It’s five o clock, and your dog is excitedly wagging her tail and nuzzling against you. Your furry friend is hungry and seems to know that this is the hour you usually feed her. But was this performance a simple reaction to a rumbling in Max’s tummy or are animals actually able to tell what time it is?
Anecdotally, many dog owners will tell you that their dogs seem to anticipate dinnertime or the hour when they regularly go on a walk.
Some owners claim their dogs know these important times to within minutes. They notify the owners precisely at 5 p.m. that a meal should be served. It’s like dogs are somehow able to read the clock!
So can dogs, cats or other animals actually understand time? Well, science now shows that some animals do, in fact, have a sense of time!
Breakthrough in Understanding our Feline and Furry Friends
Of course, a dog or a cat isn’t reading a clock or holding a stopwatch! But a recent study from Northwestern University reveals that animals can judge time.
This new study shows us with the most convincing experiments that animals really do have an explicit representation of time in their brains.
What that essentially means is that earlier there wasn’t a good answer to the question, ‘Does your dog know that it took you twice as long to get its food as it took yesterday?’
But now, we know that your dog knows that you got lazy and took a longer time to get her the food – so you better hurry up!
How Did Scientists Prove That Animals Can Tell Time?
To test if your dog or cat can really tell if you were out too late, the researchers conducted an experiment called the virtual door stop. During the test, a mouse ran on a physical treadmill in a virtual reality environment.
The mouse then learned to run down a hallway to a door, and after a wait of six seconds, the door opened and the mouse continued on to collect its reward.
After several sessions like this, researchers made the door invisible in the virtual reality environment. The mouse still ran to where the door used to appear and still waited six seconds before running down the track to receive its reward.
The important point here is that the mouse doesn’t know when the door is open or closed because it’s invisible. The only way he can solve this task efficiently is by using his brain’s internal sense of time. The mouse in his head knew that it takes 6 seconds for the door to open before he can continue. So he waited for exactly 6 seconds!
But the scientists did more than watch the mice complete the door stop task over and over again. They took the experiment one step further.
What Goes on Inside the Mind
The scientists wanted to study the brain of the mice while it performed the door stop test. By using advanced microscopy, which allows high-resolution imaging of the brain, scientists watched the mice’s brain activity while it performed the test.
According to Daniel Dombeck, one of the authors of the study, “as the mice run along the track and get to the invisible door, we see the cells firing that control spatial or space encoding,”
“Then, when the animal stops at the door, we see spatial cells turned off and a new set of cells turn on. This was a big surprise and a new discovery.”
Dombeck noted these “timing cells” did not fire during active running, but only during the rest duration. According to the study, the cells that are active during rest are actually encoding how much time the mouse has been resting.
So, if you come home to an impatient pet, it’s indeed because they can tell just how long you’ve been gone.
So, can my dog tell time?
Well, not really the way we humans do. It’s important to note that the study does not suggest that animals can instinctively judge time. The mice had to be trained to the track, to the location of the door, and to the amount of time until the door opened. So it is a learned process.
Yes, a great deal of your cat or your dog’s behavior is governed by habit and repetition. Whether he’s the alarm clock that gets you out of bed at 6:15 am or the sleepy pup who has decided the family bedtime is 9:30 pm, it’s not his Apple watch that’s alerting him! And, while habit does seem to be the logical explanation, those habits may turn out to be the result of these surprising neurons that are “telling time” for animals!
As a true introvert, Raza Mehdi shudders at the thought of having to expose very much of himself willingly and with malice-aforethought. Writing online since 2008; fiction, poetry, and articles on science, politics, humour and history. When he is not working, he is either trekking in mountains or sleeping. In his own words, the most apt description of him would be: Biryani on social media, daal chawal in person.