The cats have their supper at 8pm every night. Afterwards, Target goes out for a quick pee, and then he’s back, ready to curl up on the sofa with me for a nap before going to bed. Tic Tac has a wash, goes to play on the roof, and then she’s back, waiting for Swooner to come home for the night.
Our middle cat knows his curfew is at 10pm. On good nights, he strolls over when I call him in, and he comes home. Usually, he plays with Tic Tac for a few hours, they have a midnight stroll on the roof, and then Tic Tac curls up on her cat tree while Swooner checks into the spare bedroom.
But when he’s feeling contrary, Swooner pretends he doesn’t hear me call him.
Sometimes, he pulls a Cheshire Cat, simply hunkering down and vanishing, stripe by naughty stripe. Our street is dark, there are plenty of parked cars, and many of us don’t have walls or gates. Finding him is worse than a Where’s Wally game.
Swooner might also sneak over to his friend Charlie’s place and hide there. It is one of the few homes with a big gate, and our evil furry worked out that I can’t go there without disturbing the humans – something I won’t do.
On his naughty nights, I would curse the little fiend and we would chase each other in the dark until the cat gave in. But about a month ago, Charlie’s mum discovered me in the pouring rain, weaseling Swooner out from underneath a bush. When I told her what was going on, she took action.
The very next day, Swooner was in her place, hanging out and pretending he couldn’t hear me call for him. Charlie’s mum gathered him up in her arms, and delivered him to me. Swooner was shocked to the core. He regards her as his second mum, and the betrayal hurt him to the quick.
Once he got over his snit, our bad cat simply changed tactics. On the nights he didn’t want to come home, he took to hiding up and down the street, thereby evading both of us.
I swore up and down that I didn’t care. That massive snakes and lizards could emerge at 4am and eat up our naughty furry. And then I sat up till midnight, waiting for his totally unrepentant meow at the door.
About three weeks ago, after Swooner had disappeared two nights in a row, I handed out supper, and lectured Swooner about coming home on time. There was a rainstorm on the way, and I was tired.
Our evil cat gave me a wide-eyed look of innocence, and then, green eyes glinting, he finished his dinner and went out for a stroll.
At that point, I was very seriously considering not letting him out after 8pm. I knew he’d hate it. I knew he might try peeing outside of the litter tray, just to get at me. But I was shattered. The pandemic was getting to me, too, and there were days when I was so stressed that I was tearful.
I told myself he is a cat, he doesn’t do it on purpose, and that he would adjust to new rules. All I had to do was hold firm. Tom agreed that something had to be done and promised to stand by any decision I might take.
So, I planned an unpopular change. But while picking up the supper bowls, I had a brainwave.
All cats have an internal clock and Swooner is greedy. Putting the two together, I came up with a plan so cunning, it would outfox a weasel.
The next night, I put out half the usual supper. Tic Tac scarfed hers down and trotted off to snack on biscuits in the kitchen. Target gave me a hard stare, and meowed for more. I pulled a Mr Bumble and pretended shock. Swooner frowned and exited.
Chortling with glee, I put out the second half of supper just before 10pm. When I called, Swooner darted home, scoffing his food in a way that let me know my attitude was borderline cruelty.
And that was it. Every night after, I simply handed over half a supper at 8pm and then second half at 10pm.
It worked a treat. No more chasing about in the dark. No more getting soaked to the skin.
Of course, our wicked boy tried waiting me out. Our furry Montgomery decided that if he didn’t come for the second call, he could push second supper to midnight or any time he fancied.
But the first time he strolled in at 10:15pm, fully prepared to push me about, his dinner was inside Tic Tac. As Swooner munched a bowl of biscuits, he was clearly swearing in Cat. But I held firm, and the following night, he ran home at my first call, determined not to let his tuna slip away a second time.
And that’s how it’s been since. Swooner returns at 10pm, unable to ignore his internal clock and his need for a tuna supper.
On my part, I’m acting the magnanimous victor. I don’t say a word as I hand over his food, and I am very careful not to laugh when he gives me a dirty look. But inside, I’m cackling with triumph.
We finally got one over the cats, and it feels good. Wishing you a happy, healthy and furry New Year.
How cats tell time
As scientists moan that cats are uncooperative, there are few studies that explain how our friends tick. However, anyone who lives with or just watches cats, will confirm they are remarkable good timekeepers.
So, how do kitties know it's time for breakfast, for their favourite people to come home and more? There are several theories.Nature's cues: Cats hunt at dusk and dawn, and take their cues from subtle changes in light, as well as cues like birdsong.
Human prompts: Start chopping veg, and it's simple to predict what comes next. Cats aren't daft, and they soon clue in to our rituals. Add it to changes in nature, and you get some powerful combinations.
Sensing time: Back in 1976, researchers tried to prove that cats can distinguish between intervals of 5,8, 10 and 20 seconds. They did it by getting cats to link time intervals to a particular food bowl.
They put 14 cats in cages, and set out two bowls, one of which had food. For example, if the cats were released after 5 seconds, the left bowl would be full. If it was 8 seconds, it would be the right bowl. And so on.
The number of cats was too small for statistically significant proof of anything but they did show that several of the cats understood exactly what was going on, and were perfectly capable of figuring out what bowl to attack after counting seconds. Other cats did less well.
Which brings us to an important question: when you don't look at your watch, how do you know what time it is?
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