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Are House Cats Nocturnal?

If your cat has been keeping you awake with their night-time antics, you might be wondering if cats are truly a nocturnal species. Another reason to wonder this is the sheer amount of time that most cats spend snoozing during the day!

The short answer is that cats can display nocturnal behavior, but a more accurate definition for most cats is that they’re crepuscular. That means they’re mainly active at dawn and dusk. As is the case for many behaviors that we see in our feline friends, it’s not a black-and-white situation.

Some cats may alter their behavior to better fit in with the schedules of their human friends. That means they may spend more time being active during the day and then sleep more at night. Let’s find out more about exactly why our feline friends love to play in the evenings and into the night.

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Nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal?

Before we dive into the details about your cat’s behavior, let’s take a quick look at the terminology. There are three main terms that can be used to describe the times of day that your cat is most active.

  • Nocturnal: Most active at night
  • Diurnal: Most active during the day
  • Crepuscular: Most active at dawn and dusk

The majority of house cats will tend to display behavior that’s more accurately described as crepuscular, rather than nocturnal. For these animals, their most active periods coincide with sunrise and sunset.

cat at dusk
Image Credit: mohamed_hassan, Pixabay

 Why are house cats more active at night, dawn, and dusk?

As sweet and cuddly as our house cats sometimes seem, there’s no denying that they’re descended from wild animals. It’s thought that the African Wildcat, or Felis silvestris lybica, was the first domesticated feline. All cat breeds can trace their ancestry back to those original cats.

House cats still retain their hunting instincts from their wild ancestors, and this in turn, also influences the times of day that they’re most active. Many species that cats would naturally predate, like rodents, feed from dusk until dawn. Dusk and dawn are prime times for small prey animals to make the most of the safety that low-light conditions offer them in terms of not being seen while also having enough light so they can still see.

Therefore, it makes sense that many house cats’ natural rhythms coincide with when their prey is likely to be most active. Even if your cat doesn’t need to hunt their food anymore, those ingrained habits haven’t gone anywhere.

A cat’s anatomy is far better adapted to night-time activities too. Consider how well adapted a cat’s eyes are to seeing in low-light conditions than our human eyes, meaning they can see far better than us in low-light conditions. They can find their way around with ease, while we stumble into things.

Cats also possess incredible hearing, helping them locate their prey from the smallest sound. Their whiskers are extremely sensitive, so they can navigate their way around obstacles.

Do cats sleep at night?

Yes! You might have noticed that your cat sleeps frequently during the day, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it means they’re super active at night. But that’s not necessarily the case. Cats sleep more than many other animals, and on average, they will sleep for roughly 15 hours per day. Some cats will even sleep for 20 hours out of every 24.

The reason that they sleep so much is another evolutionary throwback. In the wild, cats evolved to sleep frequently in order to conserve energy when they weren’t hunting.

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Image Credit: Mammiya, Pixabay

Once they woke up, they had the energy to stalk, chase, and kill their prey. Your domestic house cat might not need to hunt for their dinner every night, but they still have the instinct to conserve their energy and sleep a large part of the day away.

The typical cat sleep cycle lasts for 15-30 minutes, which is where our term for a short sleep, a “cat nap,” comes from. Your cat might look like they’re fast asleep, but in fact, they’re often just dozing. If they hear a noise, they’ll be fully awake in no time.

Cats tend to have a natural rhythm that goes something like this:

  • Hunt
  • Catch
  • Kill
  • Eat
  • Groom
  • Sleep

Your cat may sleep more during the day and spend more time playing at night, which fulfills the “hunt, catch, kill” part of their rhythm. There are ways that you can encourage your cat to follow more of a diurnal or crepuscular routine, though.

Tips for managing your cat’s behavior

If your cat’s night-time activities are keeping you awake, the good news is that there are a few different ways that you can keep them happy while also getting a good night’s sleep yourself!

Take the time to play with your cat as part of your evening routine. The idea is that you line up the “sleep” part of their rhythm with your bedtime. Make sure your cat has toys and food to keep themselves occupied if they do wake in the night.

cat hiding
Image Credit: PollyDot, Pixabay

You can invest in an automatic feeder or leave a treasure hunt of kibble for them to find. It’s also a good idea to take away a few toys that you know that your cat loves and only put them out when you go to bed.

If possible, keep your bedroom door shut; otherwise, your cat will come in and wake you up if they want to play.

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Wrapping it up

While some house cats may display true nocturnal behavior, most cats will be more active at dawn and dusk than in the middle of the night. This means we can more accurately describe them as crepuscular.

Of course, cat owners know that it’s never as simple as that, so some cats will even display diurnal behavior and be more active during daylight hours. That’s a response to living with humans and gradually adapting their natural rhythms to be more in line with those of their owners. After all, that means they’re more likely to get fed when they want to!


Featured Image: mariavp, Pixabay