Copyright 1995, Sarah Hartwell/Feline Advisory Bureau

A humourous look at a common problem of older and insecure cats with a case study and some ideas on how to alleviate the problem

A common problem of older cats is midnight calling. I'm not referring to use of the phone at unsociable hours or nocturnal shrieking for a passionate encounter. Night-time calling is the forlorn miaowing of a cat which believes the household has abandoned it at bedtime.

Sappho is a fairly typical case. When the household's human complement has gone to bed, her forlorn cries float from the front room as she tries to keep in vocal, if not physical, contact with us. Earlier panic-stricken dashes to her side in expectation of finding her in distress elicited a friendly "mirrip" of "oh there you are". Sappho, the cat who murders sleep, wants reassurance that we are available on call should she feel lonely.

Sappho also calls out during the day if we are out of sight which suggests over-attachment to her owners and separation anxiety. She frequently craves physical contact and vigourously marks us, and our possessions, through cheek rubbing. Her previous owner died of hypothermia and from all accounts, Sappho had spent several days shut in a silent flat trying to "wake up" the dead owner. For several months afterwards, Sappho suffered nightmares and anxiety attacks and woke us up, needing a great deal of cuddling to reassure her that she was safe. Although she appears to be a placid couch potato, she has a high need for reassurance and owner contact and we have probably reinforced this requirement by supplying attention more-or-less on demand.

Over the years, Sappho has seen other rescue cats come and go. During her most anxious period she slept on our bed and though there was no midnight calling she nudged me awake every few hours just to check that I was alive and still loved her as much as I did a hour or so earlier.

Since then, the household has been divided up more times than the former Yugoslavia with territories being renegotiated, and treaties and truces implemented. Her core territory is the sofa and she repels all comers with enthusiasm. Her former position on the bed has been abandoned (through a territorial pact with the late Kitty II) so that she is no longer in visual or physical contact with us at night and the midnight calling began.

Act I, Scene I. Household is in darkness save for the errant gleam of streetlights through chinks in the curtain. Humans are dozing off. Cat is curled up on the sofa. A forlorn miaow (delivered on a rising note as if a question) splits the air. All hell let loose as humans rush to cat's side to give aid, succour, comfort, food, whatever. Smug in the knowledge that household is still present, cat allows humans back to bed until the next summons.

This scene is played out in many households. The cat in question is not ill, just lonely. Being crepuscular creatures, dusk is the time when cats are geared up to activities such as hunting, but the inconveniently diurnal human playmates have departed to bed leaving cat a little confused and lonely. Cat calls out. Contact between cat and human is restored and peace reigns for a short while.

Sappho's "rising miaow" trick soon wore thin. We knew that she was safe and secure in her chosen sleeping area so we merely called out to in reassuring tones or, worse to an insecure cat, ignored her.

Act I, Scene II. Much as Scene I, except for the miaow. A forlorn miaow delivered on a "descending note" floats through the darkness. Humans think "that's not her normal night-time miaow". Visions of distressed cat assail vivid pre-sleep imaginations and humans rush down to attend ailing cat. Cat is found snug and safe and well-pleased that the newly-practised alternative miaow has brought humans to her side.

Once we realised that both types of miaow were attention-getting ploys we resorted to calling out reassurances. However, Sappho had another trick up her sleeve.

Act I, Scene III. Again the household is darkened and all creatures apparently asleep. A hoarse miaow, neither rising nor descending, is delivered into the darkness. This is the sound of a distressed cat, maybe one that is in pain or has caught her claw in the seat cover and desperately needs aid. Humans fall over each other to reach cat first and save it from further distress; 24 hour veterinary number is at hand. Cat is sitting like some arrogant dignatory in middle of sofa wearing the smug expression of a cat which has succeeded in getting humans to attend her in her hour of insecurity.

At the time of writing, we have again taken to calling out reassurances to Sappho although her morning demeanour is a little grumpier than usual, purely on the grounds that attention is not forthcoming on demand. The next development (ventriloquism, three part harmony with other household cats, hi-fi amplification) is awaited with interest.

In theory there are ways to alleviate the problem of midnight calling. Some cats are amenable to moving their sleeping quarters into the bedroom if it doesn't conflict with another cat's territorial rights. For many the ultimate aim is to join the communal sleep heap in the bed, forever putting paid to any human plans to add a squawking human infant to the household (in which case cat won't be centre of attention for at least ten years). Such cats are often insecure and their insecurity is increased by a feeling of abandonment when their owners vanish at bedtime leaving the cat alone.

An alternative is to move human sleeping quarters closer to cat. Few owners would consider going this far and it doesn't always do the trick. On the occasions when I've slept next to Sappho (John was living abroad at the time) the midnight call was delivered at full volume and point-blank range into my left ear. Far from being comfort-provider to a possibly lonely cat I was the victim of a sleep deprivation experiment conducted by a cat who wanted an eight hour tummy rub.

If the cat sleeps in one place and you have an baby intercom you might try setting it up so that you can talk to the cat via the intercom. If your cat only requires vocal contact to quieten it, this trick could save a lot of legwork. At the same time, it may be useful to address any problem of over-attachment or separation anxiety if the cat is also calls during the day.

Another possibility is to provide substitute company. Cats which sleep together, or with the family dog, often keep each other company and provide mutual reassurance. Sappho, however, does not encourage such familiarity from her subordinates. Sometimes such cats can be bought off by creature comforts such as a heated bed (or towel-wrapped hot water bottle). Lulled to sleep by the warmth they can't be bothered to call out (unless they want the bottle reheated). The sound of a radio left playing at low volume can supply the company. Not all cats can be bought off, but it's worth trying.

Act II, Scene I. Night-time chez Hartwell, humans are abed. In the front room the radio is playing quietly - a late night agony show. Cat snores on a fleece-covered heated pad. The lump stirs wondering if the household requires awakening. The voice from the radio provides contact. The heated pad is soporific. Cat goes back to sleep. Upstairs, humans lie awake. Is something wrong - cat hasn't demanded attention, maybe she's ill. Normally cat has called out by this time, the uncharacteristic silence must be sign of something REALLY wrong. Humans sneak down and peek into front room. Cat is sleeping comfortably, DJ is discussing boyfriend trouble. Humans retreat. Spotlight falls on cat. Cat winks at audience.


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