What to Do When Your Cat Won't Sleep at Night

Mychelle Blake
Cat Staring Out Window

Cats are wonderful companions, but sometimes the behavioral quirks of felines can drive their humans crazy. If your cat is making it impossible for you to sleep, there are a few common reasons and solutions for this behavior.

A Cat's Body Clock

It's often thought that cats are nocturnal, which means they are most active at night, but in fact they are crepuscular. This means they are most active at twilight which occurs twice a day at dawn and dusk. Because domestic cats are descended from large feline predators, they still have the instinctual behaviors of their forebears who preferred to hunt when it was almost, but not quite, dark. This is why your cat may be most active and waking you up in the early hours of the morning. Depending on how your cat's day-to-day life is, there are factors that can increase their nighttime activity.

Boredom and Lack of Enrichment

For cats that spend their days alone without any physical or mental enrichment, boredom can become a serious problem. When you come home, your cat may be excited to finally have something interesting in the house. Unfortunately, humans tend to need to make dinner and then unwind after a busy day or even just go straight to bed, leaving your bored cat frustrated. This can lead to them engaging in more activity when you're trying to sleep as they have unspent energy and no outlet.

Feline Loneliness

In addition to boredom, cats can also experience loneliness during the day. If you don't spend quality time with them when you're home, this can make a cat stressed. You may see this demonstrated with more "demanding" behaviors for affection and contact. In these cases your cat isn't trying to ruin your sleep, rather they're expressing how much they want attention from you.

Hungry Cats

In the wild, cats are used to eating several small meals per day, as well as eating later in the evening after hunting at dusk. If your cat is fed two meals per day at your regular breakfast and dinner time, your cat may be up at night simply because they're hungry. Feeding them based on human meal schedules may make sense for owners but may not suit your cat best.

Anxiety and Stress

Cats are sensitive to changes in their environment and just as with people, they can stay awake and find it hard to rest if they're anxious. If you have a cat that's been fine at night and suddenly is waking you up, look at what changes have been made in the environment. Moving, a change in residents in the home, adding a new pet or the death of a current pet, a new baby or loud noises near the home such as construction are all events that can add stress to a cat's life.

Mating Behavior

Another common reason for cats to stay up at night happens a few times a year and affects cats that are not spayed or neutered. If you have a male cat that is in proximity to female cats in heat, he will most likely be up pacing and yowling due to his instinctual mating needs. Likewise a female cat in heat will be uncomfortable and up and about in the evening caterwauling to attract a mate.

Medical Problems

Finally cats may be more active at night if they're suffering from a medical condition. A physical injury may be painful, making it difficult to sleep. Internal medical disorders such as kidney disease, cancer and other illnesses can also make it hard for your cat to get proper rest. Geriatric cats also may suffer from feline cognitive dysfunction, as well as arthritis pain.

Coping With Your Crepuscular Feline

The first step in developing a behavior plan to help you and your cat sleep better at night is a visit to your veterinarian. While many cat owners dread taking their cat to the vet and also would prefer to avoid the expense, it's important to make sure that there is nothing medical underlying your cat's behavior. Sometimes increased activity at night can be the first subtle sign of a serious illness and you will miss the opportunity to diagnose and treat it earlier without a veterinary visit. Once your vet has given your cat a clean bill of health you can work on adding interventions to change your cat's behavior.

Environmental Enrichment

Giving your cat more things to do during the day will help to alleviate stress and boredom. It can also provide a physical outlet for their exercise needs. This will lead to a calmer cat in the evening. There are many options for adding more enrichment in your cat's life and providing a variety of them can go a long way toward improving your cat's daily life, as well as your sleep!

  • Cat trees - Placing cat trees around your home can provide your cat with places to jump, climb and hide in. This allows them to express and engage in natural behaviors. You can also install shelving around your house instead of cat trees to serve the same purpose.
  • Window perches and catios - Giving your cat a chance to see the outside world and watch squirrels, birds and other forms of nature can be mentally enriching to a cat that was previously bored. If you really want to thrill your cat, hang some bird feeders right outside the window.
  • Interactive cat toys - There are many cat toys you can give your cat that he or she will play with on his own. This alleviates boredom and gives the cat an activity to do while you're not home or too busy to give them attention.
  • Cat TV - Putting a video on your computer or TV for the cat to watch can also be mentally stimulating. There are even "cat TV" channels on YouTube and Amazon Prime that have videos of fish, birds and other woodland creatures.
Cat Playing With Toy Mouse

Increase Playtime and Interaction

The more you interact with your cat and give them loving attention, the less likely they are to be bored and lonely and seeking attention when you're trying to sleep. There are many fun ways to interact with your cat that go beyond just simple cuddling (though cats love that too!)

