Are Cats Nocturnal?
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM July 20, 2019
It’s 3:30 in the morning and your cat is sprinting around your bed like a race car in the Indy 500. She has stepped on your face at least a dozen times, and you’re just hoping that she’ll tire out soon and return to bed. You didn’t feed her cake or coffee for dinner and there is nothing exciting planned for the day, so what reason could she possibly have to be awake so early? Could it be that your cat is nocturnal?
Are Cats Nocturnal?
Cats in the wild tend to be more nocturnal than our housecats, but housecats can also display some nocturnal behaviors. Domestic cats tend to be more crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk and sleep through the hottest part of the day and the coldest part of the night.
If only the answer were that simple. In fact, cats can follow different circadian rhythms depending on where and how they live and the schedule that those around them keep. Thankfully, for those of us that have more nocturnal cats, it is possible to change your cat’s schedule in order to have them sleep more at night. More on that later - let’s first look at the different types of schedules that animals keep.
Nocturnal, Diurnal, Or Crepuscular - What Is The Difference?
We can’t go about changing a cat’s sleeping schedule until we understand the reasons they do things when they do them. Let’s first define some terms that you’re going to see throughout the rest of this discussion.
Nocturnal means active or occurring at night. These critters, such as bats or owls, sleep during the day and wake up to feed at night. Animals that are nocturnal are so because their prey is also nocturnal.
The opposite of nocturnal, diurnal means active or occurring during the day. Humans are diurnal, except for those that work the nightshift. Other animals, such as songbirds and butterflies, are definitely more active during the daytime.
Crepuscular means active at twilight, so dawn or dusk. Animals that follow this rhythm are a little harder to define as some of them may still be active on a full moon night or during an overcast day. To further refine the term, there are even animals that are matutinal, which is only active before sunrise, and vespertine, or only active after sunset. Most deer and elk are crepuscular, as are bears and squirrels to name a few.
So now that we know exactly what categories we’re dealing with, which category do cats belong to? I think we can safely rule out diurnal as cats spend most of their daylight hours comfortably snoozing in a sunbeam. So that leaves nocturnal and crepuscular. The truth is our housecats sort of fit into both categories. It’s not their fault that they want to be up all night. It’s actually ingrained into them! Cats in the wild tend to be most active at night. This happens for a couple of reasons: first of all, being the avid hunters that they are, they need to be active when their prey is active. Since most mice and other rodents like to use the cover of darkness in order to forage for food, it makes sense that cats would need to adjust their schedule in order to be out when their prey is out. Secondly, in some climates, it can be downright miserable to be out in the hot sun during the middle of the day. So cats have taken to sleeping rather than being active in order to reduce their exposure to heat.
Even though cats ramp up their activity during the dark hours of the night, they aren’t awake continuously during this time. Cats in the wild may awaken when the sun starts to set, hunt for a couple of hours, and then sleep again. They might wake up just before sunrise and hunt some more, trying to follow the schedule of their prey. In some colder climates, hunting during the coldest part of the night might cost them more energy just trying to stay warm, so they may choose to sleep during those really chilly hours instead.
Our domestic cats still retain that internal clock that tells them when it’s time to be up or when it’s time to be sleeping. Domestic cats that live outdoors will typically follow the schedule of a cat in the wild more closely than an indoor cat. They may seek out those twilight hours for hunting to supplement their diet or to satisfy their hunting desires. Even though our indoor cats don’t need to hunt for food, they may still follow a more nocturnal or crepuscular schedule just because it’s what their ancestors did.
Let’s face it: cats are set up to handle being awake at night. Have you ever noticed how your cat’s eyes seem to glow in the dark? That is because they have an extra layer in the back of the eye, called the tapetum lucidum, that reflects light making it easier to see in the dark. Those tickly little whiskers also help them find their way in low light situations. Cats have a keen sense of hearing and smell to better seek out prey as well. What housecat wouldn’t want to use these amazing superpowers to make mischief at night?
However, indoor cats may be persuaded to adjust more to a human diurnal schedule, especially if they want to spend positive quality time with their humans. Notice the strategic use of the phrase 'positive quality time.' Cats that continuously wake their humans, either in the middle of the night or early in the morning, aren’t often given positive quality time. Those wee hours of the morning or middle of the night are spent behind closed bedroom doors. If an indoor kitty wants to make use of that comfy human bed, they had better learn to sleep longer at night and most of them can.
How To Get Your Cat To Sleep More At Night
If you’re struggling with loving your cat during those middle of the night or early morning wake ups, here are a few things for you to try:
- Feed a large dinner
Since cats in the wild wake up at night to feed, some indoor cats may think they need to eat when it’s dark as well. Stave off hunger by feeding your cat’s largest meal right before bedtime. That way they have a full, content tummy that will last them through the night hours. Also, resist feeding them in the middle of the night if they wake you. It may be a tempting way to distract them while you get back to sleep, but it will only have them coming back for more the next night.
- Ignore their nighttime activity
This is easier said than done, especially when it’s the third time tonight that you’ve had your cat ‘punch’ you in the nose. Giving them attention of any kind will only fuel their nighttime activity and keep them bugging you. Hopefully after a bit of ignoring, they will find something else to do.
- Other distractions
If your sleeping body is your cat’s only source of nighttime entertainment, then they are definitely not going to let you sleep. Try leaving the curtains open in a window that your cat can sit in to act as nature’s television and give them something to watch. You may also reserve some of their most exciting toys for nighttime to try to hold their attention elsewhere. Interactive toys (quiet ones of course) are also good ways to otherwise engage your cat during the nighttime hours.
- Play during the day
When your cat wakes you at night, they are simply looking for attention. Try to shift that interaction to the daytime by playing and cuddling with them before bed. Not only will this help to satisfy the emotional connection that they are looking for, it may also tire them out to sleep easier so that they can sleep easier at night.
- Make it two
Cats are social creatures, so if your single kitty can’t seem to leave you alone when he should be sleeping, then think about getting him a feline friend. As long as your two cats get along well, they’re more likely to want to play together rather than with you all night. They may also play together more during the day, leading to be more tired at night.
- Bedroom banishment
Since most cat parents’ dream is to drift off to sleep with their warm, soft kitty snuggled at the foot of their bed, this option might not be very popular. However, if you’ve tried everything else, think about setting up your cat’s nighttime headquarters somewhere well away from where you sleep. Laundry rooms or bathrooms are popular areas since they are typically small and easy to clean in case your kitty doesn’t appreciate their banishment. Cats might also find ways to make more noise or trouble if they’re not allowed to get to you.
- Don’t forget your vet
Any sudden change in your cat’s nighttime behavior is something to check out. If your kitty is suddenly very active at night, or vice versa, a medical reason such as hyperthyroidism, pain, or kidney disease may be to blame. Be sure to take your cat to your veterinarian for a check-up.
The question of whether or not a cat is nocturnal isn’t as easy to answer as one might think. They can operate along a sort of sliding scale from nocturnal to crepuscular, to even diurnal. Cats in the wild tend to be more nocturnal or crepuscular than our indoor cats, while outdoor domestic cats follow the schedule of their wild ancestors more closely. However, even if your cat chooses the nighttime to do their best work, there are some things you can do to convince them to switch up their schedule. Hopefully you and your cat can come to a happy compromise in which everyone gets their best sleep.