A cat’s memory is not simple. We all know that cats have such strong memories that they know where the litter box and food bowl are. Even after we return from a long vacation, the cat will remember our faces. But at the same time, I also know forgetful cats, which makes me think about the cat’s actual memory.
Do they remember their past owners? Do they remember the neighbor’s dog? If my cat leaves a toy under the couch, will he remember where it is the next day? Unfortunately, we can’t quiz cats about their memory, but we can read what they are thinking from their behavior.
Cats Remember What Matters
Studies show that cats best remember information vital to their survival. Wild cats remember where the best hunting grounds are, and pampered pets know exactly where the food dish is. If the information relates to a cat’s basic needs, it is likely to “remember” it. Food, water, safety, and comfort are all important things to remember.
In addition to memories related to survival, researchers believe that cats specifically remember emotional experiences. They may not remember exactly what happened, but they do make emotional associations with certain objects, people, and sounds.
For example, what would happen if a cat fell into a swimming pool and nearly drowned? The experience would no doubt cause great emotional distress. In the future, cats will associate all water with feelings of panic and fear. The cat may not even remember falling into the pool or how it was rescued. But the memory of those emotions will remain with the cat and will likely reappear the next time it comes in contact with water.
The same theory applies to emotions, especially positive ones. If you scratch your cat’s favorite itch for a few minutes a day, he will begin to associate feelings of comfort and pleasure with you. Next week, the cat may not remember that you have been scratching its ears for 17 minutes. But the cat will remember how you felt and will associate you with that pleasant feeling.
If something is important or emotional, the cat will store that information in its long-term memory. This is why they can recognize an important person a year later or maintain an aversion to water throughout their life.
Regarding short-term memory, science says the following
Short-term memory may or may not be essential to our well-being. We can remember to turn off the rice cooker after cooking, or to dial a phone number just long enough to remember it. Humans can retain most things in short-term memory if we concentrate. But what about cats?
Several scientific studies have focused on cats’ short-term memory. In one study, 50 cats were able to remember which bowl still contained food 15 minutes after the food was removed from the bowl. Given that dogs have an average short-term memory time of two minutes, this is a relatively long timeframe.
However, another study conducted in 2006 showed very different results. In this experiment, the cats were tested on their ability to remember their hiding places. The cats watched as their keepers hid objects in one of four boxes. The cats then had to wait 0, 10, 20, 30, or 60 seconds to find the item. By the end of 30 seconds, most cats had failed this simple test.
The results of this study seem to indicate that cats have poor short-term memory. However, considering what we have already covered about cats remembering things based on survival, it is understandable that cats are not very good at finding random objects. This type of memory is not necessary for the cat’s survival, nor is there a strong emotional connection. If the experimenters had used food instead of random objects, the results might have been quite different.
Memory and Age
Like humans, cats’ memory capacity declines with age. Brain cells decrease with age, which may affect memory content and recall. Cats may gradually forget things they have known for years and may have difficulty forming new memories.
Studies show that about 50% of cats aged 11-15 show signs of feline cognitive dysfunction. In cats 16 to 20 years old, that number jumps to 80%. If your senior cat begins to exhibit strange behavior, the behavior may be memory related. Perhaps he is peeing on the floor for the first time since he was a kitten. It could also be due to not remembering where the litter tray is. If you notice any signs of unusual behavior, it is best to contact your veterinarian.
Let’s go back to our first question about cat memory.
By better understanding how feline memory works, we can take a closer look at specific instances in a cat’s life.
Do cats remember their past owners? Probably. It depends on how long the cat was with its owner and whether the owner made a strong impression on the cat.
Can they remember a neighbor’s dog they once met? If that dog tried to attack them, they would certainly remember. The experience would have stimulated survival instincts and evoked strong emotional associations. But if the dog had done its business after just a sniff, the cat might not remember.
Would the cat remember where the toy was placed? It depends on how much it likes that toy. If it’s a favorite toy and the fun memories associated with it are strong, it may remember where it last saw the toy in the short term. But if it is just a catnip, they may lose interest the moment the toy is out of sight.
Have you learned anything new about your feline friends? Share this article with other cat lovers you know so they can learn something too.