Q: Why do we wake up to loud noises, and cats don’t?

Q: Why do we wake up to loud noises, and cats don’t?

Asked by Joyce


Karen’s thoughts:

The world would be a very different place if humans had the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep for 18 full hours without waking up to the sound of noisy roommates, bellowing car horns, and wailing ambulance sirens. Why do we wake up to the sounds of startling auditory disturbances, while cats can “tune out” the noise around them?

Cats utilize the same cognitive mechanism that children do called selective hearing. Cats are better at it though, and they have the ability to habituate themselves to familiar sounds and ambient noise. Continuous exposure to auditory stimuli that are perceived as non-threatening will be adapted to by a cat, and the cat will become less responsive and less reactive to such noises — ultimately ignoring them during sleep.

However, noises that a cat associates with danger, or unfamiliar auditory disturbances that it has never heard before, will cause a cat to suddenly wake up from a nap and/or seek safe refuge. I once owned a cat that could sleep right through the voices, music, and sound effects of a blaring television turned on for seven continuous hours. These days I don’t leave my TV turned on for that long, just in case you’re wondering. I hardly watch any TV at all, in fact. But something I noticed about Coconut was that although he would fall into such a profound and restful slumber while seeming to be completely deaf to a loud TV in the background, me washing dishes and doing chores, or me talking on the phone with a friend — upon hearing the sound of a doorbell ring, or a knock on the door, he would immediately jolt up from his sleep and pounce his way under or behind a piece of furniture. This is because Coconut had frequently associated a ringing doorbell or doorknock with the equivalent of an unfamiliar stranger entering the premises. Coconut’s reaction stemmed from an involuntary defensive mechanism and evolutionary trait that allowed cats to escape any potential dangers at a moment’s notice.

Millions of years of evolutionary history has bestowed the gift of easy sleeping to the modern domestic cat, enabling them to recharge their feline batteries at will and without hassle. This is because their ancestors needed all the energy they could get when they hunted at night. And because stalking their prey and hunting down vermin requires lots of energy, most cats sleep for up to 18 hours a day — skillfully ignoring the familiar sounds around them.