My wellness exams usually start out much the same: “Great to see you! How’s Muffin doing?”
- The edgy cat people often respond: “How should I know? My cat sleeps too much.”
- The upbeat, happy cat people say something like: “She’s got it made! I feed her and then this cat sleeps all day.”
- The stressed cat people might say: “He’s doing fine. He wakes me up in the morning to get fed. Then he goes to sleep while I have to go to work. He’s got a better life than I do.”
That about sums up a cat’s sleep pattern in a nutshell.
The thing to understand is that the normal adult cat sleeps about 16 hours a day, twice as much as we do. Here’s why …
It’s All About the Hunt
Sure, the house cat has evolved into a domesticated fluff ball from their big cat roots — but many instinctual patterns remain the same. My little orange house kitty often looks like he’s stalking prey in the Serengeti that is my basement.
Creatures need food to survive, a primary life force. Cats instinctually save their time and energy to hunt for food. Then, they sleep.
Let’s take the feral cat as an example. Feral cats will conserve energy by sleeping, often in colonies, and then go out at night to kill and eat.
According to Sarah Zielinski, science writer for Smithsonian, “Feral cats’ daily activity [pattern of] sleeping during the day and being active at night … likely reflects the behavior of their prey, small mammals, as well as lets them better avoid humans.”
By way of comparison, house cats tend to exhibit this same activity — but most of them have a dish at the ready supplied by us. Nevertheless, they conserve energy until they think they have to “hunt” for their next meal.
A 2011 study of free-roaming cats found that feral cats spent around 14% of their time running or hunting, but cats who had homes spent only 3% of their time on those activities. “Unowned cats were more nocturnal,” the study said.
But cats are technically not “nocturnal.” Let me explain …
Myth: Cats Are Nocturnal
“Even though cats have been domesticated for generations and their food comes out of a can, their internal clocks are still set for nocturnal activity,” writes pet expert Tracie Hotchner in The Cat Bible.
Yet cats are not nocturnal.
Nocturnal means an animal sleeps all day and gets active only at night. A more appropriate term for cats is crepuscular, meaning cats are most active at dawn and dusk.
During these 2 times of the day — just after dark or just before sunlight — birds’ color vision is less effective and small prey mammals have trouble spotting predators. It’s no coincidence, then, that hunting by wild cats increases dramatically just after dark (around 7–8 p.m.) and in the early morning (2–4 a.m.).
A cat’s version of “dawn and dusk” may be quite different — and quite irritating — from your own. Everything goes back to the hunt. Cats get active at sunrise and sunset in order to hunt.
A house cat’s version of this? They’ll wake you up at dawn to get another can of food opened, even when there’s already food available. Then, once fed, your cat may go back to sleep before you’ve even brushed your teeth. Usually, they are active for a bit in the morning before taking their very long daytime siesta.
Some cats have a bit of a problem determining when sunrise really occurs and might think 4:30 a.m. is an appropriate time. Think about it. The songbirds are up by then, so why not your cat?
All in all, most cats show spurts of energy, sometimes when you don’t want to get up or want to get to sleep, and then rest while you are working hard all day.
Also, “while cats do spend at least two-thirds of their lives asleep, they’re not ‘asleep’ in quite the same way humans are,” according to Animal Planet.
“They do experience both non-REM and REM sleep, but for cats, ‘asleep’ is not ‘off the clock.’ Cats are always on the alert, even when they’re dozing.”
When they are napping, cats sleep in such a position that they can pounce at a moment’s notice. These frequent catnaps usually last 15–30 minutes each.
The Yard of 100 Cats
When I was just beginning in this fascinating world of cats as a veterinary technician in the early ’80s, I found myself at the center of a massive feral cat world in Philadelphia.
I worked at a small veterinary hospital. There was an eccentric millionaire who chose to look homeless but was a lover of cats. Yes, he was a hoarder.
John John would bring a cat into our clinic “once in a while, when the cat was sick.” After 6–7 months of seeing these semi-feral sick cats, my veterinary boss told me to make a house call visit.
A house call? I was apprehensive. The storefront looked like the worst of Dickensian London.
John John told me, “They’re in the back. In the cat yard.”
He mentioned it was time to feed the cats. We walked by boxes of toilet paper and paper plates in narrow little aisles piled so high they sometimes tumbled down on our head. John John forged ahead with paper products falling on him. I followed. Where are these cats?
