Yes, Your Pets Can Tell Time -- And They're Using It Against You

by Cassandra Stone
Originally Published: 
Image via Getty/alkir

Our pets are judging us for taking too long to feed and walk them

A new study shows that dogs and cats can absolutely tell time, and they might be judging us for how long we take to feed and walk them. Whoops.

Cats and dogs tell time based on their feeding schedule, according to a new study by Northwestern University. They’re also aware of the time of day we usually take them out and walk them. Which means whenever we, their humans, stray from their normal routine — they know it.

And they’re judging us for it.

“Does your dog know that it took you twice as long to get its food as it took yesterday? There wasn’t a good answer for that before,” says Daniel Dombeck, the associate professor of neurobiology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and leader of the study. “This is one of the most convincing experiments to show that animals really do have an explicit representation of time in their brains when they are challenged to measure a time interval.”

Dombeck and the research team studied a set of neurons in the medial entorhinal cortex of a mouse’s brain and found that the neurons “turn on like a clock when an animal is waiting.” That particular part of the brain is connected to memory and navigation.

Researchers created a virtual test for the mice called the “door stop task.” The mouse would run on a little treadmill through a virtual environment, where the mouse learned if it follows the virtual hallway halfway down to a door, the door would open after six seconds and the mouse would receive a reward.

“The important point here is that the mouse doesn’t know when the door is open or closed because it’s invisible,” James Heys, one of the study’s authors, says. “The only way he can solve this task efficiently is by using his brain’s internal sense of time.”

This discovery boils down to the fact that our cats and dogs are likely aware when we’re running late on breakfast or to come home from work to take them on a walk. Interestingly, though, this research could prove to be beneficial for humans as well — the “door stop task” could help with early detection of Alzheimer’s because the first parts of the brain affected by the disease is the same part of the cortex studied in this research.

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