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Home > Cats > How Do Cats Perceive Time? What Science Says

How Do Cats Perceive Time? What Science Says

cat lying on cat bed

Most cat owners do not need alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning because their feline friend often takes over this role. Cats have no problem waking you from a restful sleep to demand breakfast at the same time each morning, or your cat may be waiting for you in the window at 5:20 p.m. to greet you after a long day of work. Does this mean cats can tell time? Yes, cats can perceive time, but not in the way humans do.

It may seem as though cats wear watches to know exactly what time it is, but in reality, cats use their senses to gain this knowledge. they use what’s called a circadian rhythm, also known as environmental cues, to tell the difference between night and day.  Read on to learn how cats perceive time and what science says about the topic.


How Do Cats Perceive Time?

Depending on the breed, cats are usually independent and keep to themselves, making cat owners feel less guilty about being gone for hours, or even all night. However, cats can indeed tell when you’ve been gone for long periods of time. A 2018 study conducted by Northwestern University revealed that cats can judge time.1 But how? For starters, cats use what’s called a circadian rhythm,2 a biological clock shared by humans that helps distinguish between day and night, also known as environmental cues.

Another way cats can tell time is by your routine. For example, if you normally are home by 5 p.m. each evening, and suddenly, one night, you do not arrive home until 7 p.m., your cat will know the difference based on your normal routine alone, especially if you usually feed your cat at this time of day.

Another way cats can tell time is by episodic memory,3 meaning cats can differentiate between time intervals. However, cats have a limited concept of time. For instance, cats can distinguish between time intervals but only when these intervals are very short. Anything beyond that, your cat will not have the ability to remember.

Do Cats Miss Their Owners While They’re Gone?

Unlike with dogs, it’s common for people to think that a cat will be fine being left alone for long periods. But have you ever wondered if your cat misses you when left alone? The answer is yes, they do. Cats can get emotionally attached to owners whom they have formed strong bonds with.

If your cat is emotionally attached to you, you may see destructive behavior if you leave your cat alone for extended periods. Cats can also have separation anxiety from being away from you for too long. Signs to look for are:

  • Pottying outside the litter box
  • Excessive grooming
  • Excessive crying
  • Constantly seeking attention
  • Destructive behavior
cat near door at home
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Tips for Keeping Your Cat Happy, Healthy, and Safe

We all have daily responsibilities that keep us away from home, such as being at work. Since cats can perceive time in their own way, your cat will adjust to your routine. If your cat seems lonely or has separation anxiety, you can try adding a second cat for company. Ensure you have plenty of cat toys for your kitty to play with, and give your cat lots of love when you return home each day.

If you need to go out of town for a day or two, your cat may be just fine. However, if your cat suffers from separation anxiety, enlist the help of a friend or family member to pop in a couple of times a day to check on your cat and to provide company for your feline pal.

woman owner petting and playing with her cat at home
Image Credit: Stokkete, Shutterstock



In closing, cats can indeed perceive time based on episodic memory, environmental cues, and your routine. If your cat gets lonely during the day, consider adopting another cat or maybe even hiring a pet sitter to play with your cat while you’re gone. Ensure you have plenty of cat toys for your kitty, and observe signs that your cat is suffering from separation anxiety. If your cat seems to suffer from this condition, consult your veterinarian for solutions if adopting another cat is out of the question.

Featured Image Credit: Iva Vagnerova, Shutterstock

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