Are Cats Nocturnal?

Are cats nocturnal? Owners may have noticed their cats tend to be less active during the day, however this doesn't mean they only come alive at night.

Cats are actually not nocturnal but rather crepuscular, which means they are active around dawn and dusk.

Speaking to Newsweek, veterinarian Dr. Michelle Meyer, president-elect of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), said many often consider cats to be nocturnal and many cat behaviors make them appear that way.

She said: "Many cats will often wake their humans up from a deep sleep at least once per night, which makes many question if cats are nocturnal creatures.

But cats are "actually considered to be crepuscular, which means their peak hours of activity occur at dawn and dusk," Meyer explained.

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) explains that dawn and dusk are the cooler periods of the day and "the half-light helps animals avoid predators while still being able to see food."

A kitten inside a cardboard box.
A kitten hiding inside a cardboard box. Feral cats, domesticated cats who are fearful of humans, are known to be nocturnal. sebastianosecondi/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Some Cats Are Nocturnal

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for The International Cat Association (TICA) said that while household cats are crepuscular, feral cats are "known to be pure nocturnal."

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) explains feral cats are domesticated cats who are fearful of humans because "they have been fending for themselves from a young age" and never learned to socialize and trust people.

The TICA spokesperson said: "Feral cats roaming around the neighborhood in the dead of night give people the notion that felines are generally nocturnal animals."

Meyer told Newsweek some cats may be active at night, especially when they are kittens. She said health exceptions can also prevent cats from behaving "in their normal ways" and not every cat does what they "should" do.

The TICA spokesperson highlighted that although cats are creatures of habit, they can efficiently adapt their behavior for the sake of survival because animals have the ability to adapt themselves to certain conditions in which food is acquired.

The spokesperson added: "Much has changed since domestication. Most cats are now raised in an environment where they don't hunt for their food.

"Instead, they try to live harmoniously with their owners by adapting to human's circadian rhythm. There's no definite answer when it comes to a cat's behavior," the spokesperson told Newsweek.

A cat seen on grass at night.
A Maine Coon cat pictured on grass at night. Feral cats are fearful of humans "because they have been fending for themselves from a young age," says PETA. Автор/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Why Are Cats More Active at Twilight?

AAFP experts explained that cats are naturally "wired" to be more active at twilight hours.

Veterinarian Dr. Cathy Lund from the AAFP told Newsweek that cats retained many of the biological traits of their wild ancestors, which sees them "awake and hunting at the most opportune times."

"Carnivores are hard-wired to sleep much more than prey species, and cats are unique in their ability to move from deep sleep to wakefulness without any of that grogginess so familiar to us humans. In fact, cats are so adept at falling asleep that they were used as models of REM sleep in early sleep research studies," Lund said.

Meyer told Newsweek cats are "biologically wired" like that of a predator, meaning they like to chase and hunt in the later hours and nap during the day in order to rest up for "frantic activity later on."

This means during twilight hours cats are often pouncing on things (be it humans or other pets) and have bursts of energy/play sessions across furniture or their humans (which is more common in young kittens). They often nibble on their owners' ears or toes in bed, walk across them while they're sleeping and vocalize while wandering through the house, which is especially true for senior cats, Meyer explained.

She said the typical behavior pattern of crepuscular animals is marked by "brief periods of energy bursts tempered by extended periods of rest."

This allows for "optimal balance when hunting for prey," meaning just enough light for the predator to see their prey but not enough light to be seen by the prey, according to Meyer.

Speaking to Newsweek, Teresa Keiger, a licensed allbreed judge at the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA), which is described as the largest registry of pedigreed cats, said "developed a lining at the back of the eye (the tapetum lucidum) which increases the amount of light entering the cat's eye by reflecting it around (think of it as the original night vision goggles) which allows them to successfully hunt in lowered light situations."

The TICA spokesperson told Newsweek that cat eyes are "efficiently adjustable" for both high and low levels of light.

While cats do not have night vision and their eyes cannot function in complete darkness, "their eyes contain eight times more rod cells than human eyes." This means cats can see eight times better in the dark than humans can, the spokesperson said.

Another factor that shaped the crepuscular nature of cats was that their prey also tends to be active at twilight.

Speaking to Newsweek, Dr. Sarah Ellis, head of cat advocacy at International Cat Care, a U.K.-based charity, said cats are most active at dawn and dusk because these are "periods when their prey are also active."

