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Thwarting the Alarm Clock Cat

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Dealing with cats that wake you up before the alarm clock is frustrating, especially you want to sleep! Contrary to popular belief, cats are not nocturnal. The term "nocturnal" refers to the lifestyle of being awake at night instead of during the day, and that isn't what cats do. They sleep at night as we do, just not for quite as long. Cats are "crepuscular," which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. This is because their ancestors' prey was most active at these times, so it made sense for them to adjust to that schedule. No creature in his or her right mind ran about during the heat of the day or in the middle of night when it was pitch black. Though cats' night vision is very good, they can't see without light. Instead, they sleep.

And herein lies the problem of the chronic "alarm clock" cat. Two things combine to make this phenomenon possible:

1. Nature. Your cat's internal clock and crepuscular nature tells her that it's time to get up at around dawn. Depending on the time of sunrise, cats will become active sooner or later. During summer in lands of midnight sun, cats may not be triggered by the dawn. During the long, dark, sunless winters of the Antarctic, a cat would probably sleep till lunchtime everyday.

2. Training. This is where the cat's owner comes in. Let's say your cat becomes active first thing in the morning. She quickly becomes bored because there's nothing going on. If you so much as look at this cat, rewarding her with your attention, you may well get more of the same in days to come. Worse still, if you assume that your cat is pacing around and scratching your furniture because she's hungry, and you get up and feed her, then you have really made a bed upon which you must lie (awake).

At this stage, pretending to be asleep, yelling at the cat, rolling over, and other forms of stubborn resistance usually do not work. The cat continues her (no doubt) occasionally successful quests. And remember, occasional reward is a more powerful reinforcer than continuous reward (reference: the slot machines in Las Vegas). Some of the things you do may even amuse and entertain the bored cat and serve as reinforcers in their own right. You may, in effect, become a big squeaky toy for your cat.

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