Myth: Cats are nocturnal.
Fact: The domestic house cat (Felis silvestris catus) is 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). They tend to sleep at night and lay low during midday, when the sun is at its peak, reserving their energy when it’s hottest. The word crepuscular is derived from the Latin crepusculum, meaning “twilight”. Crepuscular behavior differs from diurnal and nocturnal behavior, which respectively peak during hours of daylight and darkness. However, crepuscular critters can also be active on a bright moonlit night, or on an overcast day. Some animals that are casually described as nocturnal are actually crepuscular. There are subdivisions of crepuscular animals. Matutinal animals are most active in the morning, while vespertine animals are most active at dusk.
I hesitate to state that every house cat is crepuscular, but most indoor cats do fall under the crepuscular category. However, it’s important to note that companion cats have adapted to our schedules so that each individual cat, 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.
The time of day when cats are most active may not be all hard-wired genetically, but may vary according to their lifestyle, which is greatly influenced by the human in their house. This was revealed in a scientific study. The results showed that there was a “high influence of human presence, and human care on the amount of activity in cats”. This means that many companion cats will adapt their activity levels according to how they are cared for by their person, and the routines that the person has in their home. It seems that many house cats are more “in sync” with their people than previously believed!
Feral cats’ daily activity patterns—sleeping during the day and being active at night, which likely reflects the behavior of their prey, lets them better avoid humans—was very different from kitties with homes. Those animals were most active in the morning and evening, when their owners were likely home and awake. ~ The Secret Lives of Feral Cats
Fast Feline Fact: Most cats will sleep up to 16 hours a day, and older cats will sleep as much as 20 hours a day! These sleeping times vary in individual cats and in each home, but most sleep is during the daytime. When cats are most active is dependent on the home environment and how in sync they are with the sun, or their human’s schedule.
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, then chances are your 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, but they had very different schedules that fit their feline needs. 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.
Older Cats and Outdoor Cats
Outdoor cats tend to display more nocturnal behaviors, due to their natural hunting instinct and their ability to follow through on this powerful innate need to hunt, capture, and kill prey. Scientists believe that nighttime is when cats’ prey is most active outdoors. Therefore hunting is best at this time. This behavior stems from their lineage as desert cats, where nighttime temperatures were cooler, and prey was more available.
Younger cats tend to stay up at night, because they instinctively know that this is “prime hunting time”. But as cats grow older, they will adapt to the sleeping patterns of their home environment. Eventually these cats will become more crepuscular. I have seen this happen with our two older male cats. They 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.
Fun Feline Facts:
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.
Felis silvestris catus Sundials
Cats are such great examples of sundials. They naturally define their life by the sun. Most cats who are in sync with the sun’s movement will be active at dawn and dusk. This is because it’s part of their natural feline biology. It’s instinctive! I encourage you to be a Conscious Companion and start to observe how your cat moves with the sun around the house throughout the day. See if your cat is more in sync with your human schedule, or with the sun’s movement.
Does your feline fit in the crepuscular category, or do they hideaway during the day and release their inner wildcat at night? Please share in the comment section below!