We all know the annoyance of being awakened by the racket of the kitties running around at
night, at least occasionally. Cats are naturally more active than most humans during the twilight
and overnight hours, so a certain amount of nighttime activity is to be expected and just comes
with the territory.
It becomes more problematic when a cat develops a behavioral pattern of acting out regularly
and intentionally, disrupting the rest of the household during the hours when humans need to
sleep. The underlying misbehavior can manifest in a few different ways: door scratching or
walking on your head, or, very commonly, loud meowing that is often referred to as “night
calling” or “nocturnal vocalizing.” Whatever the particular behavior, the end result can be
frustration and anger we would rather not feel towards the little furbaby we love—not to mention
exhaustion on our own part—and it’s worth exploring how to adjust that behavior.
An important note: if an older cat has previously been non-disruptive at night, a change in
nocturnal behavior can indicate a change in health status that warrants a visit to the vet.
A few things to consider when addressing this behavior
1. The needs of both the human and the animal in the relationship.
2. The underlying motivation behind the cat’s inappropriately-timed, attention-seeking
behavior. Take into consideration the health and age of the animal.
3. Tailor your response accordingly.
Remember to respect your own needs while meeting the needs of your pet
It can be tempting to indulge misbehavior from a pet seeking our attention because we love
them and want to nurture them. But you know on an airplane when they do the safety briefing
before take-off and advise you to put on your own oxygen mask first during an emergency? The
principle behind that is that if you are incapacitated, you can’t then help anyone around you who
needs assistance. This should follow a similar principle: you are not being selfish by working to
address feline behavior that is causing you to lose sleep.
Because you are the caregiver for your cat, she or he depends on you. If you are exhausted due
to nocturnal disruptions, it could impact your capacity to care properly for the pet. So self-care is
also pet-care when it comes to getting your rest.
After thinking about that, then consider what you can do to meet your cat’s needs in ways that
can help prevent and mitigate attention-seeking behavior during your sleep time.
Common causes of night calling
There are a few common possibilities to consider why your cat is performing that unwelcome
opera all night.
● An outdoor cat feeling trapped inside
● Disorientation due to age
● She or he just wants to spend time with you.
What to do when my cat meows all night?
The most important principle, according to vets and experts, is to pretend to ignore the animal
when she or he is acting up. If you respond, even to tell them to stop, that rewards misbehavior
with attention, which reinforces for them that the way to get you to react is to do the exact thing
you are trying to get them to stop doing. So repeat: ignore, ignore, ignore.
There’s an important caveat here that should be addressed first: if this behavior is unusual for
your cat and you are worried it may be a health or aging issue, you may want to discreetly
check on her or him during the night. However, find an “excuse” to get up that has nothing to do
with the cat, as far as they know: a trip to the bathroom, grab a glass of water, etc. That way you
can gather the information you may need for your cat’s health (and your own peace of mind),
without reinforcing a behavior that could lead to you regularly losing sleep and stumbling
through life in an exhausted haze.
Tips to reduce meowing at night
● Give them plenty of playtime and attention throughout the day and especially
evening (before your bedtime, of course). Cats are actually more “crepuscular” than
“nocturnal” for evolutionary reasons we won’t go into here, meaning that twilight/evening
is a great time to interact in ways that use up some of their energy. Not only will this
(hopefully) make them less likely to seek further attention at an inappropriate time, but
you will feel less guilty that you have to ignore them if they seek that attention while you
● Make sure you have a well-appointed environment in which your feline friend can keep
active non-disruptively while you sleep: cat trees, climbing posts, toys, etc. can all help
them stay stimulated and content while you’re unavailable to them. They might thump
around a bit and wake you up briefly, but that’s very different from a sustained and
intentional cry for attention.
● If the cat is waking you up for food, make sure you’re feeding them at appropriate
intervals. Even better, consider an automatic or interactive food dispenser. An
automatic dispenser will dole out food in appropriate portions, and an interactive
one is both something to keep the cat occupied and it makes them put in a little effort for
a food reward.
● If you have an indoor-outdoor cat, consider the cost-benefit ratio of installing a cat door
so that your pet may come and go as desired.
Ignore, Ignore, Ignore
If the behavior is well-established and prevention doesn’t help, it is possible to adjust it with
time. That first principle of “ignore, ignore, ignore” stands. The key is to reinforce for your cat
that you simply don’t respond to interruptions while you try to sleep. If you previously have
rewarded the interruptions with attention, ignoring them will at first be confusing for the animal,
which will then intensify the very behavior you are trying to stop. Don’t give in. Buy earplugs,
close the door, but stand firm. It will get worse before it gets better, but after a few weeks you
will have set appropriate boundaries for your fluffy loved one, and you should begin to get some
relief from the disruptive behavior.
If the behavior does not improve, or if you do suspect that the cause is medical, the age-old best
for any pet owner still stands: time for a visit to the vet!