One of the premier experts on domestic cat behaviour, Dr John Bradshaw, says that “we know little about cats’ concept of time”.
That’s a good starting point because it tells us that website authors shouldn’t write about this topic with an excess of confidence. We have to guess a little and intelligent, observant cat owners can probably answer the question as well as anyone else.
For me cats understand the routines and rhythms of the day and daylight and nighttime or how light and darkness follows a pattern and a timescale. Cats “reset every day by the onset of daylight. They also take cues from their environment about what time of day it is”. The sun rising and setting are two markers in the day for a cat. These are natural events. Cats also use artificial markers such as the time they are fed (normally about the same time of day in most households) to take cues.
Cats know when we are coming home. They don’t read the time to figure it out and don’t think of time as we do but they are able to measure the passage of time through routines and utilising their memory of previous events.
In round terms cats don’t think of time as a distinct process but they understand periods of time. Bradshaw also says that cats have been trained to tell the difference between sounds lasting four seconds over those lasting five seconds. This was determined by rewarding a cat only if they waited for the correct time.
Cats are not as good at measuring longer periods of time. Bradshaw believes that it is likely that cats are “most likely limited to the few seconds provided by their working memory”. I would think that for ‘longer periods of time’ Bradshaw is referring to weeks and months and longer.
People can list events that have happened in their lives in chronological order. Bradshaw believes that cats can’t do this. Or there is no evidence to suggest that cats can do this.
The conclusion probably is that cats recognise the passage of time and learn when markers come up from which they take cues as to what to do next. I’m speculating.
Note: Dr Bradshaw writing in his book Cat Sense. The short quotes are from this book.