Normally Nocturnal Cats CAN Learn to Sleep at Night

Some people say cats are naturally nocturnal animals (most active at night), others that they are crepuscular (most active at dawn or dusk). In either case housecats have a tendency to be awake when their owners are not, which can lead to conflict.

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Have you ever been woken up by a frisky kitty who wants to play at 4 a.m.? I have, and it has made me wonder why our ancestors ever thought domesticating cats was a good idea. Mercifully, most cats eventually learn to let sleeping owners lie. The results of a new study show the important effect that different housing conditions can have on a cat’s circadian rhythms.

Ten cats were divided into two equal groups. Group A cats lived in small houses with their owners and could access small yards for an hour in the morning. Group B cats lived in larger houses with their owners, could access large yards throughout the day, and were kept outside from 9 pm to 8 am. Not too surprisingly, Group A cats developed patterns of activity and rest that more closely mirrored those of their owners while Group B cats were most active at night.

So, as tempting as it may be to kick a cat outside when it is keeping you awake, the temporary reprieve will come at the cost of reinforcing the cat’s nocturnal behavior (to say nothing of the danger faced by the cat). When forced to live in close contact with diurnal (most active during the day) humans, most cats adjust their daily rhythms accordingly.

Here are a few tips to help you hasten the process along:

Ignore your cat’s nighttime activities. Yelling or throwing your slipper at her will inadvertently reinforce her behavior. From a cat’s point of view, any attention is better than no attention. If necessary, confine your cat to a part of your home where ignoring her pleas for attention is possible.

Feed your cat her largest meal right before bedtime to keep hunger at bay.

Increase your cat’s daytime activity level. Play with her as often as you can. Daytime exercise will make your cat more tired at night, and disrupts those long naps for which cats are famous.

Big changes in activity levels shouldn’t be written off as cats being cats, however. Many diseases are associated with a decrease in activity, but some (e.g., hyperthyroidism) can actually cause cats to become more active than normal. Pain or cardiovascular or respiratory disease can also make it hard for cats to sleep through the night, which might explain why a cat that previously let her owner sleep now will not.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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Posted by on January 31, 2013. Filed under Advice,Animals,CRITTER TALK. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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2 Responses to Normally Nocturnal Cats CAN Learn to Sleep at Night

  1. E.A. Blair

    January 31, 2013 at 1:20 am

    My current cat is very clingy (in fact, the reason she was put up for adoption was because her previous servants thought she was too demanding of attention), and sometimes I think if she had to choose between cuddles and food, the cuddles would win. When I try to end a petting session, she reaches out and tries to grab my hand and pull it back. When I go to sleep, she’s on the bed with me within a few minutes, and she prefers to have me hug her close to me with as much body contact as possible. If I turn over at night, she gets up and settles in on the side that I am facing. I have never had a problem with nocturnal activity.

    Most ethologists who have studied cats are pretty much in agreement that, left to themselves, cats are, indeed, crepuscular. It may have something to do with the fact that their prey, which is mostly diurnal, is either waking up or settling in during their active hours, making them easier targets.

  2. James Smith

    January 31, 2013 at 5:55 am

    Human babies also have to learn to sleep mostly at night. Left to their own devices, they will nap often during the day and be awake often at night. I remember the first time my oldest daughter slept all night (well most of it). It was alike manna from heaven. 😀