How do cats know when you are coming home?

Cat waits for human to come home
Photo: Pinterest. Words added.
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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 believe that 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. plus, they have built-in clocks like humans. Cats can gauge the passage of time based on previous experiences when their owner was away. They can also measure time against dawn and dusk, the passage of the sun.

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 change in light – dusk falling – this is linked to their hunting as they are more active at dawn and dusk;
  • the passage of time as mentioned based on previous experiences. This is part of rountines;
  • 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 need 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 nearby.

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…

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18 thoughts on “How do cats know when you are coming home?”

  1. My 2 cats (1 male 1 female) according to my mum, used to go
    and wait on the back of the sofa facing the door when they knew I was coming home. She said maybe about an hour before I came home. In fact, that is how SHE knew I was coming home soon. No routine. Work, didn’t matter. They would position themselves & patiently lay there until my vehicle would arrive. Then of course when I walked in, the male (younger) would make sure to “speak” to me 1st to let me know if he approved of my arrival time.

  2. 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.



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