On nice days she whiles away her time in the woods behind our house and if I am out during the day and she sees me she'll climb the fence and come running. After a belly rub she heads back into the woods. On a couple of occasions when I wasn't around she has, as cats have been known to do, left me a gift. One time it was a dead garter snake and another, it was a dead field mouse.
The thing is, I have been getting up at 6am for years and the first order of business is to go down to the laundry room and feed our cat. On those nice days Elvis will be sitting by the back door waiting for her breakfast. How does she know what time it is?
Some researchers say that time is an abstract notion only humans can comprehend and animal cognition researchers say animals are “stuck in time,” living only in the moment. But any animal owner knows that animals possess some kind of internal clock.
Cats, like other animals, just seem to “know” when it's time for something to happen. Obviously, they don't carry watches and couldn't read one if they did, but they are good at picking up on regular indicators of the time like the birds singing and daylight. That's why our cat, Millie, wakes me up before dawn, pestering me to feed her; she just “knows” it's time to eat.
Animals probably don’t experience time in the way we do, but one anthrozoologist, John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense, writes that “Humans categorize events by when they happened, but cats probably do not. … We have no evidence to suggest that cats can spontaneously recall memories and place those events as having happened a few days ago, as opposed to a few hours or weeks previous – something we find easy to do.” adding that “cats have a general sense of the rhythm of the day.”
Cats are creatures of habit and get used to having certain activities occur at the same time each day, such as meal time. Cats will also take their cues from the onset of daylight and night. This probably explains why they know when their owners, or in Elvis' case me as her meal ticket, are where they are and the time they are there. Dog and cats are able to anticipate such things as the time their owners are coming home from work, but exactly how do they do it is something of a mystery.
One somewhat weird theory is that dogs smell time. Dogs’ sense of smell with its 300 million olfactory receptors in its nose (compared to a human's 6 million) can use their sense of smell to find everything from bedbugs to corpses underwater. Another theory is they are telepathic. But those theories seem a little far fetched.
Squirrels understand that some foods spoil and they will dig up perishable food first. Crows, rats, orangutans, and pygmy chimps have been shown to differentiate between now and later. The animal is shown two jars, each with a treat, but one of them disappears within a short period of time. After five minutes, the animals are allowed to choose one jar to open; they get a second chance in an hour. After just a few trials, the animals all chose the vanishing treat first.
Time is actually a regular cycles of motion, but it can also be measured by the decay of a scent or by daily fluctuations of the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field or by some other method as of yet undiscovered.
Researchers can test how different species perceive, for instance, what is called “critical flicker frequency” — the point at which an intermittent light seems steady. Humans cannot process the flicker. Think of an image on television which flickers too fast for us to to perceive, so we see it as a steady flow. Researchers trained animals of different species to behave one way when they see a flickering light and another way when they see a steady light. They found that small animals with fast metabolic rates perceive more information in a unit of time. A fly, for instance, can see 250 flashes per second. Larger animals tend to experience action more slowly. A leatherback sea turtle can only see 15 flashes per second.
Researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that rats are able to keep track of how much time has passed since they discovered a piece of cheese, but they don't actually form memories of when the discovery occurred.
Rats visited the arms of a maze at different times of day. Some arms contained moderately desirable food pellets and one arm contained a highly desirable piece of cheese. They found the rats could remember that they did something, such as hoard food a few hours before or five days ago. But, the more time that passed, the weaker their memory was and they didn't remember that an event occurred at a specific point in time in the past. According to the researchers, this suggests that animals are stuck in time with no sense of time extending into the past or future. A human's memory involves retention of the point in past time when an event occurred and we retain the information much longer.
Elvis knows when it's time to get fed as evidenced by the fact that she shows up at 6am. The odd thing is, it doesn't matter if it's daylight in the summer or dark in the winter, she is still out there at 6am. Exactly how she knows is still a mystery.