How do cats know when you are coming home?

Cat waits for human to come home

Photo: Pinterest. Words added.

You know what it is like. Your cat is right there at the door when you come home. People say cats have a psychic ability to know when you are coming home. They can get into position well before you are anywhere near your home. It has to be some sort of sixth sense or something that only the mysterious cat possesses.

I think – actually, I know – this is just people looking for something special when in fact the reason why cats know when we are coming home is because they are sensitive to our routine behavior, the sounds we make, and smells etc.. In short they are sensitive creatures. By comparison some people are quite insensitive. It has also been discovered that domestic cats have an inbuilt clock a bit like humans and therefore they can measure time.

This enables the cat to pick up signs of our return from work or somewhere else at the earliest possible opportunity, well before we think it is possible even if the timing is out of the ordinary. Although routine is a major factor, I am sure. Cats have a decent internal clock. They can guage time roughly and will sense that it is time for you to return and then position themselves near the door or on a window sill and wait.

Cat Waiting and Watching

Cat Waiting and Watching. Photo by Richard.

The sort of thing a cat can pick up on are:

  • the sound of your car engine or the sound of your car generally if you come home in your car routinely;
  • the sounds you make as you approach close to home such as the garage door opening. There will be other sounds and perhaps smells (exhaust fumes perhaps)
  • if you live in a flat, what about the sound of you walking up the stairs or taking the lift. If, due to routines, your cat is ready to welcome you home she will be particularly sensitive to the usual sounds you make as you approach. She can almost certainly pick up sounds that we could not hear.

These are some answers to the question, “How do cats know when you are coming home?”.

Scent detection

Here is another thought on this interesting and likeable aspect of cat behavior. The theory is to do with smell. Both cats and dogs have a great sense of smell. Both species can detect how fresh a certain scent or odour is. Domestic cats needs this ability. When inspecting their home range they need to figure out when a stranger cat who has deposited urine did it. If the odour has deteriorated in pungency the cat knows that the urine was deposited a while ago and that the cat that sprayed it has gone or is not near by.

A tracking dog will need to tell in which direction the person or animal he is tracking has travelled. The dog can do this by assessing the strength of the scent from one point to another.

Therefore when the scent of the cat or dog’s owner has diluted (become less strong) in the home due to his/her absence the pet can work out the time elapsed. Add that to habit and routine and cats and dogs can figure out when their human guardian is about to turn up. This ability to attach the passage of time to odour and scent is an important skill for cats and dogs.

Remember that this is a hypothesis. The source of this information is Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. Cat owners are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the sense of smell to their pet. I’d say that cats use smell as much as sight as a primary sense. Hearing too is very acute and important.

Note: not all cats greet their owners. That’s normal. Cats are individuals.

The same acute senses allowed the well known Oscar to pick up the scent given off by dying patients in a hospice. People are not sure what it is but it seems a dying person emits a certain scent. Oscar probably liked it or even associated it with something nice, possibly the reward of a nurse for comforting a patient at that most important moment.

I’d like to believe that something more mysterious is happening but science, I believe, has the answer. People like to believe the fancy stuff too. And, of course, the cat has an image of mysteriousness to some people. This encourages people to think of mysterious happenings over simple science and common sense.

Now…a visitor is going to tell me I am completely wrong…fine, fire away…

Associated pages (this is a selection. Please search for more):

Dogs Smell Signs of Cancer

Yes this page starts of with the fact that dogs smell signs of cancer and seamlessly slides into cats…!. And back to dogs again. The rules of social interaction are very similar and overlap so perhaps we in the cat … please continue reading

A Cat’s Sense of Touch

by Michael (London, UK) A paw or a hand! Polydactyl Maine Coon cat Tootsie. See base of page for link. A definition of touch might be: To cause or permit a part of the body, especially the hand or fingers, … please continue reading

Facebook Discussion


How do cats know when you are coming home? — 15 Comments

  1. I lived with a man that had a Ford pick up truck, and I could hear him coming when he was near the house. But the cats could hear him blocks away, and ran to the window, waiting for him to arrive.

    • Sandy, I have heard about this too a lot. I have wondered it is more than just sound and vision which gives the signals.


