You may be wondering if your cat will remember you after you’ve been away on holiday or if your friend’s cat remembers you after you spent a week pet sitting.
A cat’s short-term memory lasts around 16 hours (if it is something that your cat thinks is important to remember) and their long-term memory is indefinite.
Short-Term Memory of a Cat
A cat’s short-term memory, also known as working memory, is what your cat uses in day to day life and plays a role in daily interactions and staying alert.
The working memory retains information that is immediately significant and tends to be very general to help your cat with basic problem solving and survival.
It is widely suggested that a cat has an average short-term memory of 16 hours.
This means a cat will potentially remember you 16 hours after meeting you for the first time.
This is considerably longer than 27 seconds which was suggested to be average short-term memory span of animals in a 2014 study.
It seems that cats will only retain information that is relevant or important to them, something that is demonstrated in a 2007 study where cat’s leg movements were monitored in association to avoiding obstacles and it showed their short-term memories lasted more than 24 hours in some cases.
The way the cat acquires the information is very important too as memories relating to movement or position are remembered for longer than information obtained solely through sight.
Cats are much more likely to remember something that they have interacted with (e.g. something that is related to their movement or position) rather than something they have only seen.
Long-Term Memory of a Cat
Long-term memory is the important information that your cat remembers for a long time (even indefinitely), this information isn’t as easily accessible as short-term memory but is there and can be remembered if the situation requires it.
Long term memory is very important for all animals as it plays an important role in avoiding danger, recognizing good areas for food or hunting and just generally keeping out of trouble.
A cat’s long-term memory is split into two categories:
- Implicit memory – these are memories that handle unconscious functions such as moments. Common implicit memories cats have include stalking prey and grooming themselves.
- Explicit memory – these are memories that can be consciously recalled such as where home is, who the cat’s owners are and stressful visits to the vet.
How Long Does a Cat Remember Long-Term Memories?
A cat’s long-term memories are indefinite.
It is extremely difficult to put a time on this as there are many stories of cats remembering people and events for years after they happen.
Events that are very good or very bad are more likely to be remembered for longer and the length of the interaction between the person and the cat can also play a role in how long the cat remembers the person for after last seeing them.
It is not that a cat will walk around remembering and reminiscing about these long-term memories they hold but if they see a familiar person or animal they will be able to remember them (and remember if the past interaction was good or bad).
If you give our friends cat plenty of catnip and treats then they are more likely to remember you long into the future.
These are memories that relate to the movement or positioning of the body. Cats are very good at learning and recalling spatial memory.
This is what helps them know where to go to climb up furniture and how much force is needed to jump to a certain shelf.
Spatial memory also comes into play when a cat finds food, they can remember where that food is for many hours after finding it allowing them to return to that exact same spot later to eat.
These are memories formed by seeing, common examples are remembering faces or remembering locations (that have been seen but not entered or interacted with).
It seems that cats are not as good at remembering things based only on visual memory.
A 2006 study found that cats had a limited short-term memory when it came to remembering the location of a hidden object.
In the study, the cats were shown an object and it was found their retention of the object’s location rapidly declined between 0-30 seconds with delays of up to 60 seconds.
This is likely because the cats did not interact with the object and it had no significance to them so they had no reason to retain that information in their memory for longer than 60 seconds.
What Do Cats Commonly Remember?
Now we know a little bit more about the different types of memories cats have, what kind of things are they likely to remember?
Although it will vary from cat to cat and their individual experiences, the memories that last the longest tend to be ones that are associated with significantly positive or negative events.
The most common memories include:
Cat’s remember people, they remember their owners and they remember people they spend a lot of time with.
The more time the person and the cat spend interacting, the more likely it is the cat will remember that person using their long-term memory.
To give a little bit more context, a cat is a lot more likely to remember a person that feeds them than a person that gives them attention occasionally when visiting.
Cats can remember other cats but how long they can remember them for depends on the length and dynamics of the relationship.
Littermates will exchange scents as a way for kittens to recognize each other in case they get separated and this technique is used by cats throughout their lives.
If your cat grew up with other cats and was introduced to them again a few years later there is a good chance your cat will remember their old friends.
3. Bad Experiences
If you have a rescue cat that has specific behavioural issues it may be a result of negative experiences in the past.
Some cats react negatively to certain things such as tall men, brunette ladies, or certain smells.
Having reactions to something in particular like this indicates that the cat is experiencing triggers, these are events that the cat associates with something negative that happened in the past.
These sudden behavioural changes can give you an insight into what your cat has experienced in the past and can demonstrate how long a cat remembers events for.
4. Important Locations e.g. Where They Live
An incredible example of a cat remembering where they live is a Persian cat named Howie who was taken to a relative’s house 1,000 miles away from his home while his owners were on holiday.
Upon the owner’s return, they were told that Howie had run away while they were gone.
The family were understandably upset by the situation and despite their searches they couldn’t find Howie.
The next time they saw Howie was 12 months later when he unexpectedly appeared on the doorstep of their home.
Howie had walked 1,000 miles to find his way back home!
As we all know, most cats are big foodies. A cat is able to recall where key food sources are as well as the people who feed and care for them.
They will remember places they get food from such as a cat bowl or cat feeder so they can always go back and get more food as and when they need it.
Does My Cat Miss Me When I’m Away?
It is very difficult to say whether or not a cat actually misses you while you are away.
Cat’s don’t seem to experience the same level of attachment to their owners as dogs do and as such they don’t react the same as dogs do.
Dogs show affection very clearly by wagging their tail and giving their owner affection when they return home but this behaviour simply isn’t in a cat’s nature.
A cat is more likely to express upset at the fact you were gone in the first place but some cats will display affection by rubbing against you and greeting you when you return.
It’s difficult to judge how a cat is feeling but don’t let this dampen your spirit!
It’s hard to say that your cat actively misses you but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thrilled when they do see you again.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of long-term memory of owners, such as this story of Chebon the cat reuniting with his owner Robert after 7 years apart.
There are so many beautiful stories of cats and their owner reuniting and these stories suggest cats have considerable long-term memories.
Do Cats Experience Memory Loss?
While we are on the topic of memory, you may be concerned about your cat forgetting things.
Elderly cats may develop Feline Cognitive Dysfunction which affects their memory.
Nearly a third of 11-14 year old cats may show signs of cognitive dysfunction, it can affect all breeds and is likely to worsen over time, elderly cats often need extra care as a result.
Signs of Cognitive Dysfunction
- Excessive vocalisation
- Aimless activity
- Behavioural changes
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Falling more frequently
- Urinating/ defecating in the house outside of the litter box
If you are worried your cat is experiencing memory loss, take them to the vet for a check-up and tests.
If the problem is cognitive dysfunction it cannot be treated but the symptoms can often be managed.