  • Grooming - Take a brush out and give your cat a thorough grooming while talking to him or her about your day. Your cat will love the attention and it will also benefit his skin and fur, and it's a wonderful way for you to destress as well!
  • Playing with toys - Use toys like fishing wands or laser pointers that you can manipulate to play with your cat. You can even teach your cat to fetch and play with small mice or ball toys.
  • Clicker training - Although there's a common belief that "cat's can't be trained," it's not hard to clicker train cats to do anything from basic "obedience" behaviors like sit or lay down to tricks like beg, shake and roll over. Clicker training is a wonderful way to exercise your cat's mind and have one-on-one together.
  • Walking - If your weather permits and you have a safe area, train your cat to walk on a harness and take them for a walk outside. Most cats will enjoy this and will be tired out after a stimulating jaunt around the block.

Change Your Feeding Schedule and Method

If you feed your cat twice a day with the second meal around your dinner time, try feeding them several smaller meals during the day with the final meal later at night, such as around 10 p.m. This will make them less likely to be up in the early morning hours trying to wake you for their next meal. Including the use of food foraging toys instead of regular food bowls can also give your cat's mind a workout and make them more likely to relax and sleep when they're done eating.

Medical Intervention

If your veterinarian does find a medical reason for their late night activities, you will need to follow their prescribed course of treatment. Your veterinarian may also suggest prescribing anti-anxiety medications for your cat if he or she feels that stress may be a trigger for your cat's nighttime behavior. Your veterinarian may also suggest "natural" options such as the Feliway plugin pheromone diffuser and homeopathics like Rescue Remedy to ease your cat's anxieties.

Sterilization

If mating behaviors are keeping your cat up, the best way to solve this is through spay or neuter surgeries. This will make male and female cats calmer in general and less interested in the mating behavior of other cats.

Get a Friend

Another option that you can try is to get another cat as a friend to your cat. This can significantly reduce loneliness during the day. However, not all cats want the company of another cat so you'll have to judge if your cat is a good candidate for this option or not. Some cats may not be happy with another cat but will enjoy the company of other animals, such as a cat-friendly dog or even small pets like birds or rabbits. Of course, some cats will view smaller pets as prey so you will need to make sure that your cat will be safe with the other pets. A separate option is to hire a pet sitter to come in during the day and play with your cat.

Management

You can also consider closing the door to your bedroom and not allowing your cat in at night. Be prepared for your cat to protest loudly and make more noise if you do this. If you ignore their behavior, most cats will slowly stop crying to get in at night after some time has passed. This could be a few days to a few weeks or more depending on the cat. However, the problem with this solution is that it won't address what is causing your cat to be active at night, so you may still end up with a stressed and unhappy cat and not being able to spend time with you at night by being locked out of the bedroom can make the other issues worse. If you do decide to keep your cat out of the bedroom, it's best to observe these tips:

  • Set up a comfortable area for your cat to sleep. Some cats may prefer to find a place around your house to sleep on their own, but giving them a space with an extra comfortable bed or cat tree can help encourage them to go there at night when the bedroom door is closed.
  • A great addition in their space is a heated cat bed which most cats will happily go to, especially if you live in a colder climate.
  • Some cats will also love a "purring" toy that are used for kittens. These toys make a purring sound when your cat sleeps against it which can be calming to a cat and help them sleep.
  • Provide some toys for the cat in the special area, but make sure they're toys that can be enjoyed that make no, or little, noise as you don't want them to wake you up. Petstages makes some "nighttime" toys designed to entertain your cat while letting you sleep, such as the Swat and Play Quiet Mat.
  • Plug in a Feliway diffuser in this area as well. Not all cats respond to them but those that do will be calmer and more relaxed.

Dealing With Night Time Cat Behavior

Not being able to sleep because your kitty wants to get his breakfast or a cuddle at 4:00 a.m. can definitely be annoying for a cat owner. Before you reach for the ear plugs and lock your cat out of the bedroom, it's important to take a look at your cat's daily life to see what could be causing this behavior. Work with your veterinarian to make sure nothing medical is affecting your cat and then implement environmental, physical, and mental enrichment changes to give your cat a daily routine that leaves him happy to sleep through the night.

What to Do When Your Cat Won't Sleep at Night