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How Do Cats Perceive Time? What Science Tells Us

If you own a cat, you know that they have an amazing sense of time, especially when they wake you up every morning at the same hour (and practically the same minute) to demand that you make their breakfast. Without access to alarms and timers (or being able to read), how is it that cats seem to know precisely what time it is every day? One of the things they do is learn to recognise the routine of their owner. If you’re curious to find out more, read on. We have all the surprising details about how cats perceive time below!

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Do Cats Perceive Time?

Researchers have found that cats perceive the passing of time, but they do so much differently than humans. The average cat doesn’t perceive time as you do but instead uses several of its senses, including visual cues, the routine of its owners, internal sensors, and even the environment, including sunlight and darkness. Cats also have a circadian rhythm like humans and use that to tell, more or less, what time of day it is. How they track the passing of time, however, is still a bit of a mystery. It’s still a mystery how humans do it, too, so that’s not so surprising.

Can Cats Sense That Time is Passing?

One crucial fact that you need to remember when talking about whether cats can sense the passing of time is that, in truth, there’s no definitive answer. In other words, most of what is “known” about how cats perceive time is solely based on conjecture.

One thing that’s certain is that cats don’t seem to emphasize a particular time of day or day of the week as humans do. You might ask how they know, for example, it’s Saturday, and you sleep later, or when it’s Wednesday, and you come home earlier. If you stick to a pattern, your cat will learn your patterns and remember, with impressive precision, when significant things occur.

ginger cat and woman in bed with laptop
Image Credit: Konstantin Aksenov, Shutterstock


Do Cats Miss You When You’re Gone?

Cats can take care of themselves if given food, water, and something to play with. Many believe this is a sign that cats don’t care when their owners go away, but research shows that cats do miss their owners in some way. Cats have been found to suffer from separation anxiety in much the same way as dogs, with an increase in anxiety as you leave and a feeling of joy and relief when you return. Like dogs, many cats will come running when their human arrives home, happy and excited to see them. Does that mean they miss their owners? Not exactly, but it suggests cats want to be around their humans as many hours as possible.

Does Time Move Faster, Slower, or the Same as Humans for Cats?

It’s long been held that children perceive time differently than adults. The same, it seems, goes for cats, which scientists say sense time as if it’s going slightly faster than it passes for us humans. This was determined using critical flicker frequency (CFF).

CFF is defined as “the frequency at which a flickering light is indistinguishable from a steady, non-flickering light,” according to PubMed. When given a CFF test, cats were found to sense time slightly faster than humans. Interestingly, dogs were found to perceive time about 30% slower than humans.

Cat waiting for his master to get home
Image Credit: Vlue, Shutterstock

Can Cats Tell How Long You’ve Been Gone?

Cats are creatures of habit and tend to do the same things at the same time every day. Most humans are similar, and once your cat learns and knows your specific patterns, it will adjust theirs to yours so that they know when, for example, their next meal will arrive. Cats also can tell how long you’ve been gone by the number of times the sun has come and gone (cycled), how many times they’ve been to sleep, and several other natural indicators that they’ve learned to sense over the millennia.

Another way cats keep track, more or less, of time’s passage is that they have a strong internal clock or circadian rhythm. Like a human, a cat’s circadian rhythm is always ticking inside its little, furry body, prompting it to, for example, get up in the morning and go to sleep at night. The Circadian rhythm doesn’t tell time, per se, but it does help your cat sense the passage of time so that it can live optimally (and know when its next bowl of kibble will be served). In other words, cats can tell how long you’ve been gone.


Do Cats Think of Times That Have Passed?

One of the most significant differences between humans and many other animals is that we not only perceive the passage of time but also hold memories of times that have passed. While cats perceive the passage of time, scientists believe that they don’t remember things that have passed more than a few hours before, let alone days, weeks, months, or years. In other words, a cat’s sense of what has happened in the past is limited at best.

grey tabby cat sleeping on warm radiator
Image Credit: Xseon, Shutterstock

Can Cats Sense When the Time Zone Changes?

What happens if a cat changes time zones? For example, let’s say you move from New Jersey to California and bring your cat on the plane. It will be three hours “earlier” when you arrive because the time zone has changed. But will it affect your cat like jet lag affects you? Yes and no.

As we’ve seen, cats are creatures of habit and do the same things more or less at the same time every day. If their day suddenly has a 3-hour glitch or a loss of 3 hours’ worth of time, it could freak them out just a tad. Your cat will be confused and anxious, most likely, and will cry and whine, wondering why, for example, breakfast is 3 hours late.

Some turn to destructive behavior when they perceive something in their routine is amiss, but luckily most cats will adapt to their (and your) new routine in about a week to 10 days. The same thing can happen during the yearly change to daylight savings and back again. If you’ve sprung forward or fallen back, be aware that your kitty might act differently.

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Final Thoughts

How do cats perceive time? From what research has shown, cats sense the passing of time quite differently than humans, mostly using visual cues and habits to sense when a specific amount of time has passed. The sun helps cats perceive the passing of time, as does their inner circadian rhythm or body clock. Scientists believe cats even miss you when you spend time away and can sense when they’ve changed time zones. In short, cats perceive time very differently from their owners. However, if it’s time for dinner, your cat will be right there waiting to be served.

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Featured Image Credit: Carlos G. Lopez, Shutterstock