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Can Cats and Dogs Tell Time?

Can Cats and Dogs Tell Time?

               It’s no secret that pets know when it’s time to be fed or that they seem to sense that their owners are coming home from work minutes before they arrive. But can pets really tell time? Studies show that dogs and cats do have some concept of time.

               A 2018 study at Northwestern University found that an area located in the brain's temporal lobe associated with memory and navigation may be responsible for encoding time much like it does episodic memories.  The experiment used mice, but results have been extrapolated to other animals and it seems that many animals do have a true sense of elapsing time, even if they can’t actually read a clock. Neurons in their brains are activated when they expect a certain time-dependent outcome. If the expected outcome doesn’t occur at the expected time—for instance, a pet is normally fed at 5PM. If the pet is not fed at 5PM—the pet may display agitated behavior.

               Circadian rhythms and light/dark cycles can also influence a pet’s sense of time. Behavior and repetition no doubt play a part in shaping how a pet reacts to certain time-dependent actions, but there does appear to be a true physical area in their brains that maps time.

               This information may help with training—intermittent rewards and changing routines can be beneficial. Keep training routines somewhat unpredictable to keep pets engaged with learning. While pets like routine and routines can reduce anxiety, some conditions such as separation anxiety can actually be improved by changing routine to prevent dogs or cats from recognizing particular cues that indicate owners are getting ready to leave. Some pets are also fine for a period of time when their owners are away, but begin to become agitated if their owners do not arrive at the expected time, further showing that pets do have a sense of time.

               So, the next time your cat pounces on you at 6 AM when you’re trying to sleep in on Saturday or your dog starts whining and nuzzling you at 4PM when she normally gets her walk, it’s not all due to routine or habit. Your pet’s brain truly can tell time!

               This blog brought to you by the Patton Veterinary Hospital serving Red Lion, York and the surrounding communities.