How does my cat know I’m coming home?

Cat owners would like to know how their cat knows when they are coming home. Cats and dogs wait at the door for their human caretaker to return. Or they look out the window. Not all cats and dogs do this but my darling late female cat did it consistently. She’d be curled up just inside the front door on my return from work.

Cat waiting at door
Cat waiting at door
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There is a theory about how dogs (and I will include cats into that research) do this. The theory has been proposed by a researcher, Alexandra Horowitz, in canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. Dogs have a better sense of smell than cats but the sense of smell of a cat is still many times more sensitive than that of the human.


Both dogs and cats “see” their world through their sense of smell. They rely on smell far more than us. Whereas we assess things and situations mainly through sight, dogs and cats rely perhaps equally on the two senses.

There is a “temporal” (relating to time) aspect to the sense of smell of cats and dogs. Scent and odour deteriorates over time. The scent changes. Cats are able to use their fine sense of smell to work out when a stranger cat has passed a certain place by the fading of the cat’s scent marking. They can figure out how long ago the cat was there.

Tracking dogs can work out the direction of movement of the creature they are tracking by the:

“difference in concentration between the odour of the first footstep versus the fifth. They are essentially seeing something about time in the deterioration of the smell”.

Alexandra Horowitz had an idea: are dogs working out when their masters are coming home by the diminution in the smell of their owner? In other words, are dogs measuring time via the dilution in the body odour of their caretaker?

She tested her hypothesis by selecting a dog who was very good at greeting his owner at the end of the day. Towards the end of the day she let the dog smell the owner’s T-shirt. This appears to have “reset the dogs clock” (my words) and rather than wait for his return the dog did not wait at the door. “He was snoring on the couch” instead.

For dogs, smell rather than sight is possibly the primary sense. For cats I’d say smell is slightly less important but on a par with sight when it comes to assessing many situations.

I would argue that the research and ideas of Alexandra apply equally to domestic cats. Of course not all cats will be concerned about the return of their caretaker/guardian. And no doubt, too, that between individual cats their sense of smell varies in sensitivity. But overall it is not too bad a theory that cats detect the change in odour of their caretaker over the day and instinctively watch in anticipation around the predicted time of arrival.

It also has to said that cats can quite possibly gauge time just like us. Humans can tell roughly how many hours have passed since we saw someone and we can judge the time of day fairly accurately without a watch. Perhaps cats can do this as well as us. If they can then the scent theory would not stand up to scrutiny. Personally, I favour the argument that cats use all their senses and innate ability to gauge time together with routines and habits to know when we are about to come home.

Do you have a theory?

2 thoughts on “How does my cat know I’m coming home?”

  1. I’ve pondered this for many years and, really, have no conclusion.
    Do animals have a sense of time? Don’t know.
    However, in my case with feral colonies, they recognize my car, my appearance from quite a distance, and my pace.
    To me, it confirms that a cat’s sight is their greatest asset.

    • I think they use all their senses and their ability to gauge time. One thing I did not mention in the article was that perhaps cats can gauge time just like us. Humans can tell roughly how many hours have passed since we saw someone and we can judge the time of day fairly accurately without a watch. Perhaps cats can do this as well as us.

      Cats certainly do recognise a lot about us through sight.


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