by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats are pre-programmed to wake as soon as their natural prey stirs so they can have an early breakfast and a good start to the day. This doesn’t always work for us though, especially now as summer is starting and the sun rises earlier each day!
It is possible to change this early-rising pattern in cats; sometimes with more success than others. There are always exceptions though, young kittens, old and ill cats that need frequent regular feeding times.
Let’s understand the behaviour from the point of view of the cat. Cats are action animals, not fluffy house ornaments; they need to move, exercise their bodies and minds, and gain a reward for the effort.
Early rising means the option to hunt in the cooler part of the day using your exceptional vision, catching fresh food which contains sufficient liquid to sustain you, and be done before the heat makes hunting a chore and a snooze mandatory. The other time of day that cats like to hunt is dusk, for the same reasons, cooler, using their excellent vision and catching fully-fed prey. The routine is hunt, eat, wash, repeat if necessary, sleep; repeat from the beginning if necessary.
Our house cats do not have to hunt for their food, it is provided in easy-access bowls – or puzzle feeders – in a set place at a set time. Yet the instinctive early-morning alarm still goes off and they are ready for the start of the day.
Changing behaviour is more successful when a new behaviour is introduced and the old behaviour generates no reward. The new behaviour will replicate their natural Hunt, Eat, Wash, Sleep pattern under your control.
The new behaviour consists of a few steps. Depending on how entrenched your cat’s current behaviour is, it may be better to implement the full plan in stages to avoid a severe reaction.
Routine is important for most cats; knowing what happens when means they feel safe and in control of their lives. That means some discipline on our part if this is to work successfully. Start by deciding what time you would like to go to sleep. This needs to be a fixed time each day, within reason. You can still read in bed – if it doesn’t disturb the cats!
Feeding in a controlled manner is important to this process, so all cat food should be removed at least 8 hours before your planned bedtime. If this is too much change at once, reduce the available food each day until there is none left until you feed later.
One and a half hours before your bedtime, start playtime with the cats. Running, hunting, catching, chasing games are best; other games include Fetch, Tennis and some of the electronic games that are available. All cats must join in the games. Once they are all tired, wait a few minutes for them to regain their breath then start another round of games. Play a third round if necessary, until they no longer want to play. This is a great time for interacting and bonding with your cats.
Now it’s time for dinner, the reward of the ‘kill’ from the games. After dinner, a nice gentle grooming session, either themselves or with you, then off to bed for all. And that’s where you stay until you decide to get up! Again, a routine is preferable so set a time that is best for you.
The hardest part of this process is when your cat tries to wake you for his early-morning snack or game as was his normal routine. You have to ignore him completely, no reaction at all.
When he wakes you he gets attention, which is more fun than sleeping. Cats learn from the consequences of their actions. Wake mom = get attention. If there is no attention there is no ‘reward’ for waking mom so he will do something else. ‘No attention’ means just that – no response from you at all! Even a negative response (go away Puss) is attention. Pull the duvet over your head and go back to sleep. Ignore him as if he is not there.
When you wake up it is time for breakfast for all, then on with the day’s routines until the evening games session.
Your new behaviour programme may take a few days to have an effect, persistent cats and cats have ingrained this behaviour can take a few weeks to modify their behaviour to suit yours, but it will happen and you will get a full nights’ sleep from that point onwards.
This does work if the entire family are consistent, persistent and committed to getting a good night’s sleep. Any sign of attention from you or any family member in the early morning and you are back to the beginning; he has ‘won’ and will keep on with the behaviour as it gets him a reward.