The night can be an exciting time for cats. Unencumbered by sleeping humans, cats can engage in instinctive behaviors. Cats that roam outdoors at night enjoy the peace and quiet that arrives after dark.
By night, cats feel free to explore and hunt. With fewer humans and cars on the road, cats are emboldened to find new territory. The lack of competing smells and sounds also makes hunting easier. Your cat may visit another home at night or seek food and water elsewhere. If your cat has not been spayed or neutered, it could be seeking a mate.
Opinion varies on whether it is safe to let a cat roam outside at night. On the one hand, the quieter streets should be safer. On the other hand, many of your cat’s natural predators are nocturnal.
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What Do Outdoor Cats Do at Night?
If your cat likes to roam outside at night, it will be engaging in natural behaviors. In theory, your cat does not do anything different after dark that would by day. The main difference is that the cat feels safer.
According to The American Journal of Optometry and Physiological Optics, cats can see at night. Felines cannot see in pitch blackness. Dim lighting, such as that provided by streetlamps, enhances feline night vision, though.
More importantly, the streets are quieter by night than day. Cats feel more confident roaming the neighborhood after dark. There will be less traffic on the road, and less human footfall. Your cat will feel like it can move safely and undisturbed by humans.
There are risks to a cat roaming the streets at night. Veterinary Record attached KittyCams to 55 domesticated cats that wandered after dark. Crossing roads remained the biggest danger. The cats also ate and drank from unfamiliar resources and explored more hazardous locations.
Consider investing in a KittyCam for yourself. This way, you can see what your cat is getting up to while you are asleep. Armed with information, make a judgment as to whether your cat’s nocturnal habits are safe.
1/ Exploring and Claiming Territory
The advantage of the night for a cat is the chance to explore and claim territory. This is a powerful instinct in all cats. It’s what felines do whenever outside. Roaming during daylight hours can be problematic, though. By day, a cat’s exploration will be tempered by:
- Other neighborhood cats guarding territory
- Humans on the streets, especially those walking dogs
- Busy roads with a steady stream of traffic
- Sensory overload from countless other noises
Those cats of a nervous disposition will be especially keen to avoid such interactions. By night, it’s a different story. Humans are asleep indoors, so the roads are less busy. Many rival pets are locked inside, too.
Nighttime allows cats the chance to explore their surroundings in a comparatively carefree manner. How far your cat wanders from home depends on a range of circumstances. As a rule, male cats roam further than females.
The average male will seek to claim over 1,500 feet of territory. Females are likelier to content themselves with half this amount. Your cat’s unique persona will play a part, too. Some cats are more territorial than others.
Should I Let My Cat Roam at Night?
Many experts advise against allowing a cat to wander after dark. A cat will not be able to seek immediate help if it gets into trouble.
The risk of road traffic accidents remains pronounced. Typically, there are fewer cars on the road after dark. This encourages cats to cross busy roads they avoid by day. Less traffic means that cars travel faster, though. A collision is likelier to cause significant injury.
Your cat may encounter feral cats while roaming at night. Domesticated felines are naturally crepuscular, most active at dawn and dusk. According to Wildlife Research, feral cats are likelier to be active after dark.
These meetings can be problematic for your cat. Feral cats are territorial and will attack an intruder on sight. The immediate risk of injury to your cat is magnified by potential infection. Feral cats are not assessed and treated by vets. They can carry a range of diseases. Health risks posed by feral cats include:
- Internal and external parasites
- Respiratory diseases (Feline Herpesvirus or Feline Calicivirus)
- Feline leukemia virus
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
There is the risk of a curious cat getting trapped. If a cat investigates sheds, crawlspaces or gutters, it may not be able to escape. As there are no humans to help, the cat will be stuck. This opens up the risk of exposure to predators and extreme weather.
Whether nocturnal wandering is safe depends on where you live, and your cat’s persona. Older cats are typically a little more streetwise and know how to remain safe. Cats with high prey drives or insatiable appetites can still get into trouble though.
2/ Seeking Food and Water
Your cat may opt to roam outside at night to find a food or water source. This, again, is due to instincts. The cat knows that you will feed it daily and provide water. Cats are born hunters, though. Some cats have an irrepressible need to find their own food.
Water, too, can be a sticking point. Many cats will refuse to drink water from their bowl at home. This is because they have an innate distrust of still water. They instinctively prefer to hydrate from a natural source. Your cat may have found a leaky pipe or lake.
It is advisable to combat these instincts wherever possible. Cats that eat from garbage cans, for example, place themselves at risk. Homeowners may hear the disturbance and frighten or injure your cat. In addition, the cat may eat rotten food or swallow small bones.
Water can be equally problematic. Several bacterial or fungal infections can live in water supplies. If your cat regularly drinks from an external source of hydration, sickness can follow. Combat your cat’s natural instincts surrounding food and water with the following steps.
- Place food and water bowls in different locations
- Leave easily accessible dry food out in a bowl overnight
- Use bottled or filtered water to disguise any chorine smells
- Ensure your cat’s water bowl is not causing whisker fatigue
- Feed your cat late at night so it is full throughout the evening
You could also make your cat earn its dinner. Play with your cat for around 20 minutes immediately before dinner. Ensure you choose a hunting game and let your cat win. Serve dinner immediately afterward.
