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How do cats understand time, and what does it mean to them?

By Zoë Monk Content Writer

Updated on the

Do cats understand time? It's a question many cat owners ask, especially when being aggressively miaowed at for being late with feeding them. 

When you wake up with a paw on your face before your alarm, do you ever wonder whether cats understand time? It's as if your cat has looked at the clock and knows it's almost time for you to get up.

Our cat seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing exactly when it's their food time, and sometimes even when you are about to get home. What has long puzzled many cat parents is whether cats know how long they've been away and, in turn, can understand the concept of time.

Do cats understand the length of time?

Yes, it's true, cats do understand time. But it's important to remember that they don't experience time in the same way that we do. According to John Bradshaw, an author and cat behaviour expert, it's unlikely that cats categorise activities by when they happened. However, our feline friends do develop a general sense of the rhythm and pattern of the day.

How do cats know what time it is?

You may rely on looking at your watch or setting your alarm clock. But cats rely on their natural body clock combined with observing certain clues to know the time. External cues such as your behaviour or the sun coming up will tell your cat that your alarm is about to go off, and you will get up. Similarly, the sight of your neighbour arriving home will say to them that you will also be home very soon. Likewise, seeing you eat your dinner tells your cat that they will have their dinner soon. Meanwhile, their internal cues, such as thirst or hunger, will cause your cat to predict when their food is due.

Cats can keep track of when things tend to happen. This means they know when you are not following the usual routine, especially with their mealtimes or if you've overslept.

Check out our guide to understanding your cat's behaviour.

Can cats distinguish between different times?

A study measured the behaviour of two groups of cats left alone by their owners. One feline group was left for 30 minutes and the other for four hours. The results revealed that while there was slight restlessness among the 30-minute group initially, both groups of cats displayed the same behaviours throughout the session. Neither groups of cats showed any signs of stress or anxiety.  However, once reunited with their owners, the cats who left for four hours were much more affectionate, with lots of purring and stretching. This suggests that while cats may not actually miss you while you are away, they do understand when you are gone for long periods and can tell the difference between short and long periods.

Cats have a different perception of time

They may not actually glance at the clock, but they have a good perception of time, helped by their memory. A cat's short-term memory isn't particularly strong, but its long-term memory is excellent. Your cat can recall what they have previously learned and adapted it to their current environment. They can decode details regarding what and where. When it comes to important information with emotional attachment, they will likely remember for longer times, such as where their food bowl is or the litter box's location.

Get to know your cat better by analysing their body language.

Cats are creatures of habit

Cats are creatures of habit. They get used to a routine and know that certain things happen around the same time each day (especially meal times). If you always tend to get up and ready for work at the same time most days, your cat will have figured this out. They will have worked out your routine to the extent that they become your furry alarm clock. While their concept of the exact time isn't perfect, cats are intelligent enough to add together all the clues they have picked up to guess the time.

There is still plenty do demystify when it comes to our feline friends, but what we do know is that cats do have a perception of time. It's just different from ours.

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