Cats have the reputation for being aloof, and although it’s not an accurate assessment, some of that interpretation comes from the fact that cats are known for sleeping much of the day. Some people even label cats as lazy because sleeping takes up about two-thirds of their lives. Referring to cats as lazy is about as far from the truth as you can get. For people who don’t like cats or aren’t familiar with them, it may seem as if cats don’t “do” anything and just rely on humans to supply an endless supply of food. If you take a moment to really look at why cats sleep the way they do, you’ll end up with an entirely different perspective and a new respect for how a cat’s body works so efficiently.
Cats Need Energy for the Hunt
Unlike animals who forage for grains and grasses, cats are predators. Food for a carnivore isn’t growing in vast fields so in order to eat, the hunter has to work. Once prey is discovered, the cat goes into stealth mode and carefully inches up to get in the perfect position to pounce. Being an ambush predator, the cat’s attempt at catching prey requires short but intense bursts of energy. Cats aren’t scavengers so the prey they eat must be fresh. Having fresh prey requires the need to hunt.
Hunting requires energy and when you add the stress factor of cats being both predator and prey (because of their size), the cat needs to make sure he’s well prepared for however many hunting attempts he may make. Sleep is needed to conserve energy and recharge for the next hunt. Cats sleep anywhere from 12-16 hours per day.
Cats Sleeping With One Eye Open
Ok, the cat doesn’t really sleep with one open but he does tend to stay in a light sleep much of the time. Since he’s a “wait and see” predator, he depends on being able to spring into action should potential prey appear. Much of the sleep you notice your cat doing is a light sleep so he can instantly engage. This level of sleep helps his body to immediately react, whether that reaction is needed to hunt or to protect himself from a larger predator. Cats do engage in deep sleep but in shorter cycles of about 10-15 minutes at a time.
Cats have various sleeping positions and some of them may look as if your cat isn’t cat-napping but totally zonked out. When a cat is in that light cat-napping phase, you may notice his ears move a bit now and then as well as one might rotate in the direction of an interesting sound. His eyes won’t be tightly shut and may open a bit every so often.
Sleeping positions can also be determined by the temperature. When cats are cold they tend to sleep in a curled up position and when the temperature is warm, they may sleep more stretched out.
The Nighttime Cat Crazies
For many cat parents, the cat’s sleep cycle doesn’t make sense. The cat sleeps all day and then goes into the “cat crazies” at night, bouncing off the walls, knocking things over and pawing at your face at 4am while you’re trying to sleep. Your cat is hardwired as a crepuscular predator and that means he’s naturally more active between dusk and dawn. In an outdoor setting, the type of prey he would hunt would be more active during those twilight hours. His internal clock is set to rest during the day and gear up for action in the early evening.
Cats are Very Accommodating
Even though your indoor cat doesn’t have to worry about hunting for his next meal, he still has that same natural sleeping pattern. Many cats, however, learn to adapt to our schedules and become more active during the day.
What to do When Your Cat is a Hard-Core Nighttime Party Animal
If your cat is keeping you up at night though, provide more opportunities for exploration and hunting (of toys) during the day to keep him active. In addition to doing a couple of interactive play sessions during the day, be sure and conduct one state-of-the-art session right before bed and then offer your cat some food as a grand reward. Don’t increase the amount you give him during the day, just portion it out so you can provide some after the hunt. Chances are, after that energetic hunt and now having some food in his belly, your cat will be more likely to sleep. This is based on a cat’s natural cycle of:
The cat must use short but intense energy to hunt, and then once he captures his prey he gets to feast on it. After the meal, the cat grooms himself to remove traces of the prey. This is part of how a cat is hardwired for protection. Removing traces of his freshly killed prey helps prevent other prey in the area from detecting the presence of a predator. Cats are also prey animals so the grooming helps avoid alerting other predators in the area. Once all the grooming is done, the cat is ready for sleep. If you time your last play session for just before bedtime, you stand a much better chance of having your cat sleep through the night.
If your cat continues to keep you up at night, set out food-dispensing toys at bedtime. If your cat wakes you up in the wee hours of the morning, consider using a timed food bowl. Don’t make the mistake of getting up to feed your cat just to quiet him when he wakes you too early. If you do that you’ll be rewarding the unwanted behavior.
Do Cats Dream?
Cats experience REM sleep (rapid eye movement) the way humans do and that’s the phase in which dreaming occurs. You may notice your cat’s whiskers or paws twitching during this phase. What do cats dream about? The cats aren’t telling but my guess is mice and birds play a prominent role in their dreams.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
While cats do sleep much of the day away, if you notice a change in your cat’s sleep pattern, be sure and talk to your veterinarian. If your cat is engaging in an excessive amount of sleep or isn’t sleeping as much as normal there could be an underlying medical problem. Hyperthyroidism, for example, causes a release of too much thyroid hormone and that speeds up the metabolism so the cat may not sleep as much as normal. Older cats with declining senses or ones with age-related cognitive issues may sleep more soundly and for longer periods. Cats with hearing loss may startle easily while sleeping so be mindful of how you wake them.
Need More Information?
For more information on cat behavior and training, refer to any of Pam’s books, including Think Like a Cat.