An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alarm Clock Operetta

Dear Greyce, 

My daughter Babette has become quite vocal at the ripe age of six. She uses an astonishing range of tones around six a.m., sometimes when sitting on the kitty condo and looking out. The sound really travels, especially since we usually sleep with our purrsons and they have a loft bedroom that has no doors. 

I'm so shocked, I do my best to ignore her. I would never join in (although I have been known to be vocal in the middle of the night, a behaviour with does not meet with approval by the human residents). 

Himself is not at all pleased. 

Herself either calls Babette to her bed or puts her in THE ROOM - our safe place fully furnished with viewing spots, litterbox, food and water (though she never touches the water there). Babette might stop briefly as a result. But if our purrsons arise, she will talk until about 10 a.m.!

There are a few other things about Babette that might be relevant: She has become more sedentary of late and she has misformed kidneys that do not function fully. While she is not expected to have a long life, she enjoys what she has - plenty of food freely available and lots of fresh water in a loving home.

I am concerned. Greyce, what can be done?


Dear Minou,

You are obviously a concerned and dutiful mother which impresses me greatly, especially considering that many feline mothers lose interest in their kittens as they develop into cats. 

As you know, cat communication is largely non-verbal. Other than purring, we tend to reserve vocalizing for very special occasions such as mating, calling our kittens, warning invaders, or responding to pain. That is, unless we are Siamese (or a related, oriental breed) in which case all bets are off.

Kahlua Sings Opera At Night
My dear friend, Kahlua (a stunning Siamese-cross) will burst into song at 3 a.m. and continue singing to her slinky toy for almost an hour - just for sheer enjoyment. And I have known others of similar background who feel it is important to share a running commentary with their favoured purrson during selected daylight hours.

Hyperthyroidism can also be associated with increasing vocalization (part of an overall increased in hyperactivity, I imagine). Now I assume that your purrsons have consulted with your veterinarian about this issue, ruling out any possible medical issue for the behaviour.

And your own vocalization in the middle of the night could be due to periods of disoriented (accompanying the aging process) and/or anxiety.

Part of the reason for Babette's alarm clock operetta is likely to be what is happening outdoors. Six a.m. is not an unusual time for a cat to awake and become interested in life. Animal sounds outdoors (many of which most humans cannot hear) start before dawn and are most provocative. And this would be the time a cat in the wild would likely hunt.

For example, this is about the time that I start to yowl so that Himself will open the patio door and let me out into by cat-fenced-in backyard to get a whiff of morning air. And if that doesn't get results, I have only to jump on Herself and knead her full bladder to get the result I want. But enough about me.

For whatever reason, Babette (and sometimes, you) vocalize at night or in the early hours of the morning, disturbing your humans. And since they are bigger than you are, and are in charge of much of your daily lives, that means we have to do something about what they see is the problem - regardless of their contribution to you. You see, what may have started an a way of seeking attention (purrhaps even in response to anxiety) could have been inadvertently reinforced, making it a difficult cycle to break. Let me explain.

Inadvertent Reinforcement: If the behaviour is reinforced, it will persist. Reinforcement means that you get attention (positive or negative) for it. And if the reinforcement is intermittent (meaning that sometimes someone yells out, other times attempts to ignore the song, and other times attempt to offer comfort), the pattern is strengthened!

Since your purrsons know about Babette's malady, it will be difficult (especially for Herself) to just ignore these sounds, because she will always be thinking of the time when Babette will no longer be there to make them. And so the reinforcement cycle continues.

A Possible Solution

Since it is not possible to just let Babette go outside if she is responding to wildlife and since you have been know to yowl in the middle of the night from time to time, why not both retire to THE ROOM when you go to bed? (door closed, of course).

To ensure this is seen as enticement rather than punishment, let's get that room ready, properly.

Start with installing a feline heating pad in a favoured sleeping area, since one of the things that interests Babette is warmth (I understand she likes the warm cable box in the bedroom). Okay, possibly purchase two such items if you are interested as well; but maybe for the sake of the human pocketbooks, you might start with one unless the two of you start to fight over it.

Note that I said, feline heating pad NOT the kind of heating pad sold for humans (which is far too hot and has too erratic a temperature gauge and could actually cause harm to our delicate skins). A feline heating pad can be purchased at a pet supply store. It plugs into a regular outlet. A human will find it barely warm but a cat, especially one who may be losing a bit a weight due to kidney problems or just plain aging, will find it heavenly. Placed on a favourite chair, on top of the bedding in a box or cat bed, or on a shelf or other flat surface makes it ideal.

Since anxiety may be part of the problem, I also suggest the purchase of a Feliway diffuser (from the veterinarian or pet supply store depending upon where you live) which can be plugged into an electric outlet. As I've said many times in my blog, Feliway's synthetic pheromones will give both you and your daughter a sense of calm. And this may be helpful to you in the middle of the night when you feel you need to yowl because you are a bit disoriented or anxious.

If your purrsons are feeling particularly generous, they might consider the purchase of a pet water fountain for the safe room since Babette's kidney issue means a need for continued access to water. The water fountain aerates the water and thus keeps it much fresher tasting than just having the stuff sit in a bowl. My American cousins, Lucy and Emma, are fascinated by a new kind of fountain which is shaped like a round, coloured bowl (the water comes out of the top and cascades over the sides).

Now that the room is ready, here is my suggested routine:

 Feel free to indulge in cuddle session(s) or just hanging out with your purrsons in their bedroom, until they are truly getting ready for bed. That's the signal for a change in venue. Have them entice you both to your safe room.

One important enticement is an interactive play session. It is important even for a less-active cat to get a workout, without which they tend to be restless at night. A game with a fishing pole toy could be helpful. The idea is to have your purrson mimic the predatory cycle: a hunting excursion (a.k.a. play session) which your purrsons winds down near the end to help the cat in question to return to a relaxed state, followed by a snack - because in the wild, after you hunted successfully you'd eat your kill. (Check through other parts of my blog for suggestions on proper play - because, believe it or not, MOST purrsons do it wrong!)

Another important enticement is a snack.  If Babette and/or you eats wet as well as dry food, consider making a fresh after-play  snack of wet food mixed to a pudding consistency with room-temperature water and served in your safe room. This will help Babette's hydration should she prefurr not to drink from the water bowl in that room. (I wish you could tell me what it is about her prefurred bowl -- other than location -- that is so different from the one in THE ROOM.) If one or both of you don't enjoy wet food, then by all means indulge in a small mound of dry kibble.

Then it's time for grooming and bed!

Even with these changes, Babette may continue to sing in the morning. As long as she is in no pain and not anxious, and she is in your safe room with the door closed, then your purrsons should be able to sleep until they are ready to face the day - without guilt. (Earplugs might help, if necessary.)

Once they are up, they should open the door to your safe room. And if Babette continues to sing, it is likely because she wishes to have attention and to share her thoughts. If Herself has the time, it might be worthwhile to either have a play session with Babette or, if your daughter is willing, to put her on or beside Herself's lap; then instruct Herself to give Babette some very slow and gentle pets while talking softly to her. Sometimes gentle soothing is all that is needed.

You could do the same by gently licking her forehead -- but since you have slaves on the premises, delegation seems to be the order of the day.

Here's to a more restful night for everyone,