As cats get older, their nighttime routines and habits can change. Our experts' advice can help both you and your pet cope.
Unfortunately, getting on in years can change the way cats behave at night - especially if they're also suffering from feline dementia, 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. Cats cope poorly with change, so any kind of stress - like a change to their environment - can result in more obvious signs of the condition, especially at nighttime.'
'Arthritis, failing sight and medical conditions, including dental pain or kidney problems, can also affect your cat's nighttime behaviour,' adds Rosie Bescoby, a clinical animal behaviourist. 'If you're in doubt, always speak to your vet first.' Once your pet has been given the all clear, Rosie recommends trying these tips to ensure a more peaceful night for you both.
1. Use calming tricks
'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 Rosie. This can result in the middle-of-the-night yowling so many owners are familiar with. To reduce your cat's anxiety, Rosie recommends using a synthetic plug-in pheromone diffuser, which mimics the facial pheromone that cats produce when they feel relaxed.
'Older cats, particularly those with dementia, are also less able to defend their territory at night and this can make them very restless,' Rosie adds. 'Simple tricks, such as closing the curtains to prevent your cat from seeing other cats or foxes in her territory, or providing toys to distract her, can help ensure she has a better night.'
2. Create safe spaces
Rosie recommends a few practical ways to boost your cat's physical 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-smelling bedding. It's all about making your cat feel secure in her core territory.'
Rosie also suggests giving your pet access to plenty of warm, safe places to sleep. Make sure your cat can still reach favourite areas - particularly those up high - by providing ramps or footstools, and add cushions as crash pads in appropriate places. Using heatpads, or keeping radiators switched on in cold weather, will also help your cat to relax.
3. 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 and will keep your cat's mind busy.'
For those times when you aren't able to engage in one-on-one activities, Rosie's tip is to try looking on YouTube for videos and cat-friendly content, such as Cat TV, which can help to keep your pet mentally stimulated.
4. Lower that litter tray
Toilet accidents at night are more common in older cats, but they can 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 several trays at a time, 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.'
How one owner coped with a sleepless cat:
'Our 16-year-old rescue cat, Marley, was diagnosed with dementia about two years ago,' explains owner, Nick Goddard. 'She would get very upset at night, and would yowl until I came to find her.' Nick wasn't willing to just give up on Marley, so he decided to take action. 'I started introducing simple interactive games before mealtimes to help reinforce a daily routine, and to keep Marley's brain active. We also limited her nighttime environment to two rooms, to reduce her anxiety, and we moved her litter tray away from a window.' More recently, as Marley's condition has progressed, Nick has begun to accompany her on her short trips outdoors so that she doesn't wander off and get lost. 'Sticking to a schedule seems to help, as Marley appears to be more alert and less anxious,' he says.