This will help your cat feel as though it hunted down its meal. This will satisfy the cat’s instincts. If you do this late enough, the cat will then groom and sleep. In most cases, the cat will sleep through the night.
Visiting Other Homes
It is possible that your cat has a second home. Cats are crafty. If they know that somebody else will also feed them, they will take advantage. Most cats will not turn down additional treats, food, or attention.
Your cat may have gained access to a home through a cat flap. In doing so, the cat may have discovered another feline’s food and helped itself. Alternatively, the cat may scratch and verbalize until allowed inside. Signs that your cat has a second home at night include:
- Disappearing and returning home at identical times daily
- Suddenly becoming fussy about food
- Weight gain
- Going missing for prolonged periods of time
- Unfamiliar scents
If you know that your cat visiting another house, politely discuss this with the homeowner. Explain that your cat is gaining weight, and thus finds its health at risk. Many people will just assume that a visiting cat is stray.
In addition, it is advisable to learn why your cat is seeking a second home. Some cats are just gluttonous. Ensure that your cat is happy, though. It may be finding something in this second home that is not provided by you.
A cat that visits another home at night may be looking for somewhere different to sleep. Check that your cat has sufficient territory and comfortable bedding. This is especially important in multi-cat homes. The runaway cat may be seeking somewhere to call its own.
Beyond this, manage your cat’s routine. Ensure it receives sufficient food, attention, and plays after dark. You should lock your cat indoors for a while, too. Felines love routine. Slipping into a second home may have become a habit for your cat.
All cats need to hunt. For indoor cats, this desire is sated through play. If your cat wanders outside, it will stalk live prey. According to Applied Animal Behavior Science, outdoor cats display different prey preferences. Birds, lizards, and rodents remain popular targets.
Most huntable birds will be more active by day. Many rodents and lizards are nocturnal, though. This means they will become irresistible for cats to hunt after dark. What’s more, many cats find hunting easier at night.
Cats do not rely solely on eyesight to hunt prey. Their senses of smell and hearing are equally important, if not more so. With fewer people and cars on the street at night, cats have fewer distractions. They can detect prey from greater distances and stalk it through quiet terrain.
Unfortunately, there is a flipside to this. Cats are mesopredators, meaning they are both hunters and prey. Many of the larger animals that attack cats are nocturnal. Common enemies of domesticated cats include owls, coyotes, and foxes.
Cats may also come into conflict with raccoons after dark. Raccoons are not naturally aggressive toward cats. If both species are raiding a trash can though, they will fight. Like cats, raccoons consider attack to be the best form of defense.
Raccoons carry a range of parasites and diseases, so keeping them away from cats is advisable. As a rule, cats that live in wide, rural areas should be deterred from wandering at night. These felines are likelier to fall foul of a predator.
If a cat does encounter a predator, it will experience a fight-or-flight instinct. While some cats will stand their ground, fleeing is likelier. The great outdoors offers a range of locations a cat can hide.
Cats will also hide outside when undisturbed by other animals. Cats enjoy the peace and quiet afforded by nighttime excursions. This means that sudden noises can become increasingly frightening. The sound of car horns, for example, will travel for longer distances.
Once a cat has found a hiding spot at night, it is unlikely to move until morning. While dim lighting helps cats to see in the dark, their vision is better in bright light. The cat will prefer to return to the open territory when the sun comes up.
Cats also find a hiding place if the weather changes while wandering. If the heavens open and it starts to rain, the cat will immediately seek shelter. Rain can dull a cat’s senses, masking scents and sounds. This will result in the cat staying put until morning. Common places for a cat to hide include:
- Neighboring sheds, garages, and crawlspaces
- Under cars
- Under bushes
- Boxes and crates outside shops
- Doorways and porches
Some cats also prefer to sleep outside. This may be for temperature regulation, or it could be that the cat feels safer outdoors. If your cat is reluctant to sleep in the house, learn why. It is possible that your cat is bulled by another pet after dark.
5/ Seeking a Mate
An unfixed cat will be keen to seek a mate by night. The clock does not affect the desire to breed while in estrus. Your cat’s desperation may become more pronounced at night, though. For females in heat, the mating calls of tomcats sound like a siren song.
Male cats that have not been neutered travel far and wide at night. If your female cat is in heat, all local males will know it. Tomcats will follow the scent and caterwaul, attempting to tempt your female into a liaison.
If your cat is male, it will be the one that does the traveling. Unfixed male cats do not have a mating season. They will be keen to breed at all times. At night, you will not be around to stop your cat from approaching females.
The feline urge to breed is strong, and it can be dangerous. Male cats will fight over the right to mate with the closest female. Female cats may end up experiencing unwanted pregnancies or be bullied by a rival queen.
Nighttime offers fewer restrictions than the daytime. It allows a cat to embrace instinct. Enriching an indoor cat’s life and ensuring these natural instincts are satisfied reduces the desire to roam at night.