How to get an older cat to sleep at night

If there’s one thing most cats are good at, it’s getting some shut-eye. The average cat sleeps for around 15 hours a day, but very young or old cats may snooze for considerably longer. Many owners find that their old cat sleeps all day long, and this is nothing to worry about if the cat is generally in good health for their age. However, in some cases, the reverse is true: after years of relatively peaceful nights, owners are woken up by their senior cat yowling at night.

Why doesn’t my cat sleep at night?

Getting on in years can change the way cats behave at night. This is especially true if they’re also suffering from feline dementia, also known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). ‘This condition is becoming more common,’ says Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner. ‘There are now more than two million elderly cats in the UK, and more than half of them will show symptoms of CDS from the age of 15.’

So how do you know if your cat has CDS? Signs include learning and memory issues, such as pooping in the wrong place, general confusion, and changes to their sleeping patterns. Cats with CDS may start waking up frequently at night, and becoming much more vocal.

‘If a cat has CDS, not being able to find her owner, not being able to hear properly, or simply feeling cold can all make her feel very anxious,’ says clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby. This can lead to an old cat yowling at night.

CDS isn’t the only condition that can disrupt senior cats’ sleep, however. Arthritis, failing sight and medical conditions, including dental pain or kidney problems, can also affect your cat’s nighttime behaviour.

Be alert to signs of pain or behavioural changes: ‘As always, if you feel your cat is in distress, physical or psychological, as a result of any symptom, please contact your vet,’ says Brian.

How to get an older cat to sleep at night

Once you’ve investigated any underlying physical causes, there are also plenty of things you can try at home to soothe a restless senior cat.

Calm down an anxious cat

If your pet does seem to be experiencing nighttime anxiety, Rosie recommends trying a synthetic pheromone diffuser, which mimics the pheromone that cats produce when they feel relaxed.

‘Older cats, particularly those with dementia, are less able to defend their territory at night, and this can make them very restless,’ Rosie says. ‘Simple tricks, such as closing the curtains to prevent your cat from seeing other cats or foxes, or providing toys to distract her, can help ensure she has a better night.’

Create safe spaces

Rosie recommends several ways to boost your cat’s feelings of safety: ‘I would provide lots of hiding places – an igloo-style bed, cardboard boxes with blankets inside, or play-tunnels – and actively encourage their use with treats and familiar bedding. It’s all about making your cat feel secure in her core territory.’

Give your pet access to warm, safe places to sleep. Make sure senior cats can still reach favourite areas – particularly those up high – by providing ramps or footstools. Using heat pads, or keeping radiators switched on in cold weather, will also help your cat to relax. And you could also try limiting your cat’s nighttime environment to one or two rooms, to see if this makes her feel more in control.

Keep playing

‘Daytime play and stimulation is still vital for older cats,’ Rosie says. ‘You may just need to adjust your play style if your cat isn’t very mobile – but simply watching a toy move in a prey-like way can keep your cat happy and alert. Activity feeders are another good solution to mimic natural hunting behaviour.’

Lower that litter tray

Toilet accidents at night are more common in older cats, and have many possible causes: your cat’s litter tray may be too high to access comfortably, she could have cystitis, or she may simply be too frightened to go outdoors at night.

‘If your vet has ruled out cystitis as a reason for nighttime accidents, I’d recommend introducing a larger, low-sided litter tray alongside your cat’s existing tray, so that she has a more comfortable option,' Rosie says.

Your cat could also be avoiding her tray because the litter feels too coarse now that she is less agile, or because the location of the tray makes her feel vulnerable. Try offering trays in different locations, with finer-textured litter options. ‘Always make changes slowly, though,’ says Rosie. ‘Change one thing at a time and track what your cat seems to prefer, rather than taking a trial-and-error approach.’

Love snoozes with your cat? Stick a snap of you and your pet on social media with the tag #PethoodStories – we’d love to share it.