There has been a debate going on as to whether cats have a definitive short-term memory and whether they remember a person even after a relatively long period of time. While there is no exact scientific answer to this question, it is generally accepted that cats can remember a person that they are familiar with for years.
What is a cat’s short-term and long-term memory?
A cat’s short-term memory is also called its associative memory while the long-term memory is also known as a real memory. Let’s check out the differences between them:
Short-term or associative memory
The short-term or associative memory is when your pet cat relates a specific activity with what they smell, see, or hear, and whether they had a positive or negative memory of it. For instance, a cat may associate the sound of your alarm clock with a time for you to wake up. However, if you don’t set the alarm and just wake at any time your cat won’t have any idea at all because she didn’t hear any alarm sound. A cat’s associative memory happens when something triggers it but if there’s none to associate the action, their real or long-term memory comes in and a cat tends to become unaware or forgot what will happen next.
According to a 2006 study which was published in Animal Cognition, cats only possess a limited short-term memory of hidden objects and remember the object’s location only for up to a minute. However, in later studies, it was known that some cats have short-term memories that last for more than 24 hours and may even have longer-lasting memories. Also, one study noted that a cat’s short-term memory is equivalent to that of a 2 or 3-year-old kid.
Associative memory is why you shouldn’t punish your cat for scratching the furniture or wallpaper. She won’t have any idea why you’re angry and yelling at her but she will associate your action with discipline and punishment and will remember it. Once a pet associates something negative (your punishment) with an activity, it will be hard to change her behavior as it will be associated with something unpleasant. Suffice it to say, a cat’s memory is around 200 times better than a dog but the former is selective and only remembers what she thinks is beneficial for her. Your pet cat will remember people that whom she has a strong bond, such as you and your children. If cats are abused and mistreated they remember, and it’s unlikely that they’ll easily trust people again.
Short-term memory is important for any kind of problem-solving for cats and this type of memory helps cats remember where to find prey which allows them to return to that certain place again.
Long-term or real memory
The long-term memory of cats includes those that happen when they were longer and which they still remember until the present time. The information retention of cats has been known to last for 10 years. Their long-term memories are stored in the brain and can be retrieved if a cat wants to, according to PetMD. Interestingly, cats tend to hold grudges and grieve the deaths of their companion cats or favorite humans because of their long-term memory.
Because cats possess excellent long-term memories, they can recall the people who feed and care for them as well as the people who irritate them. It’s because of this memory that your pet excitedly jumps on you after you’re back home from a vacation abroad. Conversely, a cat may be afraid of certain people or noises because it can relate to a negative memory that happened a long time ago. According to Laurie Santos, a director at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale in Connecticut, long-term memories are referred to as episodic memories or remembering particular episodes from a long time ago.
Usually, what triggers the formation of long-term memories are important events, especially those that are related to food and survival while events with an emotional impact are likely stored in the long-term memory of cats. These memories all have the power to affect your cat’s behavior for a lifetime, according to Dr. Jeff Werber, a Los Angeles-based veterinarian.
Do cats remember people when they are gone and do they miss them?
While it may be true that cats remember people for years there’s still no way to tell if indeed your cat missed you during the time you were gone while you were away on vacation. A University of Lincoln research noted that cats don’t experience attachment towards their owners compared to dogs which means that cats don’t miss them at all. This may sound like bad news but then again, scientists at IFL Science claim that cats do miss their pet parents but react differently compared to dogs. If dogs will normally wag their tail, jump around and shower their owners with affection, cats will behave in a passive-aggressive manner and may even run away from you.
Do cats remember if they were abused or mistreated?
If you have an adopted kitty that’s showing some behavioral issues, it may not be out of stubbornness but your pet may be dealing with the after-effects of abuse and maltreatment. You may be wondering why your pet is reacting negatively to certain smells and other stimulations such as attacking women wearing a certain perfume or men who are wearing hats. Your cat may be associating them with a certain negative memory that happened in the past. To address this, you may consult your vet or a cat behaviorist.
Do cats experience memory loss?
Sadly, yes, cats will experience memory loss as they age. This condition is known as Feline Cognitive Dysfunction or FCD, which affects a cat’s memory just like dementia and Alzheimer’s in humans. More than 80% of cats ranging from 16 to 20 years in age experience deterioration of brain cells resulting in the memory loss of both short and long-term memories.
Just some of the symptoms of FCD include the following:
- extreme irritability
- anxiety and restlessness
- confusion or disorientation
- changes in activity levels
- increased meowing
- lack of self-grooming
- avoid social interaction
- deteriorating learned behaviors