Are Cats Nocturnal?

It certainly might seem that way when Kitty is scampering around while you're trying to sleep. But what does the science say?

Do you think of cats as nocturnal animals, asleep most of the day and awake at night? Lots of people do. There are plenty of cat memes about felines frolicking around at all hours of the night, to the dismay of their sleeping humans. But are cats nocturnal?

Are cats nocturnal?

No, they’re not! Unlike possums, bats, and raccoons, cats are actually not technically nocturnal. Instead, “cats are crepuscular,” explains Michelle Lugones, DVM, a veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society. “This means that they are wired to be most active at dusk and dawn.” So they thrive at night-adjacent times, but they’re not hardwired to sleep during the day and be awake all night. This is because of cats’ evolutionary past as desert hunters. “These times [are] when the temperatures are the coolest in the desert, which makes it more tolerable to hunt,” Dr. Lugones says. “Hunting at dusk and dawn provides cats some cover because of the darkness, but gives them just enough light to hunt in (which their eyes are designed for).” Speaking of their eyes, can cats see in the dark?

So why do we think they’re nocturnal?

Well, return to the memes. “Many people think that cats are nocturnal because most people who have a cat will attest to the fact that their cat wakes them up in the middle of the night regularly,” Dr. Lugones says. “But that overnight activity usually correlates to their crepuscular tendencies.” Here’s how to tell how smart your cat is, by the way.

Sleeping catMarcel ter Bekke/Getty Images

When do cats sleep the most?

Even though they’re not actually nocturnal, cats certainly do a lot of snoozing during the day. But while they sleep 12 and 15 hours a day, they’re actually not lazy, or even very deep sleepers! “Cats are always ‘on the alert’—even in their sleep,” Dr. Lugones says. “This means that if there’s a loud sound, they may wake up and instantly be bright and alert. It’s a protective mechanism designed to keep wild animals safe from predators and able to catch prey if the opportunity arises.” Learn more about why cats sleep so much.

So now you know the correct answer to “are cats nocturnal”—even though it may not be any comfort the next time your cat wakes you up in the middle of the night. Next, find out the truth behind another common cat query: Can cats see color?

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.