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Cats are Nocturnal: Truth or Common Misconception?
By: Brianna Gunter / Published Nov. 6, 2022
If you hear something go “bump” in the middle of the night, it may be your cat romping around. But is it really because your furry friend is on a completely opposite sleep schedule? As with many perceptions of routine feline behaviors, the common belief that cats are nocturnal isn’t quite accurate.
The truth is that cats are often active at night, but they do sleep for significant portions of the evening. Of course, that doesn’t explain why kitty likes to chase his toys around while you’re trying to have a REM cycle. Keep reading to learn more about your cat’s nighttime activity and how you can make sure you’re both getting the sleep you need.
If cats are not nocturnal, what are they?
Felines are complex creatures, and their sleeping patterns are among the most unique and interesting aspects of their day-to-day lives. This is because cats are not nocturnal, but crepuscular.
“[Cats’] peak activity occurs at dusk and at dawn,” explains Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde. “They have evolved to maximize their activity around these hours because this minimizes their risk from their natural predators, which are active during peak hours of daylight and darkness.”
Wilde also notes that some cats are more active around dawn or very early morning hours, as opposed to hours during the night. This can lead many pet owners to perceive their cat as having been awake all night. For comparison, humans are diurnal—typically most active during daytime hours and asleep during nighttime hours.
Are some cats nocturnal?
While most cats follow standard crepuscular behavior, there are some kitties who do appear to be all-day snoozers and active from dusk to dawn.
“Some cats do seem to be more active in the middle of the night,” Wilde says. “Naturally, every cat is different.”
It’s also worth noting that your cat’s sleep schedule may be influenced by your own behavior. If you work the night shift and sleep during the day or otherwise stay up for large chunks of the evening, it’s possible that your pet has simply adapted.
Why are cats active at nighttime?
Like humans, cats have their own preferences about how they live their day-to-day lives. That said, domestic cats are still heavily guided by their own genetics as descendants of wild hunters.
That’s right — when it comes to cat sleeping schedules, your feline’s tendencies are written into her DNA.
“This is due to their natural hunting instincts,” Wilde explains. “A lot of their prey species, such as rodents, tend to be more active at night.”
How do domestic cat sleep habits compare to big cats?
It should come as no surprise that your domestic cat’s sleep habits mimic those of big cats in the wild. Most big cat species are known for doing the bulk of their hunting at night, preying on other animals that are active at that time. However, not all are crepuscular like their smaller, domesticated counterparts. Some species — like tigers — are considered generally nocturnal, while others — like pumas — are crepuscular.
The importance of cat naps
Your furry friend spends hours upon hours a day curled up around the house. But is your cat really sleeping during all that time laying down? Not necessarily.
“It seems like cats are napping all the time, but what they’re doing is actually resting in preparation for short bursts of very intense activity,” says Wilde.
When kitty is sleeping, he’s often doing so in short bursts in between waking moments. This is drastically different from humans, who typically sleep several hours straight. It’s also different from true nocturnal animals, who tend to snooze for longer sessions during the daytime.
So, next time you see your cat napping on the couch, they may just be resting to prepare for a night of adventure!
Tips for training your cat to sleep at night
Being awoken by your cat at night can quickly go from cute to overwhelming and annoying. While it is important accept your pet’s natural instincts (including their crepuscular schedule), you also don’t want to keep sacrificing your own sleep. So, is it possible to train a cat to sleep through the night?
You likely won’t be able to totally alter your cat’s behavior. However, you can take steps to prevent your pet from waking you up repeatedly. Wilde offers some tips to help calm your cat at night:
- Adopt a consistent schedule. Staying up late some nights and going to bed early at other times will only confuse your cat.
- Try to feed your cat at the same time every day. If kitty is crying for food during the night, remember that feeding her at that time is actually reinforcing the unwelcome behavior.
- Increase your cat’s daytime activity. If your pet isn’t getting sufficient exercise every day, they may be more likely to try to engage with you at night.
- Provide your cat with plenty of enrichment toys for when you can’t directly play with him—your cat should always have a way to engage his mind and burn some energy.
- Make sure your pet has plenty of cozy spots to curl up in, day or night. If kitty can’t get comfortable and/or isn’t getting the sleep she needs, she may be more likely to try interacting with you at unwelcome times.
Remember: there isn’t much you can do to change a cat’s natural instincts, but what you can try to model their behavior through positive reinforcement. Stay patient, and over time your feline friend is likely to adjust.
When to talk with your veterinarian
Concerned about your pet’s habits? Talk with your veterinarian about your cat’s sleep schedule and any unwelcome nocturnal behaviors — especially if anything has recently changed. Just as with humans, cats can experience insomnia or even take up excessive sleep if they are suffering from pain or certain health conditions.
Curious as a cat about feline snooze habits? Learn more about why cats sleep so much.