Cats don’t tell the time like us. Cats don’t read clocks. The 24-hour clock is a human invention to help us organise our lives. Cats know nothing of the 24-hour clock. However, cats can tell the time on their terms and in their way. But they won’t refer to it or recognise it as ‘time’ but as events and moments in their life.
In my opinion, there are two aspects to this. There is the domestic cat’s biological clock. This tells the cat the rough time of day or night. The cat is aware of nighttime and daytime. The cat’s biological clock is largely driven by a desire to hunt to survive. And therefore as the cat has a tendency to hunt at dawn and dusk he or she will be more active at these times. This is when prey is more likely to be active. The domestic cat is still driven by these urges because, as the experts say, our cat companion is barely domesticated.
The cat’s biological clock is overlaid with his adaptation to living with humans in or around the household. The cat has adapted his lifestyle to the human clock. Humans are very much regimented by the 24-hour clock. We go to bed at a certain time when it is dark and we get up after dawn when it is light. We go to work usually at the same time and almost everything we do has a fairly fixed routine. I am generalising course because there are many people who have very flexible lives but by-and-large cat owners have fairly solid fixed routines and their cat picks up on this and adapts to it.
Therefore, for example, in the early hours of the morning, at dawn, our cat might want to be active. He or she may be jumping around the bedroom and try and wake us up. This may be about two or three hours too early for us. Nonetheless we may get up to please our cat or our cat may give up and accept that we won’t get up!
There is therefore a clash between the domestic cat’s biological clock to be active at certain times and our routines. They don’t mess together that well. It is the cat who usually adapts to our ways.
Returning therefore to whether our cat can tell the time, the domestic cat will observe and learn from our routines and recognise these events but not with regard to the 24-hour clock but simply as moments or markers throughout the day. Their day is filled with these markers together with the pauses between them when, for example, we are asleep. At this time our cat may well be active especially if he or she is allowed outside. In fact the prominent markers in our day such as getting up and going to bed are moments which can prompt our cat into certain activities.
For example, when I go out in the morning to the gym for some exercise, my cat nearly always goes out the cat flap into the enclosed garden. My actions trigger this. In this case it is the human 24 hour clock which indirectly guides our cat.
The conclusion is that domestic cats can tell the time but not based on our 24-hour clock but based upon the natural rhythms of their life living with us and driven by their biological clock.
Source: I did not refer to any source material for this. It came out of my head in about ten minutes and is therefore open to questioning by others. Please comment if you have the time and provide me with your thoughts on this topic.