I spent two weeks visiting my mother for the holidays and I spent a lot of time with her pet cat named Shadow. Eventually, I found myself attached. Shadow would meow when I walked into the room and would often curl himself up at my feet to sleep. I left feeling sad. However, a few months later, I made a surprise visit and I was surprised that Shadow’s behaviour towards me had not changed; in fact, he still remembered me. I was intrigued and decided to research about cats’ ability to remember people, and this is what I found.
How long can a cat remember a person? Cats average 16 hours of short-term memory. If you meet a cat for the first time and have only one interaction, the cat will remember you 16 hours later. There is no indicated time regarding their long-term memory, meaning they are capable of remembering people they are familiar with for years.
Researchers at National Geographic conducted a study which found that animals typically do not possess short-term memory at all. As a matter of fact, the information stored in their brains is related to their survival, for example, how to hunt and where to find shelter. Yet, cats are not only able to remember people, distinguish between their faces and differentiate between a pleasurable experience and a bad one. Believe it or not, their behaviours are not random. This article will give you a better understanding of your cat’s overall attitude and help you to understand their behaviours better.
How a Cat’s Short-term and Long-Term Memories Affect Their Behavior and How They Interact With People
Like dogs, it is true that cats possess the ability to retain both long-term and short-term memories. Their short-term memories are referred to as associative memories. These memories are responsible for a cat’s ongoing behaviours. Associative memories are used every day to interact with people, other pets and simply to stay alert and be aware of their surroundings. For example, a cat will associate the sound of a noise with a familiar action and predict what they think is about to happen. The sound of the electric can opener may give your cat the impression that they are about to be fed food from the can even if they just ate. As a result, your cat may purr, meow or look attentive and alert.
The capacity of associative memories is approximately 16 hours, and they are replaced with new memories when needed. This is a significant amount of short-term memory for an animal, considering the fact that most animals only average 25 seconds of short-term memory according to a National Geographic study. Scientists have not been able to determine the exact time frame of a cat’s long-term memory, because cats are able to remember past owners, and people they interact with regularly years after not seeing them. Nonetheless, they have been able to determine that a cat’s memory is selective, and cats will only remember something that is beneficial to them. This is not always a pleasurable experience, sometimes it is a negative experience. This explains why a cat may be affectionate to some of your friends and family members and somewhat aggressive to others. It is important to understand that your cat’s behaviour is not random, it is linked to their associative memories.
Therefore, if your pet cat does not like someone, then it is better to not leave your cat alone with this person until you understand why the cat is behaving the way he or she is. The more time you spend with your cat interacting with him or her the better chance you have of them storing those memories as long-term memories, meaning they will remember you even years after you are gone.
Do Cat’s Get Alzheimers or Dementia Like Humans?
As cats age, they risk developing Feline Cognitive Dysfunction or FCD for short. Feline Cognitive Dysfunction affects a cat’s memory similar to the way Alziemers or Dementia affect human beings. More than 55% of cats age 11 to 15 years experience symptoms of Feline Cognitive Dysfunction and more than 80% of cats age 16-20 years old, actually, suffer from the deterioration of their brain cells which causes memory loss of both long-term and short-term memories. At this point, a cat may not be able to recognize faces or remember people like they use to. Since the decline of their ability to remember things, other animals, familiar locations and people is a result of the ageing process, there is nothing that can be done to stop it.
However, studies show that feeding cats food that is high in antioxidants and rich with omega-3 fatty acids is the first step owners can take to slow down the rate of deterioration in the brain cells. Since a cat’s behaviour is linked to their associative memories or short-term memories, there are many telltale signs to look for to understand if your cat is experiencing FCD. You may notice that your cat looks lost in familiar locations, looks confused and disoriented at times, and has a lack of interest in being petted or interacting with people. Changes in their eating habits will be noticeable if they are experiencing FCD because they tend to eat a lot less, and demonstrate increased irritability. If your cat falls within the age brackets above, and shows some of these basic signs, then it would not hurt to speak to your veterinarian about FCD and find out more about what you can do to provide a caring environment for your cat, as well as, the treatments that are available to your cat to help them preserve their memory.
Do Kittens Remember Enough About a Person to Hold a Grudge?
Although kittens possess cognitive abilities, they rely significantly on their associative memories. They are still in the learning process and you may find that their behaviours are more repetitive than that of a full grown cat. A kitten’s memory span lasts up to 16 hours and unless the experience was very horrible, they would not remember enough to hold a grudge against you. As the kitten grows older, then they will be able to store long-term memories, when this happens, the cat will be able to recall memories that may cause them to hold a grudge. One of my favourite memories of my mom’s pet cat Shadow confirms this belief. My mother used to squirt water from a small bottle at Shadow to deter him from scratching the furniture. He would take off running when he saw her with the bottle in her hands. His punishment was 10 – 15 minutes outside. I would watch the clock, let him back inside. Shadow would go into a corner quietly afterwards.
One day he was scratching the furniture, and my mom actually sprayed him with the water. She just bought a new couch, and she was really mad about him clawing it down. After getting squirted, Shadow was placed outside. When he came in, he looked a bit upset. He didn’t go into the corner like he usually did. Instead, he sat in the hallway staring at my mom in the kitchen. I knew something was wrong by how attentively he watched her. After 15 – 20 minutes, my mom finally bent down to pick up the spoon she dropped on the floor, at this point, Shadow leapt forward and scratched her on her chest and then ran off. So, although, kittens may not hold grudges because their brain is not developed enough to, older cats certainly can.
Do Cats Remember People When They are Gone, Enough to Miss Them?
Studies from the University of Michigan confirms that cats have both long-term and short-term memories, and they are able to remember people over a period of years but do they miss their owners or their care providers when they are gone? It would be great to think that our cats miss us while we are out, but the reality is there is no way to be certain of whether or not your cat missed you when you left him or her for vacation. Researchers at the University of Lincoln concluded that cats do not get attached to their owners the way dogs do; therefore, they do not miss them when they are gone. Nonetheless, scientists at IFL Science state that cats do miss their owners; however, their behaviours are different from dogs. Instead of showing affection the way dogs do, they behave passive-aggressively, running away and refusing to be petted at times.
Since a cat’s brain resembles a human’s brain in many ways, and just like you might get upset at your best friend for moving away to another neighbourhood, and leaving you to get through your high school freshman year alone, cats get annoyed, feel miserable and maybe even grudge us for leaving them at our neighbours while we get tanned on a tropical island. I believe that cats do miss us when we are gone enough to be mad at the length of time they were left without our care and affection. So the next time you leave your cat with someone to be pet sat, and you return to pick him or her up and they run off or simply do not want to be petted by you, don’t assume that they did not miss you or did not care that you were gone. In fact, assume the opposite. They missed you like crazy, and they are a little mad at you right now. Nothing a nice belly rub and extra cat treats won’t fix.