Most cats live an average of ten to 15 years, which can seem like a long time but is still far less than the average human’s lifespan. Because cats have such abbreviated lives – compared to humans, at any rate – people often wonder if their sense of time is different from normal time.
So, exactly how long is a week in cat time?
A week in cat time is a week – seven days. Unfortunately, there is no way to measure a week or even a day in cat time, at least not using our way of measuring time. A cat measures time by natural events, such as dawn and dusk, and human routines, but they don’t seem to know one day from the next.
A cat’s behavior gives us clues to how they measure time. Unfortunately, cats are notoriously difficult to study, so scientists have little evidence that cats can count or measure time in the way we do. Read on as we explore how cats tell time and whether they know the difference between one hour and four.
Can Cats Tell Time?
Cats can tell time, but not in the way that humans measure it. We tell time by looking at a clock or our cell phones. A cat tells time by a combination of human and natural cues. House cats come to rely on humans to help them tell time, although they haven’t lost all instinctual cues.
A primary cue cats rely on is the amount of light. So focusing on light is a survival cue wild cats need.
In addition, although birds are most active at dawn and dusk, smaller birds tend to prefer sunrise. And the birds need to arrive early to avoid larger predatory birds, which start flying once the day warms.
So if a cat wants a bird meal (sorry, bird lovers), it needs to be ready at dawn.
Smaller rodents tend to favor dusk, so as evening approaches, cats become active again, on the hunt for another meal. In the wild, cats like to hide in safe spaces so they can sleep. They sleep lightly for much of the day to stay alert if a predator should find them or a confused mouse doesn’t make it back to the den.
Therefore, a cat uses dawn and dusk as its cues to measure what we call a day.
Why Do Cats Know It Is Dinner Time?
If cats can’t tell time like we can, how does a cat know it is dinner time?
Cats rely on human cues to let them know it’s dinner. They can’t read clocks, so they pick up on other things to let them know it’s time to eat. This can be a repeated verbal phrase or a routine their owners follow before feeding them: opening the door, dropping their keys, and going to the kitchen.
Along with the instinctual cues they have, cats also use humans as a timekeeper. Cats develop an internal clock that is related to your behavior. For example, your pet will probably wake up at dawn but will wake you for food based on other cues, such as your alarm clock.
So what happens when your alarm doesn’t go off?
Your cat will become active when it becomes light and keep itself busy with a variety of activities. At some point, she will run out of activities and notice that it is taking you longer to get out of bed. This might be five minutes after your alarm should have gone off or 20 minutes.
We sometimes measure time in a similar way, which we call losing track of time.
The same is true in the evening. The cat uses various cues — light and your actions — to signal that dinner should be served. When you have lost track of time, your cat will begin to come around to distract you.
Daylight savings time affects cats also but like how it affects you. Whether we spring forward or fall back, a cat still wakes at dawn and becomes active at dusk. It usually takes a few days for a cat to realize that our schedules have changed, and she adjusts hers accordingly.
Can a Cat Tell the Difference Between One Hour and Four?
Does a cat know if you have been gone for one hour or four? If you leave your cat alone for longer than usual, you probably wonder if she will be lonely and start to miss you. Research suggests the cat might begin to miss you — just a little.
Cats cannot differentiate between one hour and more than one hour. In a Swedish study, researchers studied just over a dozen cats and observed that cats left alone for thirty minutes did not act differently than those left alone for four hours.
However, the cats left alone for four hours greeted the owner differently. The change in greeting suggests that cats had some concept of how long they were alone. However, the cat’s behavior upon greeting its owner might indicate that the cat was not responding to how long the person was gone, but the possibility of interaction with a person.
Security camera captures the cat’s adorable reaction to the owner coming home.
Can Cats Count?
Since a week is seven days, if cats cannot count, they would have difficulty knowing that a week has passed. In that case, a week in cat time is a combination of seven days in cat time. But does a cat count the days that way?
We count days and weeks for many reasons — when bills are due, how many weeks until an important holiday, how many days until our birthdays? Since cats don’t think about those kinds of things, why would they need to count?
It’s unlikely that cats can count. In one of the few studies on cats and counting, Christian Agrillo, a researcher at the University of Padova, found cats could distinguish between two and three dots on a card at first. This idea was quickly proven incorrect.
However, the researchers wondered if the cats counted or picked the cards with more black on the card. So they enlarged the two-dotted card. Once the amount of ink was the same, the cats couldn’t tell which bowl had the treat.
Counting would be important to animals for safety and protection. Pack animals need to know how many animals are in their pack, for example. But a house cat does not need to notice if a member of the pack has gone missing.
Because studying cats is difficult, researchers are not even sure how cats know a kitten is missing. Since some research has shown that cats have difficulty distinguishing between two and three, cats might notice a missing kitten through scent or sound.
Determining What Time Is
If we want to know how long a week is in cat time, shouldn’t we decide what makes a week? Do we measure time in the same way that cats do? What is the difference between 8 and 9 o’clock?
For us, time is something we have agreed to. We decided to divide up a day in hours the way we did. We agree that daylight savings time should begin on a specific weekend. Our computers and devices are synced to the second.
Nature has its way of telling time, and we have ours.
Are We Any Better at Telling Time?
Before we pat ourselves on the back for our ability to tell time, are we that much better than a cat? Imagine a world where clocks, cell phones, and smartwatches don’t exist. Would we be able to tell time?
Humans have an internal clock that measures time but not by minutes or hours. Based on research at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), we do not experience time in units. Our hippocampus contains cells that can accurately measure 10 second time spans.
Instead, we experience time subjectively—our brain measures time based on what we experience. And from repeated experiences, we begin to associate and measure time-related to those experiences. This could explain that time seems to change when we encounter a new event.
So without clocks, we might experience time in a similar way to a cat, except we could count from one Sunday to the next.
Can We Use a Cat To Tell Time?
Although we can’t tell time to the exact minute, a cat’s eye can give us a general sense of the time of the day if we know what to look for. As the day brightens, the cat’s pupil begins to close. At the brightest part of the day, the slit in the eye is at its smallest.
And the tapetum causes a cat’s eyes to be more sensitive to light, so as the day brightens, the slit in their eyes shrinks. So when the slits are at their smallest, it’s high noon, so to speak.
This method is not as accurate as a clock or sundial, but it adds another element of mystery to our cats.
Minnie’s Murder Eyes
For a cat to be able to tell a week has passed, it would need to be able to count. The little research that has been done so far suggests they cannot. We also have very little information on how cats experience time. Until we know more about how cats tell time, the best answer might be that their week is as long as ours if we didn’t have a way to track time.
- David H Grimm: Can Cats Count?
- PLOS One: Cats and owners interact more with each other after a longer duration of separation
- National Wildlife Federation: How to Tell by a Cat’s Eye
- PubMed: Comparative Morphology of the Tapetum Lucidum
- NTNU: How Your Brain Experiences Time
- Bird Searcher: What Time of the Day are Birds Most Active?
- I Heart Cats: Can My Cat Tell Time?
- PubMed: Discrimination of Time Intervals in Cats
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.