Thursday, March 08, 2012

Thwarting the attack of the pre-alarm cat

I've always been a dog person, so you can imagine my surprise when I learned that cats have idiosyncrasies no self-respecting dog would ever engage in. For instance, why do cats insist on waking you up before the alarm goes off?

Contrary to popular belief, cats are not nocturnal. "Nocturnal" refers to animals that are awake at night and sleep during the day. However, cats sleep at night, as we do - just not as long. Cats are "crepuscular," which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. This is because their ancestors' natural prey was most active at these times. Although cats have good night vision, they can't see without light, so they do sleep at night.

Two dynamics conspire to create the relentless "pre-alarm" cat.

The first is nature. Your cat's internal clock responds to the first light of day and tells her to get up. In the lands of the midnight sun, cats adjusted their biological clock and are not affected by the dawn. However, during the long, dark, sunless Antarctic winters, it's not uncommon for cats to sleep until noon.

The second is training - and this is where we cat owners come in. When your cat wakes in the morning, she quickly becomes bored because there's nothing to do. If you so much as look at her, you've rewarded her with your attention and "trained" her to behave this way every day. If you make the mistake of assuming your cat is pacing and scratching the furniture because she's hungry, and you get up and feed her, then you just made your own bed - and you can forget about sleeping in it.

At this point, pretending to be asleep, yelling or rolling over isn't likely to work. You actually train your cat to pester you in the morning by occasionally giving her attention. An occasional reward is just as powerful a re-enforcer as a continuous reward. For instance, you don't have to hit the jackpot every time you play the slot machines. An occasional win is enough to bring you back - and so it is with kitty. In fact, some forms of resistance may so amuse a bored cat that they'll cause her to see you as a big squeaky toy.

Fortunately, cats can be reprogrammed. When the caterwauling is because your cat really is hungry, place dry food in her dish before going to bed. This gives her something to snack on during the night and in the morning. When it's not hunger, try placing a small fan on the floor. If you like the bedroom door closed with the cat outside, make sure the fan blows air under the door. This will discourage her from sitting outside yelling at you.

Another reprogramming technique is to keep a spray bottle filled with water nearby. When kitty begins to meow at dawn, spray her. Most cats will run off and spend the next hour grooming.

If your cat meows and scratches at the door, try taping bubble wrap to the bottom of the door. Most cats don't like the feel or noise it makes. Laying a piece on the floor in front of the door could keep your cat at bay until after the alarm sounds.

Come by Betty's Cattery at the Yavapai Humane Society to adopt a pal for your cat. Two or three cats are better than one because they'll entertain each while you're sleeping in. In celebration of YHS's 40th anniversary, you can adopt any kitten for $40 (thanks to an anonymous donor) or you can pick your price for any cat that chooses you.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society.  He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.