This is probably one of the most common behavior problems cat owners experience. I think almost every cat owner can relate to this: It's very early in the morning, typically at least a few hours before you would normally get up, and you are woken by a loud, repetitive meowing in your ear, or even a paw on your face. Yep, it's your beloved cat, demanding that you get up and feed him/her, IMMEDIATELY.
What's a cat lover to do?
DO NOT GET UP AND FEED THE CAT!
I REPEAT, DO NOT GET UP AND FEED THE CAT!
What happens when you do this is you are positively reinforcing the behavior. In other words, making 100% sure your cat will repeat this behavior in the future. Why wouldn't they? Cats are very intelligent. If meowing at 4 a.m. = food today, why not try again tomorrow?
I realize this advice is only really useful by itself for newer cats/kittens that haven't learned that meowing = food.
So what do you do if your own cat has been doing this for years, and it has become a well-learned and reinforced behavior?
3. Remove yourself from the feeding process. Stop being the human food dispenser. Purchase an automatic food dispenser with a timer. The best kind is one that has at least 3 compartments that you can put a measured amount of food in and set each one to open at a different time if the day, say 5 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The really important time is the morning one! Now your beloved feline can go and meow at this plastic thing in the corner at 4:30 a.m.
It will take a few weeks to retrain your cat, and the unwanted behavior WILL PROBABLY GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER. Remember, this behavior has worked for your cat for the last 1,825 mornings, so he or she will increase the duration and intensity of the meowing before realizing there's an alternative. STAY STRONG! Don't give in and get up, if you do you will just be right back whee you started. Eventually they will get the idea that the food distribution is no longer related to their human. If they are having a hard time getting the idea, put the dispenser in the bedroom, they will smell the food when it opens. Then after a couple of mornings, start to gradually move the dispenser where you want it to be in the house.
Hopefully this will do the trick, and you and your cat can start the day on a good note!