Skip to main content

Some people say cats are naturally nocturnal animals (most active at night), others that they are crepuscular (most active at dawn or dusk). In either case housecats have a tendency to be awake when their owners are not, which can lead to conflict.

Have you ever been woken up by a frisky kitty who wants to play at 4 a.m.? I have, and it has made me wonder why our ancestors ever thought domesticating cats was a good idea. Mercifully, most cats eventually learn to let sleeping owners lie. The results of a new study show the important effect that different housing conditions can have on a cat’s circadian rhythms.

Ten cats were divided into two equal groups. Group A cats lived in small houses with their owners and could access small yards for an hour in the morning. Group B cats lived in larger houses with their owners, could access large yards throughout the day, and were kept outside from 9 pm to 8 am. Not too surprisingly, Group A cats developed patterns of activity and rest that more closely mirrored those of their owners while Group B cats were most active at night.

So, as tempting as it may be to kick a cat outside when it is keeping you awake, the temporary reprieve will come at the cost of reinforcing the cat’s nocturnal behavior (to say nothing of the danger faced by the cat). When forced to live in close contact with diurnal (most active during the day) humans, most cats adjust their daily rhythms accordingly.

Here are a few tips to help you hasten the process along:

  • Ignore your cat’s nighttime activities. Yelling or throwing your slipper at her will inadvertently reinforce her behavior. From a cat’s point of view, any attention is better than no attention. If necessary, confine your cat to a part of your home where ignoring her pleas for attention is possible.
  • Feed your cat her largest meal right before bedtime to keep hunger at bay.
  • Increase your cat’s daytime activity level. Play with her as often as you can. Daytime exercise will make your cat more tired at night, and disrupts those long naps for which cats are famous.

Big changes in activity levels shouldn’t be written off as cats being cats, however. Many diseases are associated with a decrease in activity, but some (e.g., hyperthyroidism) can actually cause cats to become more active than normal. Pain or cardiovascular or respiratory disease can also make it hard for cats to sleep through the night, which might explain why a cat that previously let her owner sleep now will not.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Daily rhythm of total activity pattern in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) maintained in two different housing conditions. G Piccione, S Marafioti, C Giannetto, M Panzera, F Fazio. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Published online 7 January 2013.

Image: night_cat / via Shutterstock

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?