How long is a cat's memory?

  • How long do cats remember places and people? I will leave the house in the next months for half a year or so. Will my cat remember me when I get back?

    I expect a bunch of anecdotal answers here (which is fine), but I'd also be interested if real studies have been done.

    Indeed, anectodal: I spent three years away from my parents' home. Within a minute of returning there, I was sitting on the couch with all three cats wanting my attention. That said, I'm the only one who is "nice" to them (ie. gives them attention whenever they want it even at the expense of what I'm doing at the time) so perhaps that has something to do with it. Happy memories and stuff.

    In earlier years I used to take my cats with me on Christmas vacations. They remembered the house, what room they were to eat in (to the extent they would lead my mother to a particular bedroom), and the people just fine.

  • Beofett

    Beofett Correct answer

    7 years ago

    Cats do remember places and people, although where/who they remember, and for how long, is variable (just like humans).

    There's been some research on feline short-term memory, but I could find less information on long-term memory.

    This article is rather poorly referenced, but does make some statements about long-term memory that it claims are research-based:

    Researchers have discovered that there is not much difference between how a cat, a human, or another animal's brain utilizes certain cues to assist in the creation of short and long-term memories. A cat's brain functioning has been compared to that of a two to three year old child and, when compared to a dog, a cat's memory is almost 200 times more retentive. Without repeated and reinforced 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.

    and

    A cat's long-term memories are directly related to experiencing pleasure (benefit) or displeasure (pain, fear or threat). For example, it takes a long time and a lot of patience to gain the trust of an abused or neglected cat. If they suffered physical or mental abuse from a man or child, then they will associate that memory with all men and all children. The same holds true for positive experiences. Every time a cat receives affection, praise, or a treat for doing a specific activity, it is logged into their memory as "a good thing" and they will continue to use it to their benefit.

    The inevitable anecdotes

    I believe that I've experienced cats remembering me years after we have had prolonged interactions. One example is a roommate of mine that I lived with about 10 years ago. His cat is not generally friendly, but we got along very well, and I was one of the few people the cat would actively seek out (i.e. he would climb in my lap and sit there while I pet him). After my friend moved out, there were periods of 1-2 years in between my visits to his new home, and when I would come over, his cat would still come and climb in my lap for petting. Over times, my visits have unfortunately become less frequent (I moved out of the area), and while the cat still seems to remember me, he is not as friendly to me as he used to be.

    Here is a video of someone who claims to have been reunited with their cat over a year after her cat left home and roamed the neighborhood as a feral cat:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnTtc4OCu-E

    The internet is littered with similar claims. There is also a host of unreferenced claims about feline memory that I won't include here.

    However, it is pretty certain that your cat will remember you after 6 months if you interact with the cat on a regular basis.

    Whether the cat is happy to see you (at first) will be another story... ours tend to seem mad at us when we come back after leaving for a few days, and we get the "cold shoulder" for the first day or so :)

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM