The Secret Life of Cats. What Your Indoor Cat Gets Up To At Night


Many people assume that cats are nocturnal since they seem more active at night. However, domestic cats are actually crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Their sleep patterns and nighttime behaviors reflect their crepuscular nature. While cats do sleep often during the day, they have adapted their daily rhythms and activities to align with their human caretakers’ schedules. Cats can exhibit intriguing and sometimes mystifying behaviors in the night that owners may observe. Understanding the cycle of cat activity over a 24-hour period provides insight into promoting a cat’s health and happiness.

Sleep Patterns

Cats are known to be notorious sleepers, preferring to spend roughly 16-20 hours a day asleep. This is especially true for indoor cats, as they exert less energy compared to outdoor cats who roam and hunt. An adult cat will have several bouts of deep sleep and REM sleep throughout the day and night. Cats tend to have more fragmented sleep compared to humans, with short cycles of only 15-30 minutes of deep sleep followed by light napping.

Indoor cats often have favorite spots they like to sleep during the day, including cat beds, windowsills to survey their domain, cardboard boxes, on top of appliances like the fridge or washing machine for warmth, and of course snuggled up with their human companions. At night, most indoor cats will sleep near their owners, whether in bed with them or just outside the bedroom door.

Nighttime Activity

Cats are natural hunters and often become more active at night when their prey is also more active. Indoor cats will exhibit some of this natural nighttime behavior even though they don’t need to hunt. One common nighttime activity is prowling around the house. Cats have excellent night vision and will often silently prowl and explore when it’s dark. They patrol the house as if searching for prey. This prowling behavior can include sneaking into rooms, peeking behind furniture, and intently looking out windows.

Indoor cats also spend time playing at night, especially energetic young cats. They’ll play with toys and chase things they imagine are prey. Some cats will bring their toys to their sleeping humans as a request to play. Behaviors like chasing balls, leaping, and pouncing are common nighttime play activities. This mimics the prey hunt cats would do in the wild.

In addition to prowling and playing, indoor cats simply spend time exploring the house at night. They’ll jump on counters, climb cat trees, and investigate anything new or interesting in their environment. Nighttime provides indoor cats with solitude and quiet which makes the home more intriguing to explore without disruptions. This natural curiosity leads to indoor cats being quite active at night as they prowl, play, and explore.

Interactions with Humans

Cats often seek out interactions with their owners at night as a source of comfort and bonding. Cuddling up with their owners while they sleep is a common nighttime ritual for many cats. As the ASPCA notes, “Cats often sleep with their owners at night as a sign of affection and to reconfirm the bond between them” (source).

Nighttime is when cats tend to be most active, so they may initiate play sessions or request petting and attention from their owners after they’ve gone to bed. A cat kneading on or cuddling up next to their owner at night is a way for them to reconnect and get reassurance. As cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett explains, “Cats feel comforted by touch and the reassurance that we are nearby. This is likely an extension of this bonding process” (source). Gentle petting and strokes can soothe a cat before it curls up to sleep.

For anxious or timid cats especially, nighttime interactions are a chance for them to strengthen their bond with their human companions. As Johnson-Bennett notes, “A cat who might be afraid to approach during daytime hours may feel safer doing so under cover of darkness” (source). Sleeping together meets cats’ social needs and gives reassurance amid nighttime noises or disturbances.


Cats are natural self-groomers and spend a good amount of time licking and cleaning their fur at night. Their barbed tongues act as brushes to keep their coats clean, distribute natural oils, and remove loose hairs. A cat’s daily grooming routine involves licking their fur in long strokes, nibbling at mats, and chewing on areas they can’t reach to scratch an itch or bite off fur [1].

Cats also express their instinctual scratching behavior at night by seeking out scratching posts. Scratching posts provide a perfect surface for cats to scratch their claws and mark their territory. The scratching action helps remove frayed outer layers from their claws and stretch their bodies. Providing scratching posts is important to prevent cats from damaging furniture and allows them an outlet for their natural scratching urges [2].


Cats are known for their midnight snacking habits. While humans prefer to eat during the day, cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Come nighttime, their natural hunting instincts kick in and they begin scavenging for food. Many cats will meow insistently or scratch furniture to signal their owners for a late night feeding. While free-fed cats can graze whenever they please, scheduled-fed cats will often wake their owners demanding food. Cats’ propensity for midnight snacking likely stems from their evolutionary need to hunt and consume small, frequent meals.

In addition to raiding their food bowl, some cats continue “hunting” at night by chasing toys, shadows, or bugs. Indoor cats retain these instincts even though prey isn’t readily available inside. This innate desire to hunt is a form of mental stimulation and exercise for bored cats. Providing appropriate toys for midnight play can satisfy their need to “catch” prey.

Cats also tend to drink more water at night. In multi-cat households, nervous cats may avoid the communal water bowl during the day due to confrontations with other pets. The solitude of nighttime allows them to quench their thirst comfortably. Cats also instinctively drink more after eating to aid digestion. Their nocturnal snacking leads to increased water intake at night as well.


Cats make a variety of vocalizations at night, which serve different purposes. One common nighttime vocalization is meowing. Cats may meow repeatedly at night when they want attention, food, or access to a closed room. Some cats also meow when they feel stressed or anxious, such as when there are changes in the household. Why Do Cats Make Weird Noises At Night? 7 Feline Noises Explained

In addition to meowing, cats also purr at night. Purring indicates contentment and comfort. Cats may purr when snuggling up to sleep near their owners. However, cats sometimes also purr when anxious or sick as a self-soothing mechanism. 6 Reasons Your Cat Makes Weird Noises at Night

Other vocalizations include yowling, chirping, chattering, and growling. Yowling is an exaggerated meow, often used to get a human’s attention. Chirping is a high-pitched chattering noise that shows excitement. Growling demonstrates fear or aggression. Understanding the context helps determine why a cat is making unusual sounds at night. What Do Different Cat Noises and Sounds Mean?

Litter Box Use

Cats will often use the litter box more frequently at night than during the daytime. This is because cats tend to sleep for long stretches during the day and thus do not feel the need to use the litter box as often. However, at night when they are awake and active, they will make more trips to the litter box. According to one Reddit user, their cat uses the litter box almost exclusively at night and rarely needs it during daytime naps (

Many cats demonstrate a preference for using the litter box at night, likely because their nighttime activity patterns make them need to relieve themselves more often. It’s important that they have access to a clean litter box overnight, as restricting access could lead to accidents around the house ( Cats do need constant access to a litter box, but especially overnight when their bathroom needs are greater.

Health Considerations

Nocturnal activity can be a sign of underlying health issues in cats. Some health problems to consider include:

Obesity – Overweight cats are at higher risk for diseases like diabetes and arthritis, which can make moving around difficult and interrupt sleep patterns. Providing appropriate diet and exercise for indoor cats helps maintain a healthy weight.

Anxiety – Anxious cats may pace, vocalize, or act destructive at night. Identifying and addressing sources of stress like new pets, construction noise, or changes to their environment can help calm anxious behavior.

Aggression – Nighttime aggression like biting owners in bed could point to medical causes like dementia or cognitive decline. Checking with a vet can identify any conditions causing the behavior change.

Treating any medical issues is important for improving cats’ quality of life and promoting healthy sleep cycles. Vet exams and lab work can pinpoint conditions leading to excessive night waking or other problematic nocturnal activities.


In summary, indoor cats are naturally most active at night due to their historical evolution as predators who hunt in low light environments. Though indoor domestic cats do not need to hunt to survive, their sleep-wake cycles and behavior patterns persist. Indoor cats tend to sleep during the daytime hours when their owners are awake and active, then become more alert and energetic at night. This nighttime activity includes behaviors like playing, exploring, scratching, meowing, and seeking attention from humans.

Though inconvenient for owners who want to sleep, nighttime activity is natural for cats. With proper exercise, stimulation, scheduled feeding times, and training, owners can encourage their indoor cats to be calmer and sleep more during nighttime hours. It is important for owners to provide cats with adequate outlets for their energy and instincts, while also enforcing boundaries if their cat’s nighttime behavior becomes disruptive. With patience and care, owners can balance an indoor cat’s needs with their own sleep requirements.

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