Ask A Behaviorist: Can My Cat Tell Time?

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Almost every cat owner in the world has no need for an alarm clock – their cat just seems to “know” when it’s time to get up.
Nancy Sayles, owner of The Sayles Organization, says her proof is in her cat.“This guy can absolutely tell time,” Sayles says. “At 8 in the morning, it’s ‘Hey, time for coffee! Right now!’ That’s because he gets to go out in the yard with us where he may snag a stray lizard for breakfast. In the evening, right at 6, it’s ‘I’m sitting here in front of my bowl and I’m hungry…what part of meow do you not understand?’”

Blue makes sure Sayles knows when it's time to be fed. Image source: Nancy Sayles
Blue makes sure Sayles knows when it’s time to be fed. Image source: Nancy Sayles

So does that mean our cat can tell time?

Jennifer Mauger CPDT-KSA is a canine and feline behaviorist and owner of L’Chaim Feline. We asked her to shed some light on this question.

Do you believe cats have an internal clock that gets “set” to our hours?

JM: Yes. Usually because it gets reinforced.  For instance, they get used to us getting up at certain time to feed them breakfast.  They come to anticipate getting fed at that time and when we do not get up then they may wake us up.  If we do get up and feed them breakfast we have reinforced the behavior.

catwakeupcall

Why would they need to have such a clock?  

JM: Wild cats have an internal clock so that they know when to hunt, mate, etc. Feral cats have even been known to hide during specific times to avoid people and other animals.  So our cats too have this eternal clock. But again it is usually influenced by us and how we reinforce it.

In your experience, does daylight savings (start or beginning) seem to have an effect on them?

JM: Yes, it effects all of us. If they are used to us getting up at 6am and then daylight savings hits they are not going to adjust right away, they will be expecting breakfast at 7am instead.  Because they will most likely get up and eat at 6am anyway it can throw them off.  You might have some short lived behavioral changes but we can affect them through play, training and mental enrichment.

 The good news for those tired of getting up at 5am? Mauger says you can change that clock!

A cat stimulation feeder. Image source: Aikiou.com
A cat stimulation feeder. Image source: Aikiou.com

JM:  We can also change their schedule as well if needed.  If you now have to go to bed earlier for a new job, we can get our cats on that same schedule by making sure we play and feed them earlier getting them ready to relax and go to sleep.  If we need to change their feeding time we can put out a food puzzle toy between meals with some of their dry food or freeze dried treats between meals.

 

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