Cats Remember More Than You’d Think

Their long-term memories echo the habits of their ancestors.

Cats’ long-term memories are even stronger than their short-term memories. By: wefi_official

A veterinary hospital takes in a gaunt ginger cat — Billy — who has been wandering around a nearby parking lot. He is 13 years old and has Stage 2 kidney failure. Thanks to the staff’s efforts, however, Billy grows stronger.

Everybody loves him, and he becomes the office cat.

About 3 years later, Billy is hanging out by the reception desk when a man and his daughter come in. They are struck by his resemblance to Tuffo, a cat they lost during a move several years earlier. And Billy? He’s so excited that he jumps over the desk to get to them.

Playing a hunch, they come back later in the afternoon with Cotone, Tuffo’s twin brother. The cats recognize each other immediately. Billy/Tuffo goes home with his long-lost family, and he and Cotone are inseparable once again.

Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. This story took place at Noah’s Ark Animal Hospital in Danbury, Connecticut, less than a month ago. And it makes you wonder how much cats do remember.

Mental Scrapbooks

Cats actually have pretty good memories. According to Second Opinion Doctor, they “not only display long-term memory capabilities, but are also capable of emotional mapping, manipulation, can use tools, figure out the spatial configurations of mazes and puzzles and, when stalking prey, execute planned schemes.”

All of these things — particularly executing “planned schemes” — involve a considerable amount of memory power.

Cats beat out dogs in this department. Their memories are “almost 200 times more retentive. Without repeated reinforcement training, a dog’s memory span is about 5 minutes. Cats, on the other hand, averaged about 16 hours, only if the activity benefited them.”

Cats’ short-term memories are strong, but their long-term memories are even more resilient. It’s not uncommon for a cat to show a preference — or a loathing — for men and women based on previous experiences.

They’re also pretty good at holding grudges. Back in junior high, a friend of mine, Kathy, used to hiss at my Siamese. Kathy was joking, but Christy the seal point didn’t find it that funny and would start hissing the moment Kathy walked in the door. Christy had her consigned to the Suspect Human list, and there she stayed for the rest of that cat’s life.

Cats can even remember long-lost family members when they’re reunited. By: nauright

Memories From Another Lifetime

That’s right. Some of your cat’s memories are atavistic, going back to when her ancestors ran wild.

“Although you might own a sweet domesticated cat,” observes NJ Pet Community, “this animal still relies on many of the same memories as if living in the wild. While some memories are learned, others are deeply engrained and passed down.”

That’s why the cat who has never been outside in his life will suddenly start swearing at the ones on the feeder outside or be drawn to anything remotely cave-like when he’s sick or frightened. It’s a purely instinctive reaction, passed down by a wild ancestor.

Take something as simple and as mystifying as Tigger and Bella dropping their toys into the water dish. One possible explanation, says Dr. Arnold Plotnick, DVM, “is that this is a manifestation of gathering/collecting behavior…. Cats will transport the toy to the water bowl in the same way that a queen will return wandering kittens back to the nest, or move kittens from one place to another by the nape of the neck.”

Check out this heartwarming reunion between a cat — who had been missing for 7 years — and her human:

The Price of Memory

Cats also grieve over the deaths of their human and feline companions. During these times, they may lose their appetites, miss the litter box repeatedly and even lash out at their humans.

Merlin, my foster Bombay, did all of the above after he lost his cat buddy. His former folks knew that his playmate’s death had triggered this behavior change, but I’m not sure they realized how thoroughly he was grieving.

Unable to deal with him, they kept him in the cellar, which made him feel he was being punished. “It is during this type of experience that a cat should never be scolded or punished,” warn the NJ Pet Community writers, “because that reaction quickly becomes stored long-term that can be difficult to break.”

So be kind to your (and others’) cats. They see things very much as we do — and they remember.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, a collection of her best cat stories, which was the winner of a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association (CWA), ByLine and The Writing Self. Her writing has been widely anthologized.

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  1. S Vander-Linden
    March 28, 2018

    Three months ago one of my 2 cats died of old age. To give my remaining cat a friend, I adopted an adult cat from a no kill animal shelter about 2 weeks ago. Because she bit me 8 times and “escaped” her safe room and attacked my other cat, I decided I had to return her. But I still want my other cat to have a friend. Its been recommended I adopt a kitten since they are more used to being with other cats and can adapt more easily. How long should I wait before finding a new kitten to introduce to my cat? I don’t want my cat to be afraid of the kitten just because she remembers the other cat.

    1. Melissa Smith
      March 29, 2018

      I’m so sorry to hear it didn’t work out with the adult cat you adopted. 🙁 I think a kitten would be good – for one, the kitten will come with very little history of her own. The adult cat you adopted may have been feral at some point or lived in an abusive home, giving him or her behavioral issues. A kitten usually doesn’t have those types of mannerisms embedded because they’re so young. In regards to your current cat, I think it would be okay to bring in the new kitten when you’re ready, as long as the aggressive cat is out of the household.

      1. S Vander-Linden
        March 30, 2018

        Yes, I removed the aggressive cat from the household. Thanks for the advice.

  2. Vlam
    June 17, 2018

    I have cats and dogs I’m gonna have to disagree with the memory thing. There are a billion stories exactly like the ones about these about dogs. I also love all 3 of my kitty cats but my 2 doge are able to get out of a fix after being shown once. The cats have to be rescued from the same situations time and time again.

    1. Melissa Smith
      June 18, 2018

      It could be that your cats know they don’t have to figure it out because we have to go save them LOL


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