When you think about your cat and its memory, do the strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals fill your mind? That would be weird. But the question of whether cats have a good memory is an intriguing one, whether or not they’re on stage.
Some people love to confer human traits upon their pets. It’s natural. “My cat knows this. He loves to do that.” Some even dress their cats for Halloween. In many cases, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. But the science behind our cat’s behavior is often even more fascinating than the mystery we bestow upon our furry best friends.
The question of how long do cats remember things is much more complex than you might imagine. Memory itself is a fascinating concept to explore. And it leads us to an interesting debate about cats and memory. What does a cat remember about… well, anything?
Cats seem to remember some things for a long time and forget others instantaneously. Let’s take a look at how long is a cat’s memory, and along the way, learn a little bit about how memory works in general.
How Long is a Cat’s Memory? The Goldfish Myth
A quick aside: Remember when people used to say that goldfish only have a five-second memory? The popular TV science show MythBusters actually proved that statement to be way too simplistic. Fish that experienced food being placed in a particular position in a tank knew exactly where to find it when they were subsequently tested.
Remember that retention through conditioning like that is considered one type of memory. And you can immediately see how a question about an animal’s capacity for memory can draw a complicated answer. A cat is considered an animal of a higher order and presumably experiences considerably more mental activity than a fish.
Types of Memory
The smartest cat breeds (according to some) seem to all be recognized for their excellent memories. But memory encompasses a whole range of mental functions and responses. To talk about a cat’s memory, let’s briefly talk about a few types of memory that scientists have defined:
- Sensory Memory – a memory that lasts very short, usually to recognize basic environmental triggers.
- Short-term memory – a memory that is temporary and used over a short time, like quickly memorizing what a customer looks like when you note his takeout order.
- Working memory – technically similar to short-term memory, but mainly distinct because the information in memory is used to manipulate an activity. In a human discussion, working memory helps someone to remember what was already mentioned to avoid repetition.
- Long-term memory – information committed to long-term recall, like names, details of events, and facts.
A Word on Kittens and Memory
In many respects, a cat’s kitten stage is critical for developing specific crucial skills. In most cases, these are acquired through observing adults or other cats or experiencing things like play fighting or engaging with a stimulating toy. What they learn is a form of memory – or, more accurately, these lessons are indelibly imprinted into memory.
There is also a deep sensory memory at play. If a kitten has no human contact within the first 6-8 weeks, it is not likely to interact with a person easily in later life. At the most, it will struggle to trust humans, which might explain why feral cats are often very skittish and unwilling to snuggle.
Owners should spend extra time with their kittens, playing and showing them different stimulating environments, noises, smells, and other people and animals to ensure optimal brain development. Practicing vet visits and being handled by different people should also ideally be done when your cat is a kitten. This should make life easier for everyone later on.
A Word on Memory and Older Cats
Cats are a lot like humans regarding their mental faculties as they age. It seems that as they get older, they lose some of their function. Their ability to remember is also affected by this decline in cognitive ability.
Much of this has to do with the loss of brain cells. While there are few in-depth studies on the subject, it seems that a cat’s short-term memory is affected more than long-term memory in aging cats. That means they will still recognize you (probably) but will struggle to remember less-important changes and additions to their environment, for example.
Cats and Short-Term Memory
Short-term and working memory are essential parts used in daily life. For the most part, a cat will use this memory to navigate around its environment. Studies suggest a cat’s working memory is pretty good, retaining helpful information for about 16 hours (this may vary slightly).
In practical terms, if a cat encounters something or someone for the first time and shares some interaction, it’s likely to remember it for at least 16 hours. Some studies showed that a cat’s memory length could last as much as 24 hours.
One exciting aspect of this memory retention is how the thought is acquired. There seems to be more muscular retention when the memory is related to physical movement. That means a cat will remember something better if it moves toward or around it or interacts with it.
If a cat sees an object or person and doesn’t interact with it, it’s less likely to remember it a few minutes or hours later.
Can Cats Remember Long-Term? 4 Types of Memory
Studies suggest that some cats can recall particular types of information after ten years or more! In some cases, recall seems to have been life-long.
This ability depends on several factors – for example, health and the conditions under which it is raised. Just like humans, how long a cat lives can also be a factor. Similarly, if a cat has experienced poor health and nutrition over time, it affects the general well-being of the cat. This might include proper brain development and cognitive issues.
Long-term memory is split into a few categories to distinguish the types of information it stores – and here they are:
1. Implicit Memory
Implicit memory refers to how a cat remembers the techniques of grooming themselves or stalking prey. Once learned, these memories become permanently ingrained and can be recalled instinctually.
2. Explicit Memory
The recall of explicit memory seems to be more intentional. And this is what most people think of most when talking about a cat’s memory. Some examples include recognizing a familiar person or remembering how to return home after a day’s wandering.
Whichever type of memory it may be, a cat seems more likely to remember something specifically good or bad in its experience. Events that do not mainly involve the animal itself are not stored in the cat memory span.
