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Cats and the 4 am Wake-Up Call

October 22, 2013

It’s 4 am, do you know where your cat is? If you are like many people who suffer from the 4 am wake-up call, s/he is sitting on or by your bed meowing, pawing, walking on you, or knocking your stuff off the dresser. If this describes your morning, don’t despair!

There is hope for a good night’s sleep. But first, it is helpful to understand a few principles about behavior:

  1. Brains are hard-wired to make associations between predictive events (cues) and outcomes. For example, picking up our keys is a cue that we are probably going to leave the house soon. The sound of a can opener (or pop-top can of food) or crinkly bag is a cue that food or treats are probably imminent. When I finish writing this post and close my laptop, my dogs know there’s a good chance I’m about to take them for a walk because closing the laptop has become a cue for them. And if the first thing we do when we wake up and get out of bed is feed or pay attention to our cats, then our cats associate us getting out of bed with being fed or getting attention. This is known as classical conditioning and it is the same principle that made Pavlov’s famous dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring.
  2. Behavior that is rewarded is repeated, and often at the site where it was rewarded.
  3. Rewards are anything an individual values, including but not limited to food, eye contact, or attention (including negative attention such as saying NO! or pushing a pet away). This means that while throughout this post I will be talking about “feeding the cat,”  your cat might be waking you up for some other reward such as attention. However, the principles of addressing the behavior are the same regardless of what your individual cat finds rewarding.Combined, these principles often lead to a situation where we either purposefully or accidentally create and reinforce cues for all sorts of behaviors, including waking us up in the morning. It starts innocently enough: We wake up, get out of bed, and our first stop on our way to the rest of our morning routine is to stop and feed the cat. Over time, the cat makes the association that when we wake up, s/he gets food. Then one morning, shortly before the time we normally wake up, maybe the cat is getting a little impatient for breakfast and hanging around the bed or bedroom. Then maybe s/he steps on us, or knocks something off a shelf, or meows, and we wake up. We see that it’s almost time to get up anyway, so we get up and start our day, which starts with… feeding the cat.Over time, you can see how this sequence of events can evolve into the cat learning that certain behaviors (meowing, knocking things off shelves, stepping on a sleeping person) performed in certain locations (the bedroom) results in a sequence of events that rewards them (person wakes up and feeds cat). In this case, us getting out of bed has become both a reward for, say, stepping on our head and cue for getting fed. And since our cats are naturally nocturnal creatures, what started as something that happens accidentally and shortly before we would have gotten up anyway can start to happen progressively earlier and earlier in the morning.


So now that we know how it can happen, what do we do about it once it has? It is helpful to keep in mind a third principle of behavior:

When we try to ignore a behavior we have previously rewarded, it will often get worse for a period of time before going away. This is called an “extinction burst.”

If you have the time and patience, you CAN conquer this type of behavior by simply ignoring it, but you have to be incredibly consistent and not give in even one single time or you will quickly be back to square one. The extinction burst is why trying to ignore a behavior to get rid of it can be so incredibly frustrating and by itself may not be effective: When we are bound and determined to finally ignore the meowing cat and sleep as long as we like, we find that the cat really has nothing better to do but out-stubborn us. After all, if meowing for two minutes worked two days ago and for five minutes worked yesterday, why wouldn’t fifteen minutes work today?

You may more likely to be successful if you teach your cat to associate a different cue (event) with getting fed so that the actual act of getting out of bed is meaningless in and of itself. One simple way to do this is to move “feeding the cat” to a much later point in your morning routine. If feeding the cat is the first or second thing you do in the morning, getting out of bed becomes the cue for getting fed. If feeding the cat is the fourth or fifth thing you do in the morning, then something else (for example, brushing your teeth) becomes the cue for getting fed.

Another technique that may work with some cats is to do the exact opposite of what the cat wants when s/he tries to wake us up. That is, feed the cat when they wake us up, get up, calmly and with as little interaction as possible put the cat in the bathroom or another room separate from the bedroom (make sure there is a litter box available), and go back to bed. This teaches the cat that trying to wake us up not only does not result in a reward but earns a mild punishment.

If you are not yet a victim of the 4 am wake up call, a technique that can prevent it with a new cat or kitten is to set your alarm for a slightly different time each morning and never get out of bed until after the alarm has gone off regardless of what your cat is doing. (On days when you want to sleep in, simply flip it on after you wake up but before you get up.) This both teaches your cat that the alarm is the cue for getting fed and prevents the cat from being rewarded for trying to wake us up. Since the alarm is going to go off at the time it is set and we are going to get up after the alarm goes off whether or not the cat meows or knocks things off shelves or walks over us, those behaviors are never rewarded and, like Pavlov’s bell, the alarm becomes the cue for getting fed.

These techniques work for most cats, but as we all know cats can be incredibly persistent animals. If you try these things and they don’t work, please feel free to call the clinic and speak to one of our doctors for other ideas.

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