Truth be told, there doesn’t appear to be a heck of a lot out there in terms of known facts, or even small studies, done on cats with regards to their sense and conceptualization of time. As such, please read this article with a grain of salt. Since cats and their relationship with time is not something we know all that much about, pretty well near all of what I’ll be discussing is a matter of opinion, and while some of the presumptions or hypotheses I’ll be presenting may turn out to be correct, assumptions can definitely be proven wrong if/when they’re eventually studied.
Still, I always find it’s nice to discuss things whether or not they’ve been researched yet. I feel there’s a lot you can learn just by watching and observing a pet, and a lot of times when you go through the research, what your intuition suggests does often turn out to be correct. Nothing more satisfying than quickly looking up the answer to a cat-related question, like whether or not it’s normal for cats lose whiskers only to find what you guessed before you looked up the answer was indeed the right answer (in this case, yes, it’s normal for a cat to lose one or two here or there, but if your cat’s lost quite a few, there may be health, stress, or allergy related issues).
Scientists have plenty to uncover about our feline friends, and I’ve said it many times before (though I’m sure I’ll say it many times again), I’d rather them take the time to study things of incredible importance to our cats’ well being and health, like figuring out the composition of the perfect cat food, than researching interesting curiosities like these.
Do Cats Have a Sense of Time? What’s Their Sense of Time Like?
Again, while there aren’t many studies that have tried to tackle the topic of whether cats have a sense of time, in our day-to-day lives with our cats, I do feel a lot of us have plenty of anecdotal evidence that our furries do at least have some sort of sense of time, even if we can’t concretely explain how it works or what its limits are.
Feed your cat at the same time every day? If your cat’s anything like my Avery, you’re likely to have experienced at least a few instances, if not regular, daily occurrences, of your cat coming over to let you know it’s time to eat before the alarm goes off. Sure, cats are sometimes off, maybe early by around fifteen minutes, half an hour, or even an hour at times, but the fact that they come barging in announcing their dinner is coming soon with a string of never-ending meows in my opinion shows they do at least have a general sense of time.
To be quite frank, I think humans would be fairly bad at telling time were we not to have created tools we can read (sun dials, clocks, watches, and all that jazz) to allow us to do just that. I think humans have a decent sense of time without these tools, but while I haven’t done much research into this (let me know if you have!), I’d expect our sense of time is aided enormously due to many different things in our environment giving us cues as to what time it is.
The patterns of the sun, the birds chirping early in the morning, the school bus passing by at the same time each afternoon, for instance, all give us an idea of what time of day it is, whether or not we pay attention or even consciously clock in the fact that these things are happening around us.
Without the routines of our environment, say for example in a case where we’re placed in a completely empty, windowless room with nothing but artificial light for ages, I think our sense of time would all but go out the window. I don’t think it’d be easy for us to tell time at all in cases like these.
If we’re only truly able to have a sense of time due to external environmental cues, I would assume cats and many other animals are much the same. Birds chirp at the same time every day. They obviously need to have a sense of time in one way or another in order to do this. It makes sense that cats and many other animals have a similar sense of time.
Do cats understand what time is? Probably not the way we do. But they definitely have a huge sense of structure, routine, and truly seem to enjoy life better when the same things happen at the same time each day. Consistency plays an enormous role in maintaining a kitty’s overall happiness and reducing stress. And routines they are used to, in my opinion, are anchored in their heads as taking place at specific times.
Feed your cat an hour late when he/she’s used to being fed at 6 AM? Your cat will notice. Heck, if your cat ever struggles with sensitive stomach issues, your kitty may even vomit up bile because of how accurate his or her internal clock is. Dr. Becker from Healthy Pets puts it well:
Portion-fed animals that are fed, for example, at 6:00 am and 8:00 pm, will begin to anticipate the next meal in advance – sometimes way in advance. You might find your kitty waking you at 5:00 am because he knows meal time is near. For the next hour, your cat’s stomach will release hydrochloric acid, gastric juices and bile, all of which are needed to digest his meal.
Now let’s say for some reason you don’t feed your kitty until 7:00 am. There’s a good chance he’ll throw up some white foam and a bit of yellow bile between 6:00 am and 7:00 am. That’s because the hydrochloric acid irritates his tummy, and since there’s still no food in there for the acid to digest, his body gets rid of some of the acid to avoid further irritation.
Sound like an animal that has no sense of time? Not to me.
Again, this kind of accuracy in terms of telling time sounds pretty close to how I feel our conception of time would be if we weren’t able to use our time-telling tools at all. We all know the human body has an internal clock. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn cats and very many other animals have the same thing, as well as taking external cues from the environment as well.
