To hear conventional wisdom tell it, cats are largely indifferent to humans. If they deign to recognize their owners, the story goes, it’s only because they know they can go to those people when they want something: food, comfort or protection. The truth is far more nuanced. Cats do indeed form lasting and meaningful attachments, both to humans and to other animals. Although they’re not pack animals like dogs, they are social. Cats are independent but they’re far from indifferent. While cats might not “need” us in the same way dogs do, they can tell humans apart and prefer some people to others.
Do cats remember people? Yes, cats can recognize specific individuals and retain a memory of them for a long period of time. Some cats may recognise a former owner years later. Cats aren’t dependent on their owners for a sense of safety but do develop strong and lasting attachments.
You’ve discovered this page because you have questions about cats and their relationships with humans and other animals.
- Do cats recognize their owners?
- Can cats remember people?
- Do cats remember other cats?
- Do cats remember abuse?
- Will your cat miss you if you go away?
Maybe you’re concerned that your new cat may miss her previous owners or litter-mates. Perhaps you want to make sure that a traumatized rescue cat gets the support she needs. Whatever your questions and concerns, we have the answers you’re looking for. Read on to find out more about cats and their fascinating inner lives.
Do cats remember people?
Cats certainly do remember people. They quickly learn to recognize new people; they may form attachments to some and not to others. These memories can persist for a long time, even years. Some memories seem to last the cat’s entire lifetime. Cats seem to be especially good at remembering who has treated them well and who badly. Kind treatment won’t always win you a spot in a cat’s good graces but continual bad treatment will often turn a cat against someone.
Feline social psychology is highly complex. As we’ve noted, they’re not pack animals like dogs. Dogs evolved to live in tight-knit interdependent groups with a clear hierarchy, typically lead by the group’s own parents. Dogs have been domesticated for a long time — as much as 50,000 years, according to current theories — meaning that they’ve developed a finely tuned connection with human beings.
Cats, on the other hand, tend to live in colonies when left to their own devices. Unlike dog packs, feral cat colonies are loose and only have a semblance of hierarchy (although they are semi-matriarchal, with older females taking charge to a degree). The individuals in the colony may or may not be related by blood and, while remaining independent, do support each other to a degree. Healthy, able felines bring back a portion of what they hunt to feed nursing mothers or to feed sick or injured colony mates. When kittens are born, female cats may nurse other mothers’ kittens to allow those mothers to hunt. Adult male cats can sometimes be hostile to kittens that are not their own but may also take on some of the teaching and caregiving once kittens are old enough to hunt. Each cat will have their own personal space and territory but some may come together to play, groom and sleep in groups. They lack the powerful family bonds seen in wolf and dog packs but are still social, interconnected and mutually supportive.
Colony members recognize each other less by sight than by smell. A cat has good vision at close quarters and can see better at night than humans but over distances, it can be hard for them to make out details. This is where the smell comes in. As well as the scent produced by a particular cat, there are certain “shared” scents that are used to create cohesion within a family group or colony.
Special glands, such as those in the cat’s face, secrete pheromones. When transferred to objects or other animals by rubbing, these allow cats from the same colony to recognize each other. This, incidentally, is the root of the affectionate face-rubbing that cats often engage in with their owners or with objects in the home. Rather than being possessive (“This human is MY property!”) the behaviour can be seen as inclusive (“This human is my colony-mate!”).
Thus, you can see that the possibility for meaningful emotional bonds certainly exists between cat and cat — and between cat and human too.
Do cats recognize their owners?
Yes, cats can learn to recognize their owners. They may use visual cues but I think the smell is the most powerful tool for recognition. They can generally distinguish the people who look after them from strangers. How long it takes a cat to recognize and connect with a person will depend on a range of factors. These include the animal’s personality. Some cats will simply never be entirely happy with any human and will always need careful and respectful treatment to avoid kitty meltdowns and aggression. Other cats adjust easily to their households and very quickly form loving bonds with everyone in the family, young or old. Between these two opposite ends of the spectrum, you’ll find the majority of cats: able to recognize their family members and to form connections with at least a few of them, tending to prefer one or two specific people but usually social with everyone in the house.
Cats may also retain acute memories for people who have harmed them repeatedly in the past. This is just one reason why it’s important to supervise children with cats — even a loving and affectionate child can accidentally hurt the animal, leading to a lasting animosity that persists even when the child is grown up.
Note that it’s impossible for a cat to understand the difference between “person who owns me” and “person who brings me my food every day” or “person who is around for me to play with”. If you’re not at home much, “your” cat may tend to bond more closely with someone who is — a stay-at-home partner, school-age child or retired senior, for example. This can sting a little, particularly if you’re very invested in your relationship with the cat; however, take comfort from the fact that your pet has formed a meaningful and loving connection which will make her life a happier one.
Do cats remember abuse?
Cats have memories that can persist for many years. They can easily be frightened and traumatized by cruel and hurtful treatment. If your cat has been hurt or injured in the past, the memory is likely to haunt her for a long time to come. Some cats rapidly adjust to a loving home after surviving abuse but others may struggle to get over their early experiences. This can manifest in different ways. I’ve known cats who were only afraid of the specific individuals who had hurt them, while others were terribly afraid of any humans for a very long time. I fostered an otherwise cheery abuse survivor who adapted wonderfully well to a loving home but who would fly into a panic if someone came in wearing boots. Apparently the abuser in his previous home had worn heavy boots a lot, so heavy boots became a danger sign in this cat’s mind. (He overcame his issues and went on to find a permanent home with some lovely people.)
While it is possible for a cat to forgive someone who stops hurting them and treats them well after a certain point, this doesn’t always happen. Cats are very resilient — your pet will bounce back if you accidentally step on her tail. If you constantly do things that hurt or distress her, however, and make no attempt to make things right afterward, she’ll start to see you as an enemy. This is one reason that I discourage “disciplining” or “punishing” cats. They don’t understand what you’re doing or why their actions were wrong. All a cat knows is that someone she previously trusted is hurting her. She won’t associate the distress with the action she was engaged in; she’ll associate it with you.
Do cats remember other cats?
Sometimes, yes. It depends largely on how long the cats live together and what their experiences are like. Litter-mates separated at 12 or 14 weeks will probably not recall each other or any other family members. Cats reared together for several months, however, may form memories of each other that can persist for a long time.
Cats who live together for an extended period can form very strong bonds. As long as there’s plenty of space and no reason for hostility, a close relationship can often form between two or more cats in the same household. If one of the cats is removed for some reason, the other cats may be keenly aware of her absence and search the house for her in the hopes she’ll reappear. When the missing housemate is brought home, they may be cautious at first but will probably recognize her. This is true whether the cats are actually related or not; I’ve seen this kind of bond form between unrelated cats who were total strangers before moving in with me. Cats who are fostered by an unrelated female as kittens and raised with their foster-mother may retain a slightly deferential relationship with her, just as if she’d given birth to them originally.
As with human cruelty, cats may remember other cats who were hostile or violent towards them. I once had a tom-kitten I was fostering during his first few months who became the subject of aggression from an older female in the neighborhood. Although I kept the kitten indoors, she would find ways to sneak into the house or just hiss at him through the window. As an adult, he came back to stay with me while his owner was abroad; now two years old, he’d attained his full adult size and was twice as big as his old enemy. I wish I could say that he got his revenge but the poor lad was just as scared of this little old female as when he’d been tiny. The memory was so strong that he would run and hide when she came to the door.