For this reason, it isn’t easy to put a definitive figure on a cat’s available long-term memory. We can say that a cat might remember you after a long time if your last interaction with it was good… or bad. Chances are, if a cat doesn’t like you, it remembers something you did that offended them.
3. Visual Memory
Connected to this explicit memory in some way is visual memory. Some cats have been proven to recognize their humans’ faces, for example. However, they do not seem as inclined to show this as explicitly as dogs, for example.
When a cat does not directly interact with an object, this visual memory is poor, lasting only a minute or so.
4. Spatial Memory
Cats have a remarkable ability to remember environments and how to use them. You may notice how your cat always climbs up its cat tree in a specific way or uses a particular route. The same principle applies when your cat strolls through the house and directly to its favorite water bowl or delicious cat food.
What Is a Cat More Likely To Remember? 4 Things
So, that’s a basic rundown of the categories of memory we can define. So what does that mean for what your cat can remember? What types of things can you be sure about regarding whether your cat is present and in the moment with you?
We’ve already determined that cats are more likely to remember something or someone they’ve interacted with, especially if it was a pleasant or unpleasant experience. That is the reason why positive reinforcement and consistency in training can help improve a cat’s memory of desired behavior.
Here are a few things scientists have found cats to remember better than others.
Yes, the good news is that your cat remembers you. What’s more, the more time you spend with the kitty and have a lovely time with it the more likely it is to want to interact with you in return. Even grooming with a superb brush toy counts as time.
Over time, you are committed to your cat’s long-term memory. Should you spend some time away, your cat will likely recognize you upon your joyful return. However, its expression of this recognition will be slightly less enthusiastic than that of a golden retriever.
By the same token, if you have a cat sitter who occasionally comes in to feed them, they’ll likely start to remember that person for the good times they bring. It’s especially true if they play with your kitty and their favorite bird teaser.
2. Other Cats
Cats use scent and vision and even licking each other to become familiar with each other. Cats born from the same litter seem to remember each other even long after separation.
They will remember them over time, even when introduced to other cats, provided they have plenty of interaction. It’s thought this is an instinctual form of recognition that stems back to days in the wild.
3. Trauma and Bad Experience
Some cats display specific behaviors that suggest they may have experienced trauma or a bad experience. For this reason, cats with behavioral issues might suffer hyper-anxiety when confronted with seemingly innocuous situations.
A cat may avoid male humans, shopping bag noises, or even dogs barking next door. These triggers may be reflecting something that happened years ago. All of this is related to memory and does indeed count as retention.
Cats who walk around the neighborhood on their territorial travels will likely remember where home is. Similarly, they will remember where their food is and where their safe spot is. Their ability to remember locations like these is relatively undisputed.
Does a Cat Miss Me When I’m Gone?
The cat owner would love to argue that their cat misses them. In truth, it’s hard to tell. While a cat recognizes you, whether or not it misses you when you’re gone is a more complex question. Also, individual cats have different personalities and attachment styles (just like humans), which can affect how they respond emotionally to their owner’s absence
Cats don’t seem to openly display the same things dogs do when an owner is away. Some cat breeds suffer from separation anxiety, but whether that’s specifically related to a particular person is uncertain.
It’s worth noting that cats can get depressed. The reasons and outcomes of this are slightly different than in humans, though.
As most cat owners will testify, cats do greet you when you return. Did they miss you? Who knows? We do know that they sometimes seem upset that you left in the first place. In the end, it doesn’t matter. A few minutes of play and affection will likely win your cat over again.
Cats and Memory Loss
Sadly, some cats – especially older cats – experience memory loss through Feline Cognitive Dysfunction. This results in a general decline in faculty, often requiring more care for the cat. The following symptoms are common with the condition:
- Aimless or nonsensical activity
- Obvious behavioral changes
- Erratic sleeping patterns
- Confusion and Irritability
- Excessive “talking,” “wailing,” or other vocalization
- Falling more frequently
- Urinating/defecating randomly around the house
Consult a vet if you suspect this may be happening to your aging kitty. A vet may be able to help manage the symptoms, though there is no outright treatment or cure for the condition itself.
Cat Memory: A Summary
So, in a nutshell, a cat’s memory span is pretty good to excellent, depending on what specific types of things you’re talking about. In a way, a cat’s memory seems to be very efficient. It remembers things that are only directly relevant or useful to it.
Understanding a cat’s memory is very important for effective communication, training, and overall wellbeing of your cat.
Keep in mind, though, that cats differ from breed to breed and individual to individual. By some definitions, intelligent cats are cats that can be said to have excellent memories. But it’s clear that most cats have some capacity to remember things, places, and experiences. How long these memories are retained depends mainly on the cat and its living conditions.
And how much a cat expresses is, of course, a mystery for the ages. Maybe it’s just enough to accept those satisfied cat purrs and leg rubs from our favorite pets when they do happen.
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