One last thing that Matt Soniak for PetMD points out, which I thought was incredibly interesting. In one of the very few studies that actually have researched cats in relation to time, it was discovered cats can distinguish between periods of 5, 8, 10, and 20 seconds:
In one study, researchers trained cats to eat from one of two bowls based on how long they were held in a cage before being released to eat, and the cats could tell the difference between holding periods of 5, 8, 10, and 20 seconds. That ability, Vitale Shreve and Udell say, implies that cats may have “an internal clock that is responsible for assessing the duration of events.”
Super cool, and again, leads me to believe that a cat’s sense of time is similar to ours without our ability to use tools to tell it. Speaking of tools that tell time…
Can Cats Tell Time? Can They Read Time Off Clocks?
If you’ve ever asked yourself whether cats can tell what time it is based on reading and interpreting the numbers on the tools we humans have created in order to tell exact time: a digital clock or the hands of a traditional clock, I think the answer has to plainly be: No, it’s not possible for cats to literally tell time by reading it off a clock.
In a question sent in to the Telegraph, one reader asks:
Can cats tell the time? We have a digital radio alarm clock in our bedroom and without fail, when the time comes to 6am, our cat wakes my husband by pawing at his face.
As he can see the display from where he sleeps, could he recognise the time?
Dr. Pete Wedderburn responds in a way I think is incredibly on point:
Cats have an internal clock which is very accurate, and they just “know” when it’s time for things to start happening. They are also good at picking up on other regular indicators of the time, like bird song and daylight.
Cats can’t read clocks; change the time on the clock to see if it makes any difference. It won’t.
Obviously, if you were not asking whether cats can literally read time off of a clock by the question, “Can cats tell time?” – and instead you meant “Can they roughly gauge lapses in time and have a sense of when in the day things take place?”, the answer to that question, as should be clear from the first section is yes. That brings about the final interesting question you could ask about cats and their relationship with time, which is…
What Would a Cat’s Conception of Time Be Like?
If you’re asking about a cat’s conception of time you’re asking about what cats think about time itself, sort of like what their understanding of time is. This may not be what you meant to ask by your question. You may have meant: “What is a cat’s perception of time?” or “How do cats perceive time?” instead, but let’s get philosophical here for a moment and think about what cats could be thinking or what their understanding of our good old friend time might be.
I feel a lot of people often wonder what goes through their cats’ heads. Personally, I feel cats and other animals likely don’t have concrete thoughts about things, not even things they feel strongly about like (obviously) food. I think animals are more or less governed by emotions and feelings about things. I imagine, if you take a moment and try to conceptualize what it would be like to never have a language-based thought in your head, yet have your emotions, moods, and feelings completely in tact, that’s probably like what it’d be like to be in the mind of a cat.
What I think a cat’s conception of time would look like is something like a nagging feeling, a desire to do something in particular that springs up at a certain time of day. Like a habit. So if you think about a habit you have – like making yourself a cup of coffee, then drinking coffee immediately upon waking up every day – you do it because a habitual cue, like you opening your eyes and hopping out of bed, triggers your morning routine, you have your coffee, get that lovely reward of feeling more awake, and that’s that.
I think, while cats can’t really think about time in a tangible way because they don’t have higher level thoughts or language like we do, their concept of time in a day would be something like a series of habits that are triggered by certain things happening – the alarm goes off in the morning, they automatically leap out of bed knowing you’re about to get up. The sun sets, they start feeling that itch of huger because they know their mealtime’s coming soon.
Their conception of short bursts of time? Probably a lot like that as well. I’d imagine it’d be handy to know, if a bird in front of them notices their movement, how long they should be still for before it’s probably safe to stealthily move again without being noticed. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they habitually waited a certain amount of time every time, sort of like how we habitually check the stove each time we leave the house – even if it’s not necessary, just because we’re used to it to be safe.
Again, I don’t think animals and cats in particular really have a concrete answer or understanding of time, but if they have any concept of it, it likely revolves around how time plays a role in their habits, and their ability to better be able to get what they want (good food, a safe place to sleep and rest, a nice clean place to use the restroom). After all, even in the wild, if they want to catch their grub, they’ll have to know the time of day a bird or mouse is likely to be in a specific place. Time’s not just important for we schedule-obsessed humans. It’s important for all animals. And since they have no 24 hour Mini Marts or always-stocked fridges, it’s a lot more primitive and necessary they get their timing right.
Your Thoughts on Cats & Time?
What do you think a cat’s sense of time is like? How accurate do you feel they are with their sense of time? Do you think our sense of time is the same? Better? Worse?
Did you ever suspect that maybe your cats could read time off clocks or watches? What do you think a cat’s concept of time would be like if he or she could articulate it?
Really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic in the comments down below!