She explained as "cats' eyes are adapted to work really well in low light conditions," this allows them to "hunt effectively when their prey are most active."

Keiger noted: "Think about what a cat in the wild eats. Birds, rabbits, etc—which are all are most active at sunrise and sunset. So that behavior is hard-wired into a cat's physiology."

A cat pictured at sunset.
A cat pictured at sunset. Cats are active during twilight hours, such as at sunset and sunrise. Daria Kulkova/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A Cat's Nightly Routine

The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) explains despite there being no need to hunt for food, hunting behavior at twilight hours is still engrained in domesticated cats.

Veterinarian Dr. Kira Ramdas, the board director of the AAFP, told Newsweek, during the early morning hours when cats are most active, "they may attack your feet, which is a normal predatory hunting behavior that is instinctual for cats.

"If your cat does go outside, nighttime is when they might engage in active hunting behavior. Fighting occurs more often at night because cats are more active and competition for food or mates may arise," Ramdas explained.

Cats who remain indoors will sleep for a good part of the night, often with their owners, and may also groom themselves at night, Ramdas said.

Keiger told Newsweek cats usually wake up from their late afternoon nap at around sunrise and sunset and start to become more active. They'll stalk the food bowl, investigate things around the house and engage in hunting and playing activities.

"They may still be somewhat active late at night, but usually, they follow their owners' sleep patterns and curl up for the evening until daylight comes again," according to Keiger.

A cat chasing a butterfly.
A cat attempting to catch a butterfly flying over a meadow on a sunny day. Cats are more active at sunset and sunrise. Nataba/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Why Do Cats Sleep a Lot?

Cats sleep around 16 hours a day, while some older cats can snooze for up to 20 hours a day, the TICA spokesperson told Newsweek.

Similar to their crepuscular nature, cats' extensive sleep periods can also be traced back to their beginnings, Keiger told Newsweek. "Their bodies are remarkable energy conservation machines and unless there's a good reason to be up and about during the day, they're not going to expend the energy.

"So unless there's a reason to be awake, they'll be out until it begins to get dim outside," she said.

AAFP board director Ramdas said cats will nap when it is "more beneficial for them to rest," meaning when there is no prey or human attention. They are more prone to napping after meals.

The AAFP's Lund told Newsweek: "There is always some individual variation in sleep patterns, but cats typically follow the crepuscular cycle. Older cats tend to sleep more, so they may not be as active during those transitional times, but younger cats, especially kittens, can literally seem to be up all night."

Can Cats Be Trained to Sleep at Night?

Ramdas told Newsweek cats can "absolutely" be trained to sleep in the evening by playing with them during the day to keep them awake. They can also be fed larger meals (such as canned food with water added to increase feelings of fullness) at dusk or in the evening to encourage sleepiness during the night, the AAFP board director advised.

International Cat Care's Ellis also advised feeding cats in small amounts and often, including through the night using timed feeders, can help encourage them to sleep.

Ellis told Newsweek in reality most household cats do not have outdoor access. For those that do have it, the access is often controlled by their owners. So in many cases the cats are kept indoors at night.

Therefore, Ellis explained: "Some cats can adapt their sleep cycles to that of their owners, being more active when their owners are up and about and feeding them, playing with them and sleeping when their owners sleep.

"However, not all manage this successfully and ensuring they have activities available overnight to entertain them can help keep the home harmonious," she said.

Ramdas advised, if possible, leave your window blinds open so your cat can "watch the dawn happenings outside for entertainment."

The AAFP's Lund said playing with your cats before you go to bed helps tire them out and encourage them to sleep through the night. But she warned "it is always important to not engage your cat if he or she disrupts your sleep by soliciting attention. That is a sure formula for encouraging your cat to continue asking for attention."

Ramdas said many cat owners find that their cat goes to sleep with them yet wakes them up hours before the owners are ready to get up, often around 4 a.m.

"No attention is better than negative attention in avoiding reinforcing this unattractive behavior," Ramdas said. Those who are unable to do this should try closing their bedroom door at night or reallocate the cat to another part of the house where vocalizations can be ignored, the AAFP board director told Newsweek.

Meyer said it is important to keep in mind that nighttime activity is very natural behavior for cats, so punishment should be avoided.

A kitten sleeping on a blanket.
A kitten sleeping on a fluffy white blanket. Cats sleep around 16 hours a day, according to The International Cat Association. gurinaleksandr/iStock/Getty Images Plus