Do cats have a sense of time?

Do cats have a sense of time? This one sure does!

If you’re curious about how your cat, or a large number of smaller animals, perceives time, you’re not alone. On the one hand, cats need to have a basic sense of what time it is to be able to return home before it is too late to get in the door. On the other hand, they don’t have easy access to clocks or alarm clocks to run their lives and we, with those tools, seem to lose track of what time it is quite often.

Here, we explore the science of cats’ perception of time from days to seasons to years. As you’ll soon see, our cats have varying levels of understanding of the time at each level. But, they without a doubt have a general understanding of the basic concepts of time.

Cats understand the rhythm of days

There’s a certain level of self-importance it takes to ask if cats have a sense of time. It’s as if we are supposed to accept they are stupid. In their day-to-day lives, we see their sense of time constantly. From finding the sunny spot in the morning to the early afternoon siesta they’ll almost certainly take. Yet the nay-sayers confidently think cats do not have a concept of time at all.


Fortunately for cat lovers, biologists, creatures with brains, and cats themselves, research suggests that we are indeed, correct. Cats can tell time, though not through the hands of clocks as we do. Instead, cats likely use a combination of timing cells, their unique circadian rhythm, and something known as “the sun compass.”


It’s baked in the cells

Believe it or not, animals in the wild can’t pull out their cellphones to check the time. Nor start up a stopwatch. They just don’t have the tools to do the job. Or, at least, that’s what we once thought.


Baked into their very DNA lies a special kind of cell that helps them tell the time they’ve spent waiting around for something or doing some other activity. These types of cells, dubbed timing cells, were discovered by Daniel Dombeck through a “door stop” test on mice.

A rodent peaking through a virtually generated door. (from: )

The mice were put into a virtual reality environment and pushed to go through a path to get a reward. During their journey, they were to cross a door. The method of opening? Simply waiting six seconds. Easy enough, right?


But that doesn’t show that the mice are learning anything, or are capable of counting the time it took for the door to open, so the scientists changed the virtual environment after the mice got used to the initial layout. This time the door was “invisible” to the mice.


Hypothesis time! What do you think the mice did?


It turns out they waited. For about six seconds. No, they weren’t staring at their stopwatch. The mice just knew how long it took. Their brains were recording the passage of time, waiting on the door. They could feel it, thanks to their timing cells. What’s more, it is believed that other mammal species — including humans and cats — likely also have these cells. Cats do have a general sense of how long they’ve been waiting on your arrival home and 


A crepuscular approach

The common wisdom about cats is that they are nocturnal. Their incessant meowing at you every morning should be clue enough that this isn’t true. In fact, cats are crepuscular. Crepuscular animals are most active at dawn and dusk, when the sun is closest to the horizon.


This is the cat’s circadian rhythm, which naturally dictates a cat’s activity levels throughout the day. Humans are typically diurnal, active during the day and asleep during the night, but everyone had different behavioral patterns. Do you need a clock to tell you it is time to go to bed? Likely not. Cats, like humans, have a concept of the time of day built into their body rhythm.


Praise the Sun compass

A third method by which mammals and some other creatures can sense time is the sun compass. We can think of this as the subconscious knowledge of the sun’s position and how that guides our — and our cat’s — perception of time. The sun compass not only helps animals know where they are but also what time of day it is.


In other words, as the sun starts to go down, your cat knows that the day is ending and it is time to either hightail it home or go out and party with the cats in the alleyway.


Modern science acknowledges that the sun compass is rather complex, requiring a combination of internal biology and the sun’s location to fully work. However, the basic principles still apply to our cats’ senses of time.


Calendar Cells help cats predict seasons

It is quite clear that bears know the changing of seasons due to their annual hibernation and that birds’ migratory patterns are similarly affected. But, do cats know that the seasons are passing? The answer is likely ‘yes’, due to the pars tuberalis, which is located in the pituitary gland of mammals.


This part — sometimes called calendar cells — works by responding to the length of daylight over the course of a year. As you know, winter means less daylight and summer means more daylight. Animals instinctively know this and don’t have to go to school to learn it!


This gland acts differently in the winter and summer, producing different proteins. These changes might even be partly responsible for your cat eating too much before winter.


As years go, cats know

We aren’t sure if cats know about the passing of years or are able to count them, but we do know they recognize the stages of cat life.


For example, young cats may respect older cats, and at the very least will play along with their rules to some degree. Just by the scent of another cat, your cat can begin to guess its age. While it is a bit tricky to know exactly what goes on in the cat’s mind at this time, it is likely similar to how we can guess a person’s age (to some degree) just by looking at their skin and hair.


While it is doubtful that cats, when staring thoughtfully out the window, are contemplating the horrors of existential dread, this does suggest they understand the impact of years and the nature of time and lifespan.


Science tends to not believe anything until proven true, but the relationship you have with your cat is more personal than any study. If you intuit your cat knows more or less than what is stated here, you might be correct. Just as all humans don’t fit within the confines of average human intellect, nor do cats fit within average cat intellect.


Frequently asked questions

Sure, knowing that cats do have a sense of time is great, but we know that pet owners have some more burning questions about their cat’s time perception. Here are the answers to all of your most asked questions about a cat’s sense of time:

Do cats know how long you are gone?

Cats know how long you are gone, but it is not precise. A cat’s perception of time is based on biological factors and inferences based on the position of the sun. Some cats will have separation anxiet as a result of your absence, but if they have plenty food, water, and activities they should be fine for a few hours a day.

Do cats think you’re never coming back?

Cats do not think you’re never coming back when you go to work each day. Cats are creatures of habit and learn the rhythm of days. Their daily pattern, known as a crepuscular rhythm, makes them highly active in the mornings and late evenings. As time goes on and they learn your special rhythm, they will begin to associate these times as either having you or not. For longer trips, it becomes harder to say what is going on in a cat’s mind and is likely largely controlled by pawsonality.

Will my cat forget me after 3 weeks?

Your cat will not forget about you after 3 weeks. As anyone who has ever gone on vacation without their cat can attest, your cat will lovingly embrace you when you return. According to Animal Path, cats have been known to retain some memories for up to 10 years. Of course, much like people, their ability to remember goes down with age.

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