Should you leave a light on for your cat at night?

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  • Cats are notorious for keeping us up at night, but are they really running about the house staying up while you sleep? Probably not. Contrary to popular belief, your cat is probably sleeping most of the time that you are.

    Cats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t get up at night for short periods. Like you, your cat might need to use the “toilet” or get a drink of water in the middle of the night. Do they need light to find their way?

    In a nutshell, no, you probably don’t need to leave a light on for your cat at night. We turned to Janet Cutler, Ph.D., one of our Certified Cat Behaviorists at Cat-World.com, to help us understand why and when you should leave a light on for your cat at night.

    Can cats really see in the dark?

    Cats can see in the dark at least 5 times better than humans thanks to their evolutionary roots.

    “Cats have great vision in the dark, at least compared to people,” Dr. Janet Cutler explains. “Cats can see with 5 to 6 times less light than humans can. When you are sleeping, your cat does not need much light at all to move around your home if they need to find kitty litter, water, etc.”

    A cat’s eye has a different retina that allows more light to enter, as well as a mirror layer that gives the light a second chance to hit the many rods that they have in their eyes. Of two types of cells in the eye, cones and rods, cones better for seeing in bright light are prevalent in the human eye while cats have more rods better for seeing in low light.

    Most homes are not completely dark at night. You probably have at least some ambient light filtering into your home. This is generally enough light for cats to move about freely. While cats can see better than us in the dark, they don’t see as well in full light. Their eyes really are adapted for best use during their most active times of dusk and dawn.

    What about total darkness?

    Cats cannot see in total darkness any more than we can. Light is necessary for the eye to receive images, no matter how faint. Since most homes have ambient light, being in total darkness isn’t likely.

    However, if you are a day sleeper and use blackout curtains throughout your home, you may need to consider using a night light for your cat to get to and from their necessities like litter, water, and food.

    How can I make sure my cat stays safe when its dark?

    If you find yourself in a situation in which your cat will be in total darkness, you need to make sure that they are able to get to their necessities. You can do this with low level night lights on their path to their litter box and water, or you can create a separate sleeping quarters for them where they have access to all of their needs in one room that is lit separately from the rest of the house.

    Do cats prefer lights on or off?

    Because the cat’s eye has been designed by evolution to allow more light in, cats don’t see as well in full light as they do in dimmer levels of brightness. In truth, your cat prefers neither light nor dark, but something in between. As such, they really don’t need lights left on for them since the bright light could make it more difficult for them to see rather than less.

    cats prefer lights

    Should I leave a light on for my cat at night?

    In most cases, you should not leave a light on for your cat at night as it encourages nocturnal behavior. Dr. Janet Cutler explains:

    “Having the lights turned off at night and everyone getting quiet and going to bed can be a sign for your cat that it is time to settle for the night and help to keep them in a routine of resting overnight.”

    On the other hand, there are some good reasons you might want to have a nightlight for yourself and for your cat’s safety. If you frequently get up in the middle of the night and have a hard time seeing in the dark, having a small nightlight can be enough to allow you to see your cat’s outline to avoid stepping on them as you move about.

    What if I leave my cat overnight? Should I leave the lights on?

    Dr. Cutler stresses the importance of keeping your cat to their routine as much as possible if you leave them overnight.

    “It is best to keep your typical routine as much as possible if you are going to be away for the night. If there is usually a light on, then you should leave that as normal. However, having lights on throughout the night that aren’t typically on could disrupt your cats’ ability to sleep.”

    If you leave your cat alone overnight regularly, you might consider investing in timers for your lights, television, and other amenities. These can also help your cat feel as though their routine is uninterrupted with you gone. While you don’t want to leave the lights on overnight, having some lights on during the evening when they expect it can help reduce anxiety and help them sleep better while you’re away.

    How else can I help my cat sleep at night?

    If you think your cat is having trouble sleeping at night, turning off all of the unnecessary lights is a good first step. There are some other things you can do to encourage your cat to sleep throughout the night. Giving them a belly full of food, especially something like catnip treats, can make them feel full, content, and sleepy, encouraging them to snuggle in with the rest of the household.

    You should also ignore your cat’s demands for food, attention, or anything else during sleeping hours. If it becomes a problem and constant interruption for your sleep, consider creating separate sleeping quarters for the cat to keep them in one area of the home at night. If that area does not have ambient light, make sure you leave a night light for them so they can see their water dish, food, and litter box with ease.

    FAQs about cats at nighttime

    Here are some more FAQs about cats at night.

    Are cats really nocturnal?

    Even though we lament our cats keeping us awake at all hours, cats are actually not naturally nocturnal creatures. Nocturnal animals are those that are awake most of the night and sleep most of the day. That is not the case with cats. Cats are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk. In the deep of the night they are just as deep into dreamland as you are.

    Can cats be scared of the dark?

    Like humans, cats can be scared of many things, including the things they can’t see in the dark. Your cat’s eyes will become more powerful as they get older, but young kittens will have a harder time seeing things in the dark, especially when they are still learning about their surroundings. If you have kittens that seem to be scared of the dark, a very low level night light might be in order temporarily.

    What kind of nightlight is best for my cat?

    If you do decide that you need a nightlight, either for your cat or for yourself, avoid colored lights. Cats can’t see colors the same way that we do, and they only see grey, blue, yellow, and sometimes green. As such, colored lights  may harm rather than help their vision. Use the lowest level light possible.

    Can I leave the tv on for my cat?

    You shouldn’t leave the tv on for your cat at night anymore than you should leave lights on for them. Leaving the tv on makes them think that it is time to be awake and moving about. If you want them to settle for the night, make sure that the television and other media are all turned off completely.

    On the other hand, if the tv is usually on during waking hours and you are going to be away from home, leaving the tv on a familiar show can help keep your cat calm and barely aware that you are not actually present. Put the tv on a timer though so that you don’t have to worry about it disrupting their normal sleep routine.

    Authors

    • Nicky Thomas is an author and freelance writer specializing in writing features, general interest, and thought leadership articles. She also has a passion for interviewing people of all walks of life with an important message for the masses. Read more of Nicky’s work at thewordsmithkc.com.

    • Janet Higginson Cutler, PhD, CAAB, is a Certified Cat Behaviorist. She earned her Phd at the University of Guelph, and runs her own cat and dog behavior consulting firm, Landmark Behaviour, in Canada.