  3. My kittens are trying to escape my apartment letely and I try to sneak up to the door without a sound and it never works – I have tried all different ways. The only way I can stop them running out is by opening the door really hard and fast to scare them back and away and then push my bag through first at their level so they cant run past my legs. Its getting pretty hard. They know I’m there no matter when or how I try to change it.

  4. I read once that dogs know when their owners are due home. My dog Bama used to sit by the door beginning about 20 minutes before I’d get home. I read dogs even know when you’re going to be late and adjust their schedule. I imagine cats are the same way.

    Or else they’re just psychic…

    • Maybe they ring up their owner’s place of work and speak to the boss or the personnel department and find out what she is doing and then reschedule their day accordingly…. 🙂

  5. I thought that only dogs had an excellent sense of smell to detect the presence of someone they know from a distance. My traditional Persian cats Matahari and Matata have amazed me at their sense of detecting the arrival of my housekeeper Sabina.Dias every evening that she returns for work at home.Manny a times, i am watching T.V when i suddenly see either matahari or Matata looking at the door and sure enough, the door opens with their house-keeper stepping inside.This has happened on a daily basis and even at odd hours proving that cats do have a keen sense of smell akin to dogs.Sabina feeds the cats and hence as soon as she enters the house both the cats are after her for dinner.

  6. Michael, one of your fellow countryman, a biologist named Rupert Sheldrake wrote a book named
    ‘Dogs Who Know When Their Owners are coming home’. It is a fascinating read. It applies to cats. I know it does. Cats can read your mood from three rooms away too!

    • Cats can certainly read mood. They are very sensitive to what is going on around them even things that are quite a distance away. They can give the impression they are snoozing until their ears swivel and tune into the faintest of sounds.

  7. Your photo above made me think of something else. It is possible cats can detect the sound of their person’s particular automobile and come to the door upon hearing it. They do have sensitive hearing. When I was young I had a glasspack muffler on my car, so it was kind of rumbly and loud. (I loved it.) I went to pick up the family cat after she had been spayed and the minute I entered the clinic I heard this really loud meowing. It continued until they brought my cat out. I think it had been my cat meowing, and she must have heard my car (and later my voice) so she was crying out for me, “I’m back here! Take me home!”
    The house next to us is vacant but once in awhile the absentee landlord will pull up in his truck and it always frightens Monty. If he’s out in the yard he’ll run to the door and beg to be let in when he hears a vehicle pull up over there. Cars pulling into our driveway don’t overly frighten him, even though both our truck and especially my Toronado are louder,(dual glasspacks on the Toronado) and still he’ll just sit and watch through the fence, maybe puff a little, but not run. But any activity at the normally quiet house next door, and he gets quite freaked out. So I think cats are very attuned to sounds and routines. This is probably the cause of cats seeming to know exactly when we are coming home.

    • Your cat knew your car had a glasspack muffler on it 🙂 She used to read car magazines when you went to bed to swot up on the internal combustion engine, V8 configuration, mufflers and alloy wheels.

      Seriously though cats are very tuned into car engine sounds.

      • LOL, Michael! But even by the 1980’s nobody had those mufflers anymore. They were popular when my dad was a young kid, and he’s the reason I had one. So my car did make a distinctive sound, which my cat surely would have recognized.
        A few years ago I was taking a continuing education class to renew my teaching license and one of the other teachers in the class had went to high school with my father. He remembered my dad because of the car he had in high school. It must have been quite the hot rod.

  8. I have a friend who claims he had a cat who could tell when he was going to have a seizure. I don’t know what behavior the cat exhibited that would indicate he was predicting a seizure.
    I think cats know when we are coming because of routine and sounds. If I return much earlier than expected Monty is sometimes not at the door. Usually, he is “kitten nose to the door” as Jeff puts it. I came home much later than usual yesterday, having worked and visited with some friends after work. I could Monty meowing at me through the door. He was not too happy with me about that. I think it’s all about routines with cats, and most people have much more predictable routines than I have. My work days change week to week and I work until done, there is no set end time. Yet, there is enough of a routine there that Monty can detect and complain of large variations in the routine, or be surprised by an early home coming. He doesn’t like Daylight Saving Time ending. It seems like he can tell time when it comes to feeding times.

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