Welcome to our weekly 'Ask a Vet from the SF SPCA' feature on 7x7.com. Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB is a board certified veterinary behaviorist who counsels guardians whose pets’ issues are beyond the scope of training. Think of her as a pet shrink…at your service. Ask your own questions in the comments!
Q: I just adopted an 11 month old cat three weeks ago. The first week was really hard; he was crying at all times of the night, and I think he was looking for his prior foster mother and other cats. It has gotten a lot better, but now he is waking up at 4 am or earlier and wants to play and he is very vocal. Is there anything I can do to change that?
A: First, thank you for adopting and giving a kitten a loving new home!
Compared to dogs, cats are not as obviously vocal. However, certain cats are more vocal than others, and can learn to use vocalization to communicate with humans. Additionally, most cats are active at dusk and dawn–that's their hunting time.
There are a few things you can do:
Step 1: IGNORE. Ignore him when he meows, do not talk to him or provide him with food or play – especially not in the middle of the night. Most cat owners give their cat attention or get up to feed the cat. Cats learn to communicate with us, just as we learn to communicate with them. Your cat may learn that if he meows, people will talk to him, play with him, feed him, or even yell at him. Remember that for some cats, negative attention is better than none at all.
Some people love to “talk” with their cats, back and forth, it is possible that this behavior was encouraged by a prior foster parent. This is often how behavior patterns start. So if your cat is very chatty, you will want to work on establishing new patterns.
This should be the backbone of your behavior modification plan. Pay attention to your cat when he is being quiet, even during the day. Wait for a moment of silence before you feed him. If you are having trouble sleeping at night, try earplugs and close the door to your bedroom. You will have to be strict, because you cat will try harder for a few nights before he will give up.
Step 2: Make sure your cat’s needs are met. Provide him with an alternative option for food and play such as automatic feeders and other interactive toys in a different room of the home, as far away from your bedroom as possible.
Your cat needs attention and interaction, so make sure that somewhere in your daily schedule you allot times for scheduled play session. Cats like routine and will meow excessively if their routine is changed. It helps to give your cat a good play session before you go to bed.
Provide your cat with plenty of mental and physical stimulation. Cats are most active during morning and evening hours – similar to their natural hunting hours. Indoor cats need to be entertained and encouraged to play and exercise. Even a cat with access to the outdoors needs owner interaction and stimulation. New toys, bought or made, food cubes, and the occasional catnip toy can help him from getting bored.
Make sure his diet is adequate and he has a clean litterbox and fresh water at all times. If your cat seems excessively hungry you should have her checked out by a veterinarian.
Other things that might help: A Feliway plug in, or clicker training for mental stimulation. For more ideas, I recommend 50 Games to Play With Your Cat by Jackie Strachan. Good luck and have fun!