What should I feed my kitten? on the RSPCA Australia Knowledgebase for safety information and check with your vet first.
Daily play time attention and interaction with owner
Since night time activity may be a form of social play and attention seeking behaviour, the first consideration is whether the cat is getting sufficient amounts of social interaction and social play during the daytime and earlier evening. This may be particularly problematic for an only cat in the household and an owner who works all day. Offering several social play sessions in the afternoon/earlier evening will help to expend some of their energy and meet some of the cat’s social and behavioural needs earlier on in the day.
Owners may also provide a variety of safe cat toys. Ensure all toys are safe for cats and avoid string toys or smaller objects that may be swallowed as these can become an intestinal obstruction, which can be fatal. Play time using safe cat toys is a great way to provide daily exercise and to positively enhance the relationship between pet and owner. Cats often have different preferences – i.e. some will like toy birds while others prefer toy lizards – it is important to remember this when buying toys. Buy a few different varieties and see which ones your cat likes the best. Remember novelty is the key, so its best if you have 10 toys then only have a few out at a time then rotate them every few days.
Providing company and plenty of attention to the cat throughout the afternoon and earlier evening can help to reduce night time activity. Cats are creatures of routine and form habits quite quickly, so it’s a great idea to have these play and social sessions structured around the same time every day – that way the cat will start to anticipate high activity times and adjust their body clocks around that.
If an owner happens to be at home for the day, playing and interacting with the cat (provided the cat is naturally awake and interested in playing) should also help to expend some of that energy.
Kittens and younger cats may be more likely to display late night activity as they generally have more energy and play interest than older cats. This is good news as it means with a little time and patience as the cat grows older they are likely to start sleeping more throughout the night.
Enriching the environment
Enriching the cat’s environment can help to keep the cat active and prevent boredom during the day which may also help to reduce activity at night time. Tips for enriching the environment:
- Provide several scratching post as cats love to scratch to keep their nails in good condition – some cats prefer horizontal posts to vertical ones, so it is a good idea to mix them up. Also remember the posts need to be sturdy and at least 1.5 x the length of the cat when it stretches.
- Provide hiding areas. Cardboard boxes with holes cut into them are great for hide and seek games. • Cats prefer to live and rest at heights, so provide lots of different elevated areas within the house for your cat to watch the world go by or have a snooze.
- In their natural state cats prefer to drink moving water that is away from their food site, so purchasing a cat water fountain is a great way to enrich their environments. Some models even have an area to grow some cat grass in as well!
- If the cat is an indoor cat, you should consider purchasing an outdoor enclosure to help stimulate the cat during the day time when you are at work. If you have any plants make sure they are safe for cats (check with your vet first if you’re unsure) and be aware that certain common plants, such as lilies, are fatally toxic to cats so make sure these are not present on your property. Consider buying a catnip plant or some cat grass to provide some extra entertainment. Please see the article ‘Is it okay to keep my cat contained within my property boundary all of the time?’ for more information including how to enrich an indoor environment. Access to an outdoor escape-proof enclosure, owner supervised walks outside and having two cats that get along well can greatly increase activity and stimulation for indoor cats.
If behavioural modification techniques do not work we recommend that you consult your vet for further advice. In very severe, rare cases and if all other options have failed, vets may prescribe medications to help.