It’s 5:37am, do you know where your cat is? Of course you do. He’s sitting at the foot of your bed, screeching at the top of his tiny lungs to be fed. Being rousted from your slumber so insistently is bound to drive even the most devoted of cat lovers to the brink of desperation.
I’ve made many attempts to quell a morning meower: Toss and turn with a pillow over my head for a half hour. Get up to feed the cat and then go back to bed. Bribe the cat with snacks just before I tuck myself in. The latter works for my current set of hungry cats, so I’m not as stressed as some of the people in this recent Reddit thread who suggested getting an automated feeder, squirting your cat with a spray bottle of water until it quiets down and dosing your cat up with calming products.
But getting your cat to quit their morning vocal warmup takes more than one easy trick. It probably requires a lifestyle change for you and your cat. I asked cat behaviourist, author and reality show host Jackson Galaxy what to do about a cat who won’t let you sleep past the crack of dawn.
Rule out a medical issue first
If your cat’s behaviour has changed suddenly, have a veterinarian do a once-over before trying to solve the noise problem. A cat that chows down all day long but loses weight might have hyperthyroidism, Galaxy said. Other medical issues may be harder to spot. “Look for a physical cause before a behavioural one,” he said.
Recognise biology’s role
After making sure things are medically on the up and up, it’s time to tackle the cat’s behaviour. Keep in mind that your cat’s demands to eat as soon as the sun peeps over the horizon isn’t exactly a problem; it’s just how they’re wired. “Cats by nature are most awake at dawn and dusk,” the best times to catch prey, Galaxy explained. “We make the mistake of thinking they’re nocturnal.”
Since your cat doesn’t need to hunt all day like it might in the wild, it’s going to spend most of the day while you’re at work on your couch, snoozing and shedding. When you’re home, they’re interested in what’s happening. And they know that one of the things that happens when you are home is that everyone eats. If you want them to eat on a schedule that’s acceptable to you, you’ll have to work to get them into the habit.
Get ready for 12 days of hell
Galaxy suggests a three-pronged method to reset your cat’s internal clock.
First, stop free-feeding your cat. “If food is out 24/7, regulating their body [clock] is off the table,” Galaxy warned. “There’s no predictability to their life when food doesn’t have a time and place.”
This is key because cats are... particular. “When trying to ask our cats to do anything, good luck if they’re not hungry,” Galaxy said. “They don’t give a crap about pleasing us. You’ve got to go with what motivates them.” What motivates cats is not their unconditional love for me. It is food.
Next, feed your cat three times each day: in the morning, when you get home from work, and about an hour before you go to bed. “It sets the table for getting you to sleep through the night,” Galaxy said. Don’t let those food bowls linger, though. Pick them up once the cat is finished.
Pair this routine with plenty of exercise before the day’s final meal. “Really play,” he said. “Don’t just fling a stick, throw a piece of tin foil. You should both be tired.” In the wild, a cat will hunt, then eat, then groom, then sleep, Galaxy explained. This feeding plan will help replicate their natural habits and get them in sync with yours.
Finally, the “most painful” prong of Galaxy’s method: ignoring the cat. When they wake you up at too-early o’clock, the cat knows that with enough screaming and hollering, you’ll give in and provide the goods. Don’t get up and feed the cat, Galaxy said. Don’t throw pillows. Don’t say their name. You and your partner or other family members have to pretend you’re asleep until it’s really time to get up.
Galaxy said he has given his phone number to clients with an invitation to call them on the 12th day if the cat is still waking them up in the middle of the night. “No one has ever called,” he said.
But he admitted that it’s going to get way worse before it gets better. He compared it to having terrible jet lag, where the first half-dozen days after a trip is miserable. But a couple of sleepless nights now will eventually make your mornings a whole lot more enjoyable.
Don’t try to automate this remedy
“Feed the cat three times a day, perfect, I’ll get one of those automatic feeders,” you say. Such devices can help fill in if your schedule gets wonky, but you shouldn’t rely on them to do the work for you.
“Food is the prime motivator, so if you take that away [and have a machine feed your cat], it’s the nail in the coffin for any time you want your cat to do something for you,” Galaxy said. “You are their provider.” The fact that you provide on a regular basis for your cat is going to bond them to you more than anything else.