Are Cats Nocturnal?

Janelle Leeson
By Janelle Leeson. Reviewed by Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP on Feb. 7, 2024
 cat with closed eyes sleeping in front of owner on bed

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Are Cats Nocturnal?

It might seem like your cat has a secret agenda to keep you up at night, but did you know it’s actually not in a cat’s nature to sleep all day and run around all night?

“One of the biggest misconceptions about cats is in the idea that they are nocturnal, meaning most active after dark,” says Stephen Quandt, a cat behavioral specialist and founder of Stephen Quandt Feline Behavior Associates, LLC

Quandt explains why your cat might be acting like a night owl, plus tips to help them (and you!) snooze through the night.

Are Cats Nocturnal?

Cats aren't nocturnal (most active at night), but they aren't diurnal (most active during the day, like humans) either.

So, when exactly are cats the most active? Dawn and dusk, which makes cats crepuscular.

Why Are Cats Crepuscular?

Cats are crepuscular because they have evolved to hunt at dusk and dawn. “Birds and mice are very active at dawn, and cats evolved to take advantage of this by developing the ability to see in low-light conditions,” explains Quandt. Twilight hours also protect cats from large prey who hunt during the day and night.

Although, like the chicken and the egg, it’s unclear whether cats developed their crepuscular nature or the ability to see in low-light conditions first. “I suspect that both developed at the same time,” explains Dr. Paul Miller, a veterinary ophthalmologist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

Why Do We Assume Cats Are Nocturnal?

If you find yourself perplexed (and perhaps frustrated) by your cat's nighttime antics, you're not alone. Studies indicate that cat parents often get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep, a challenge that dog parents don't seem to share.

So, what's causing sleepless nights for cat parents, and why do we assume our cats are nocturnal? According to another survey, 45.3% of cat parents report their cats being excessively chatty, with vocalizations extending into the nighttime hours. Unsurprisingly, over half of these pet parents admitted to being bothered by their cats' one-sided conversations.

Of course, zoomies are a common behavior for both cats and dogs, with cats being infamous for their “midnight zoomies.” But even if your cat isn't zooming around your house at midnight, it's easy to assume they've been up all night when they wake you up at the crack of dawn.

What To Do If Your Cat is Keeping You up at Night

If your cat’s excessive meowing, yowling, or caterwauling is causing you to lose sleep, start with a visit to your veterinarian. Reasons why cats vocalize at night may include:

When your cat is keeping you up at night and it’s not accompanied by other changes in behaviors or symptoms like appetite changes, excessive grooming, or a change in litter box habits, adjusting your cat’s daytime schedule and activities might do the trick.

Adjust When and How Your Cat Eats

Cats in the wild eat as many as 15 small meals a day. “Living with humans, cats might only eat every eight to 12 hours,” says Quandt. “No wonder some of them get up at night—they’re hungry!”

Rather than feeding your cat larger meals, which might cause them to gain weight, Quandt says to aim for more frequent but smaller meals throughout the day. One of those meals should be just before bedtime after a play session.

If you’re not home all day to cater to a cat’s feeding schedule, consider setting up an automatic feeder.

Additionally, swapping a readily available meal in a bowl for a puzzle feeder can mentally and physically challenge your cat, promoting a better night’s rest. 

Play with Your Cat Before Bedtime–Followed by a Meal

Catching a meal is hard work, requiring small bursts of energy for the hunt, followed by a rewarding meal and well-deserved cat nap that replenishes a cat’s energy for the next hunt. This is called the predatory cycle, and most indoor cats often only experience a portion of the natural rhythm (eat, sleep, and repeat).

Instead, strive to give your cat the full cycle of predation, replacing the “hunt” with vigorous play. Quandt suggests that if this is only possible for one meal of the day, make it about an hour before bedtime.

Don’t Let Your Cat Sleep All Day

Cats sleep between 12 and 16 hours a day, taking short cat naps between periods of activities, in what’s known as a polyphasic sleep schedule.

However, cats can also adapt to human sleep cycles. The key to aligning your cat's schedule with yours is keeping cat naps short while providing adequate stimulation between naps.

"Wake your cat up and play with them frequently every day for a week to encourage them to reset their sleep cycle to match yours," says Quandt. Playing with your cat for four 10-minute interactive play sessions per day is a healthy goal.

Keep Your Cat Out of the Bedroom

This won’t work for all cats, since some might resort to meowing outside the bedroom door. For the best chances of success, Quandt suggests enticing your cat to sleep in another room by providing:

Ignore Your Cat

Tough love can work, but it's not easy. “You have to totally ignore the behavior and never give in,” explains Quandt. “If you give in even once, you have reset your cat’s expectations and now they will work even longer to get that reward.”

He also warns that your cat’s disruptive behaviors are likely to get worse before they get better.

Remember, if the behavior is new or accompanied by other symptoms, never ignore your cat's plea for help. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian before dismissing any new behaviors as "problem behaviors."

Featured Image: Pyrosky/E+ via Getty Images Plus

Janelle Leeson


Janelle Leeson

Freelance Writer

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