Myth: Cats are nocturnal.
Fact: Cats are actually crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and dawn. Most indoor cats follow a very specific trend of dawn and dusk activity, rather than strictly at night. Crepuscular behavior is also one of the reasons why cats wake us up every morning at the Same. Darn. Time.
Crepuscular animals are species that are active primarily during twilight (at dawn and dusk).
The word crepuscular is derived from the Latin crepusculum, meaning “twilight”. It differs from diurnal and nocturnal behavior, which respectively peak during hours of daylight and darkness. Crepuscular animals may also be active on a bright moonlit night or on a dull day. The use of the terms often is vague; for example, some animals that are casually described as nocturnal are in fact crepuscular.
I hesitate to state that every house cat is crepuscular. However, most indoor cats fall under the crepuscular category. Cats have adapted to domestication so that each individual, whether a stray alley cat or pampered house cat, can change their activity level at will, choosing to become less nocturnal or more diurnal in response to their environment or the routine of their humans. Some people live with felines that hide away all day in their secretive, quiet spots in the house while the humans or other animals are awake and moving about. If this is the case, chances are, Secretive Kitties will creep out at night when the coast is clear. One of my feline companions, Samantha, loved to explore the house when the people and the annoying kitty boys were asleep. She would wait until the house was “sleeping”, then romp around, playing with toys and jumping about when she thought no one was watching. She loved to explore every nook and cranny of the house when she knew it was safe. The prime real-estate window that was claimed during the day became her throne at night. Samantha and the kitty boys are much like the average cat that sleeps between 12 and 20 hours every day. While this varies from cat to cat, most of a cat’s sleep takes place during the daytime. This daytime hiding and sleeping behavior tends to make humans believe that cats are nocturnal. If we rarely see them during the day and then see them come out at night when they are most comfortable, we assume they are nocturnal. However, true nocturnal animals hunt, forage, eat, bathe, etc. at night.
Nocturnality is an animal behavior characterized by activity during the night and sleeping during the day. The common adjective is “nocturnal”. Nocturnal animals are more active at night than during the day. These animals sleep during the day, often in a burrow or den. Many animals, like desert animals, are nocturnal in order to escape extreme daytime heat.
Younger cats tend to stay up at night, because they instinctively know that this is their prime hunting time. This behavior stems from their lineage as desert cats, where nighttime temperatures were cooler and ripe with prey pickings! Outdoor cats tend to display more nocturnal behaviors, due to their natural hunting instinct. Scientists believe that this is when their prey is most active; therefore hunting is best at this time. As cats get older, they will adapt to the sleeping patterns of their home. Eventually they become much more crepuscular. Our two older cats sleep most of the day, are very active early in the morning (dawn), very active at dusk, but sleep again when the rest of the humans (and dog) are asleep at night. Our youngest cat stays up later than the older boys, but he does eventually come to bed after he is done exploring the quiet house.
Cats’ night time vision is far superior to that of humans, however they can’t see in total darkness. The structure of a cat ’s eye allows them to see well in low light. Cats only need 1/6 of the light humans do in order to decipher shapes. The muscles of the cat’s iris surrounding the pupils are constructed to allow the eye to narrow to a vertical slit in bright light and to open fully in very dim light, to allow maximum illumination. These special feline features developed for survival purposes, as wild cats are nocturnal and do much of their hunting at night.
A reflective layer behind the cat’s retina called the tapetum lucidum reflects incoming light and bounces it back off the cones, making more use of the existing light. The tapetum is what we see in action when light hits a cat’s eyes at night, you see shiny green orbs.
Does your feline companion fit in the crepuscular category, or do they hideaway during the day and release their inner wildcat at night?