Then he opened the back door.
It was a concrete square surrounded by old structures so high that the cats could not escape. There were at least 100 cats, sleeping on top of each other, some solitary in dirty old boxes, others perching high on homebuilt wood crates in their concrete prison.
When we entered, the cats immediately woke up from various phases of deep sleep.
They were on the hunt. John John was their food source, and they knew it.
Vying for position, the cats performed rituals of stalking for the food, fighting with one another at times, doing everything they could to get their meal. And then they went back to sleep, presumably until John John would feed them again in the evening.
Your house cats have a much less stressful life, but their view of food and sleep is much the same as that of any lion, tiger or feral cat. They sleep and conserve energy until they need to eat again.
(Sidebar: It took years of difficult cat work and social work, but we were able to improve the quality of life for John John’s cats and get the colony down to a more manageable size.)
Is Your Cat Sleeping Too Much?
Because it’s difficult for many of us with busy lives to actually determine how much our cat is sleeping, the one thing we must generally take notice of is our cat’s daily patterns and demeanor.
True changes in your cat’s sleep patterns indicate a call for concern. Here are 2 questions to ask yourself:
1. Has your cat’s daily routine changed?
- Young cats actually sleep longer than adult cats — up to 18 hours a day. But these younger kitties have massive spurts of energy and interest in life when they are awake. If your young cat is not as active when they awake from a normal cat nap or disinterested in play, they might be sleeping more because they are ill. Time to call the vet.
- Geriatric cats also sleep about 18 hours a day, but they tend to have a very specific routine once awake, prowling about for a period of time, looking for food or attention, and then returning for another nap. If any of this routine has changed, there may be something wrong. Time to call the vet.
- Good old regular middle-aged cats should also follow that normal routine of bothering you for food, attention, etc. If that cat doesn’t want to get up at their normal time and be completely responsive, then the cat may be sleeping too much. Time to call the vet.
Note that the amount of time your cat sleeps may vary depending on the season of the year, or the weather.
Veterinarians Rebecca Schmidt and Michelle Miller, writing for the Chicago Tribune, say: “We are not the only ones affected by the weather. Cats may sleep more during those dark, stormy days or when it’s cold. Changes in daylight also will affect their sleep patterns, just like with people.”
2. Has the quality of sleep and waking pattern changed?
When cats don’t feel well, they are adept at masking their illness.
Sick cats will become more reclusive and, yes, sleep more. This may be the only signal to you that something is wrong.
You know the personality of your cat. Whether they are shy or gregarious, you should get the same usual response from them when they wake up or you wake them up.
You should be able to tell the difference between “Don’t bother me, I’m sleeping” with that bright-eyed, annoyed look in their eyes when you poke at their belly, versus “Oh, I am having a hard time getting up, and I feel like crap” look in their eyes.
I realize this is completely subjective. I also know that if you’re reading this, then you’re a cat person — and you know what I’m talking about.
The majority of you fabulous cat people should rest easy when your cat sleeps most of the time. If anything changes in the sleeping routine, however, please be alert.
In this quick video, cat expert Abigail Tucker explains a little more about why cats sleep so much:
- Zielinski, Sarah. “The Secret Lives of Feral Cats.” Smithsonian. May 31, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-secret-lives-of-feral-cats-179790776/.
- Horn, Jeff A. et al. “Home Range, Habitat Use, and Activity Patterns of Free‐Roaming Domestic Cats.” Journal of Wildlife Management 75, no. 5 (April 21, 2011): 1,177–1,185. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.145.
- Hotchner, Tracie. The Cat Bible: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. Penguin. 2007. https://books.google.com/books?id=UYA0sxRoMQ4C.
- Mills, Daniel S., RCVS, ed. The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare. CABI. 2010. 148–149. https://books.google.com/books?id=vrueZDfPUzoC.
- “What is the Normal Sleep Time for a Cat?” Animal Planet. http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/normal-sleep-time-for-a-cat/.
- Schmidt, Rebecca, DVM, and Michelle Miller, DVM. “Is My Cat Sleeping Too Much?” Chicago Tribune. Jan. 10, 2014. https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/lake-county-news-sun/community/chi-ugc-article-is-my-cat-sleeping-too-much-3-2014-01-10-story.html.
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