Are Cats Nocturnal?
And can they please not be?
Your cat seems to love to do everything at night besides sleeping — and he takes his naps very seriously during the day — so you might assume that your cat’s nocturnal.
Cats do have a reason for being up at weird hours of the night and early morning, but they’re not technically nocturnal.
The Dodo spoke to Dr. Sabrina Kong, a veterinarian at Lathrop Veterinary Center and veterinary writer, and Dr. Jonathan Roberts, a remote veterinarian with Excited Cats, to find out why your cat’s always awake at night.
Are cats nocturnal animals?
Nocturnal animals, such as owls and raccoons, sleep during the day and are awake at night. While cats are often active at night, they aren’t classified as nocturnal. Cats are actually crepuscular animals.
“Believe it or not, cats are not actually nocturnal,” Dr. Roberts told The Dodo. “They are crepuscular. Crepuscular is a biological category that describes animals whose peak activity hours are at dusk and dawn (also called the twilight hours).”
Cats also don’t sleep all day, making them different from nocturnal animals.
“They might be more active during the dark parts of the day, but they’re not wired to sleep throughout the whole day like most nocturnal animals are,” Dr. Kong told The Dodo.
Why are cats active at night?
The reason why cats are more active when it’s dark out is because of their ancestors. Wild cats would hunt during periods of low light to stay cool in their desert environment, and eventually passed this trait down to the domesticated cats we know today.
“These habits of activity during twilight developed in the domestic cat’s wild cousin that lived in semi-desert-type environments,” Dr. Roberts said. “This adaptation allowed them to hunt in the cool of the day with just enough light to visualize, stalk and catch their prey.”
Hunting at dusk and dawn also gave cats a long time to relax and conserve energy in between their hunting sessions.
“The long hours between these times allowed them to rest and recuperate before the next hunt,” Dr. Roberts said.
The low light of the twilight hours also helped wild cats stay away from predators who were more active during the light of day and darkness of night, too.
“Hunting at dusk and dawn gives cats an advantage because they’re less likely to be seen by predators,” Dr. Kong said.
How much do cats sleep?
Cats sleep a ton, and they sleep a lot during the day, which can make them seem nocturnal.
“Cats sleep 15 to 20 hours a day and mostly during the day,” Dr. Kong said.
If you have a cat, though, you’ve probably noticed that your cat doesn’t sleep for 20 straight hours. That’s where the term “catnap” comes from. Cats will typically sleep in short periods of 15 to 30 minutes throughout the day.
But while you might be jealous that cats get to sleep so much, they’re not getting a deep sleep for that whole time. They stay somewhat alert while sleeping so they can be aware of any nearby predators.
“This isn’t the ‘hard sleep’ we might be thinking of,” Dr. Kong said. “Instead, the majority of the time, they’re in a ‘snoozing’ state.”
Cats do have periods of deep sleep, too, but it’s just not as often as their light sleep.
“Cats spend around 75 percent of their sleeping hours in light sleep, while only around 25 percent is devoted to deep sleep,” Dr. Roberts said.
Can cats see in the dark?
Cats can’t see in the pitch-black dark, but they can see well in low light, which is why they’re able to hunt at dusk and dawn.
Cats have more rods in their eyes than humans, which allows them to see well in low light. Rods are the receptors that help with seeing in the dark.
“If there is some light in the room or coming to the room, they’ll be able to see much more than we can, since their eyes have more rods than us that are sensitive to the light, as well the ‘mirror’ layer in the eye that helps in catching more light,” Dr. Kong said.
Cats also have a layer in their eyes called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back through the retina to make more light available. This allows cats to be able to see better in low-light situations. Dogs have this, too, and this is why cats’ and dogs’ eyes will sometimes look like they’re glowing in the dark.
Cats’ pupils can also dilate to large circles in the dark to let more light into their eyes.
“Their pupils have the ability to dilate widely, allowing more light to hit their retinas, giving them great vision in low light,” Dr. Roberts said. “Cats also have slit-shaped pupils, which are common in ambush predators. This pupil shape allows them to sharply gauge distance before leaping for prey.”
How to stop your cat from waking you up at night
While cats aren’t technically nocturnal, their nighttime activities still often wake up their owners. Here are some ways to stop your cat from waking you up all the time.
Get your cat on your schedule
Tire your cat out with exercise, and feed him dinner before you go to bed.
“Retrain their internal clock by having an interactive play session an hour before you plan on going to bed,” Dr. Roberts said. “Follow this up with a meal, and your cat will naturally want to rest.”
Feeding your cat right before you go to bed will help make him drowsy, and it will make him associate dinner with bedtime.
Provide stimulation for your cat during the day
Make sure your cat has interactive toys to play with while you’re gone during the day so he doesn’t have tons of energy to burn at night.
Ignore your cat
Ignore your cat if he wakes you up. Giving him attention will show him that waking you up is effective in getting what he wants, like food or playtime.
“If your cat wakes you up in the middle of the night, just ignore them,” Dr. Roberts said. “By feeding them, stroking them or even pushing them off the bed, this behavior becomes reinforced and will worsen with time.”
Keep your cat out of your bedroom
Give your cat his own sleeping area, and keep him in a different room while you’re sleeping so he can’t jump on your bed or wake you up by making noises in your room at night.
“Set up a comfy bed with food, water and a litter tray in another room in the house,” Dr. Roberts said.
And don’t get angry at your cat if he wakes you up. It can be annoying, but he’s not doing it to annoy you. It’s just his instincts!
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