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.
A few 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.
On 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 his brother are inseparable once again.
Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. This all took place fairly recently at Noah’s Ark Animal Hospital in Danbury, Connecticut. And it makes you wonder: How much do cats remember?
How Much Do Cats Remember?
Cats actually have pretty good memories, and research over the past few years backs that up, which we’ll explain in more detail below.
Short-Term Memories in Cats
Let’s start with short-term memory.
Also known as working memory, this is the sort of memory that lets you remember someone’s phone number for several minutes or perhaps just a few seconds.
Short-term memory in cats is “crucial for any kind of problem solving,” as PetMD explains.
Cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado, PhD, says that particularly when it comes to food, cats’ memories may excel. “This type of memory may help cats remember where to find prey and whether they have already patrolled a particular haunt that night,” she explained, according to Live Science.
Sarah Hartwell, another cat expert, agrees.
“Having learned that prey (or cat food) is usually to be found in a particular location, cats will return to the location,” she writes in a post on Messy Beast.
“Moreover, they associate the availability of food with a time of day or time interval: Cats are very good at time calculations, as the owners of ‘furry feline alarm clocks with no snooze button’ can confirm.”
Here are some of the research findings we’ve learned about cats’ short-term memories:
- In a 2006 study published in Animal Cognition, cats had very limited short-term memory of a hidden object. Their ability to remember the object’s location “rapidly declined” within seconds but generally persisted up to 1 minute.
- In later studies involving leg movements and avoiding obstacles, some cats’ short-term memories lasted more than 24 hours.
- Even more interesting, repetition during the experiments was proven to trigger even longer-lasting memories in the cats tested. “It cements the memory,” one of the researchers said.
Long-Term Memories in Cats
OK, now let’s talk about those longer-lasting memories.
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A long-term memory would be something that happened to a cat when they were much younger — yet they still remember it all this time later. These memories are stored in the brain “and can be retrieved at will,” according to PetMD.
As an example, it’s not uncommon for a cat to show a preference for — or a loathing of — certain people based on previous experiences.
Dr. Jenna Sansolo, DVM, shares that she has seen many dogs and cats “who are scared of tall men, hats, certain noises, etc., which they can relate to a negative memory or event that has happened in the distant past.”
Check out this heartwarming reunion between a cat — who had been missing for 7 years — and her human:
Thanks to their long-term memories, cats are pretty good at holding grudges.
Petful writer T.J. Banks relates the story of how a long time ago, a friend of hers named Kathy used to hiss at her Siamese. Kathy was joking, but the cat didn’t find it very funny and would always start hissing the moment Kathy walked in the door.
Experts think that the long-term memories that “stick” the most in pets are those having to do with very positive or very negative events, “such as those related to food and survival, and events that have an emotional impact,” as PetMD puts it.
Some cats will remember traumatic events for the rest of their lives.
The Price of Memory
Cats can also grieve the deaths of other cats or humans.
During these times, the cats may lose their appetites, miss the litter box repeatedly and even lash out at their humans.
Merlin, a Bombay cat being under foster care, 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 they probably didn’t realize how thoroughly Merlin was grieving.
Unable to deal with him, they kept Merlin in the cellar, which further traumatized him.
So be kind to your cats. They see things much as we do — and they remember.