Are Dogs and Cats Really Nocturnal?

July 18, 2016

By Linda Cole

Our canine and feline friends spend a fair amount of time snoozing the day away. Their internal clocks are not like ours, and their natural schedule is different from ours. But are dogs and cats really nocturnal?

During the brief window of time between daylight and darkness – the twilight hours of dawn and dusk – animals venture from their homes in search of  food or a mate. Before sunrise and after sunset, the sun is just below the horizon. Earth’s atmosphere catches the rays and scatters light across the sky, with just enough to see, but not enough to see clearly. The animals, insects, reptiles and plants that take advantage of the twilight hours are called crepuscular.

The list of crepuscular animals is rather large and includes dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats, mice, ferrets, bobcats, mountain lions, tigers, beavers, moose, elk, bison, river otters, fireflies, skunks, deer, chinchillas and many songbirds, to name just a few. Many species of moths, flies and beetles also prefer coming out in the low light of dawn and dusk. These are the creatures that sleep during the day and night, saving their energy for the fading light where they can feel safer hunting and quickly disappear if needed.

Crepuscular comes from the Latin word “crepusculum” which means twilight. The critters who use the low light of twilight to avoid predators are mainly prey animals. There are also two subcategories of activity; matutinal are creatures who are most active at dawn, and vespertine animals are most active at dusk.

Prey and predator animals that are active during the day are in the same category as humans (diurnal), and those that favor the night are nocturnal. Raccoons are a good example of a true nocturnal critter. It’s rare to see one out during the day, and if you do see one – leave it alone and call your local wildlife authorities. A daytime sighting of a raccoon is usually a red flag that something is wrong.

Evolution has a way of creating adaptations in species over time to give animals, plants, reptiles or aquatic creatures the best possible tools to survive. Crepuscular creatures prefer the fleeting moments between day and night because daytime predators are heading home and nocturnal predators are just beginning to wake up. There is less competition for food, and it’s easier to hide or escape from predators who have also adapted to hunt during dawn or dusk. It’s interesting to note, though, that a moonlit night or dark, cloudy day can draw some twilight loving animals out during the day or night.

Cat New Ad Sidebar - no bag1Another advantage for crepuscular desert animals is to avoid the heat of the day and colder temperatures at night. However, nature is flexible and some diurnal or nocturnal species may adjust their hunting activity based on their environment and availability of prey. Some owl species, for example, may switch to hunting during the twilight hours to avoid competition with other birds of prey or human activity. Coyotes and jaguars are considered to be nocturnal, but they have no problem taking advantage of the twilight hours to hunt crepuscular critters like rabbit.

The activity habits of some animals can fluctuate depending on their environment, the time of season and climate. Fortunately for pet owners, most dogs and cats are able and willing to adapt to the lifestyle and schedule of their people. Dogs have a tendency to adjust faster than some cats, however.

If you have a feline who is up and ready to go at the crack of dawn or decides that nighttime is the perfect time to play, there are a few things you can do to help her readjust to your schedule. Hold off feeding her last CANIDAE meal until just before your bedtime. A full tummy at night will help keep your cat from waking you at dawn demanding to be fed. Also, spend some time playing with your kitty during the day and early evening so she isn’t sleeping 16 hours straight.

If your cat does wake you at dawn looking for attention or trying to get you to feed her, ignore all attempts. I know how difficult it can be to ignore a persistent kitty, but giving in will only encourage the behavior. It is a behavior that’s natural to her, though, so you should never punish a cat for acting like a cat.

Some of the livestock guardian dog breeds such as the Great Pyrenees, Tibetan Mastiff and Anatolian Shepherd dog tend to be naturally nocturnal when guarding livestock, since many predators are active at night. And feral cats favor nocturnal activity to hunt and avoid humans. All animals do have a preferred time of day or night when they are the most active, but when necessary most critters can and will adjust.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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  1. tina says:

    Raccoons and skunks come out during day lite hrs if they are nursing or pregnant in search for food. As well they could be injurded.. As im sure other nocturnal species do as well.. The public should educate themselves and know the symptoms of rabies before calling wildlife.They typically kill the animal to ck the brain for rabies. Often making a senseless killing.. Just saying! 🙁