Are Cats Nocturnal? Your Cat’s Overnight Activity, Explained

Updated: Jun. 26, 2024

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? And if you’re wondering why cats sleep so much or why cats love to sleep on you, we have the answers—along with information about how to decode your cat’s body language.

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.

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.

Why are cats so active at 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?

When do cats sleep the most?

Sleeping catMarcel ter Bekke/Getty Images

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.”

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 other common cat queries: Can cats see color? Why do cats knock things over? And what does catnip do to cats?