So we’ve probably all used the term ‘catnap’ to describe a short stretch of sleep we take during the day. Perhaps because cats are perceived as lazy? Well, anyone who lives with a cat knows that this is hardly the truth! While cats do sleep quite a bit, they are also full of energy and constantly entertain us with their playful antics or exploration of their environment.
Part of the way cats fuel that energy and keep themselves physically and mentally healthy is by sleeping in a very unique way. One of the most distinguishing things about how cats sleep is how darn quickly they manage to fall asleep! They can do this because they are drifting in and out of lighter ‘slow-wave’ sleep.
This article will explain how cats fall asleep so fast and why they sleep as much as they do.
How Do Cats Fall Asleep So Quickly?
Of the many awesome things to appreciate about cats, their ability to fall asleep very quickly often surprises their humans. One minute, they’re active and alert—chasing a favorite toy around the kitchen or rough-housing with other pets in the house. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, their eyes begin to droop and they start kneading their favorite pillow or blanket. Soon they begin breathing more deeply, or even snoring a bit, before settling down to sleep.
Mainly, cats fall asleep so quickly because they spend a large chunk of their day (12–18 hours for most cats) drifting in and out of light stages of sleep. This kind of extended sleep cycle is called a polyphasic sleep cycle.
During non-REM sleep, cats experience what is known as “slow-wave sleep,” which is characterized by slow, synchronized brain waves. This type of sleep is important for physical restoration and growth, and it is also thought to be important for memory consolidation and learning. In the slow-wave sleep stage, cats spend roughly 15–30 minutes dozing. During this time, a cat enjoys some shut-eye while sitting upright with its paws tucked in, a position jovially known as the ‘loaf position’.
Cats go into slow-wave sleep quickly and easily. If you watch a cat in this stage, you’ll notice that they’re keeping their head up, and their ears are often shifting about picking up sounds and noises. They’re getting the benefits of rest while staying very aware of their environment.
Rapid Eye Movement Sleep
In contrast, during REM sleep, cats experience rapid eye movements, muscle paralysis, and a more active brain. Rapid eye movement in both cats and humans indicates brain activity, particularly dreaming.1 This type of sleep is thought to be important for emotional regulation and processing, as well as to improve cognitive function. You might notice your cat’s muscles and paws twitching during this phase; this is because their brain is almost as active as when they’re awake.
In the non-REM stage (NREM) of sleep, cats are unlikely to move much and are tuned out to what is going on in the world around them. This is the deepest form of sleep and is crucial for maintaining a cat’s health. During NREM sleep, cats rebuild and repair their bodies.
Cats in NREM will tuck themselves away to sleep, as they are at their most vulnerable and their instincts tell them to self-protect in this time. If you find your cat under your bed, in a closet, burrowed under blankets, or in whatever they consider their safest and coziest space, they are likely in NREM sleep. Kittens need more non-REM rest than adult cats as they build, strengthen, and revitalize their immune systems during this time.
Instinct and Wild Biology
Finally, cats’ brains are naturally wired to be able to fall asleep quickly. Their wild ancestors needed to be able to rest quickly so that they would be ready to respond to any threats, predators, or opportunities for food. This instinct has been passed down through generations, allowing cats to still fall asleep quickly even as domesticated animals.
Why Do Cats Sleep So Much?
Cats are known for their ability to conserve energy and sleeping is one way they do this. By sleeping frequently throughout the day, rather than in one deeper (but shorter) session, they are able to conserve their energy for when they need it. Domestic cats share this aspect of their nature with their wild ancestors.
Cats are crepuscular animals, which means that they are most active during the dawn (between 5am–8am) and dusk (between 6pm–9pm) hours. They have a natural drive to hunt during these times, as their prey is also out looking for food during these hours.
A cat’s predators may also be out and about, so it is important that cats have enough energy to keep themselves safe. Cats are also known to be active during other times of the day and night, particularly if they are stimulated or if their owner has established a feeding schedule that requires them to be active at certain times.
In warmer parts of the world and throughout the hot summer months, cats sleep more often to conserve energy and keep their body temperatures cool. When the sun is blazing down, cats can sleep for up to eight hours at a time.
If a cat expends too much energy when it’s hot, heat-related illnesses can develop. These can escalate quickly and even cause death if left untreated. Keep an eye out for these symptoms of heat-related illness:
- Excessive sweating
- Redness of the tongue and mouth
- Stumbling or dizziness
Anyone who lives with a cat may wonder how they can possibly need to sleep as much as they do. Among the many unique aspects of their feline nature is a long, polyphasic sleep cycle that has developed into a process allowing cats to stay healthy and safe.
Cats appear to fall asleep very quickly, but are actually spending time in a somewhat wakeful stage of sleep that prepares them for deeper sleep later on. All their stages of sleep work together to keep your kitty in good spirits and good health.
Featured Image Credit: Alena Ozerova, Shutterstock