Pet Science

Why Is My Cat Awake At Night? A Veterinarian Reveals the Answer to Nighttime Antics

Adapt to your cat’s behavior, not the other way around.

Black cat dark portrait
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Pet Science

Cats have strange habits. Among the most bizarre, to us humans at least, is their sleep schedules. They seem to laze around all day just to wake us up at 5 a.m. for some playtime. This begs the question: Are cats nocturnal?

Though they seem keen on keeping us busy when we’re asleep, they’re not the creatures of the night we think they are. Understanding the reality of your kitty’s sleep-wake cycle can help you tune in to their schedule — and forgive them for batting your nose before the sun rises.

Bats, raccoons, skunks, owls, and many other critters are nocturnal, but cats are not. Rather, cats are crepuscular, meaning they are active primarily during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. This is likely because that’s when their prey are most active, too.

Leaving activities for your cat can fulfill their crepuscular restlessness.

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Even though so many pet cats are spoiled indoor dwellers who have no need to hunt, this behavior abides. “It shows up as what owners perceive as inconvenient activity at times, but owners would prefer to be sleeping,” Bruce Kornreich, veterinary cardiologist and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Inverse.

Cats then spend the rest of the day resting up for their next hunt. Kornreich says the average housecat gets between 15 and 20 hours of sleep each day, another mainstay of evolution. Their ancestors needed as much energy as possible to chase after rabbits and other crepuscular prey, so all that sleep went into survival. He adds that the older cats get, the more they sleep. (Though, of course, if your cat sleeps all day and night without moving, you should probably consult your veterinarian.)

Should I play with my cat at 5 a.m.?

Don’t feel guilty for leaving your cat hanging. If their behavior interferes with your well-being, that’s reason enough to close your bedroom door — just so long as you make time for them later.

“Spending dedicated playtime during the day, 5 or 10 minutes where you focus on the cat, can be really helpful,” Kornreich tells Inverse.

This dedicated playtime when you’re both in the mood is important for the person-pet bond but also for your cat’s health. “We know that obesity is a big problem in cats,” Kornreich says. “That's another reason we encourage owners to do whatever they can to make sure cats get enough exercise.” Five to ten percent of pet cats qualify as overweight, and 40 percent of those cats are obese.

Giving them toys to occupy themselves is another must for the wee hours of the morning. Kornreich recommends scratching posts, cat trees, and other toys they can enjoy in a one-player game. The key is to find activities that will satiate their inner beast. Even though most indoor cats have no need to hunt, their primitive brain still compels them to stalk and pounce on everything from cockroaches to loose feathers.

Whatever coping mechanisms you choose, your cat isn’t the one who needs to change his behavior. “Owners really should understand that this is a normal evolutionary characteristic of domestic cats,” Kornreich says. “It's not one that they'll likely be able to really eliminate.”

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